There was no particular hurry driving home from northern Iowa to northern Minnesota. I decided to take some old routes; roads we used to take because they were more scenic, but haven’t driven for years because US 63 was faster and easier with less curves.
It was a really hot day. Temperatures were already in the high nineties when we left Waterloo around noon. When driving in an air-conditioned car, it’s easy to forget just how hot it is outside. I pointed out to my wife, the thermometer on the dash board just reached one hundred degrees.
Heading north on US 63, I looked at the fields of corn. The stalks were starting to turn brown. It wouldn’t be long until those fields were full of combines picking corn. With bright lights on the machinery the farmers continue their harvest late into the night.
To get to the smaller rural roads we wanted, I turned off Highway 63 onto Highway 9; headed east toward Cresco, Iowa, home of Featherlite Trailers. Just past town, we turned north. We don’t travel that road very long before Iowa Highway 139 becomes Minnesota 139.
Reaching upward from the far side of a large cornfield was a bright white church steeple, but we never saw a road leading to it. Somewhere along this route, still in Iowa, I passed a private, grass-strip runway between two fields of tall corn. The orange wind sock indicated a light breeze. Not far away was a weathered barn with worn, faded paint and an old windmill stand with vines growing up the legs, all the way to the top. The blades were missing, but I doubt they would have been turning anyway – the overgrowth of vines would have them bound.
For a moment I dreamed of an old yellow Stinson biplane with a blue tail, buzzing the small town of Cresco - a Barnstormer. The pilot, wearing a leather helmet and goggles, with a white scarf trailing in the wind, waved vigorously from the open cockpit at the people on the ground. He was trying to lure them to the tiny airstrip, in hopes of giving them a ride and making a few dollars for the day.
A little farther up the road I smiled, seeing the sign at the state line. It was much older and smaller than those you’ll see on Highway 63 or I-35. It was a stone sign with a warm message; “Welcome to Minnesota.” After traveling for several days and passing that sign, no matter what road I’m on, I instantly feel like I’m almost home – even though we were still 325 miles away. Speaking of warm messages, the thermometer now read one hundred and three. The dog days of summer were here.
Not far into Minnesota, we came around a curve in the road. On the southern end of a field was a small pond. There were a few cows gathered in a narrow line of shade from large trees on the other side of the fence. The smarter cows were standing in the pond to keep cool. These cows knew how to beat the heat. So did the people.
In the small town of Harmony, Minnesota, there was an older man wearing a John Deere cap, sitting in the shade of a covered front porch. A lady sat next to him; each were in an old-fashioned white metal lawn chair. A small round table between them had a pitcher and two glasses. It looked like ice tea. I could imagine the sweat trickling down the cool glasses in the hot air, making puddles of water on the table top. I waved at them, as I wasn’t sure if they were just watching traffic, or the house across the street.
A group of young kids were playing in the front yard. The girls had swimsuits and the boys wore cut off jean shorts. They all ran, laughing and screaming; chasing each other as they charged threw the arch of cool water going back and forth, coming from the lawn sprinkler.
Memories of my own youth came to mind and just the day before, when I took my granddaughters for a walk. A neighbor was watering their lawn. The path of the water was encroaching on the sidewalk. We didn’t mind at all; we ran through the water, turned around as if we had forgotten something and ran through again laughing ourselves silly. Kids (and the young at heart) enjoy the benefits of lawn watering devices – it’s just a natural thing on hot summer days.
Road construction detained us for a few minutes, but we were in no hurry. We passed a farm with a freshly painted red barn. The color contrasted with the shiny, new black asphalt road and the bright yellow and white painted lines. It was beautiful.
In a yard on the right side of the road, clotheslines were weighted down, sagging in the middle, with laundry. All the clothes looked homemade and were shades of blue. Maybe an Amish or Mennonite family lived there. Other lines had bed sheets. When I was a kid, we used to hang laundry out to dry. It saved electricity by not using the clothes dryer. Many times, we had to rush to get the laundry in because it looked like rain was coming. The sheets off the line were never as soft as they are coming out of the dryer, but I don’t think any fabric softener ever matched the fresh smell of linens hung out to dry in the country air.
We turned off on route 52, then 16 and 43. The scenery is amazing and the road is fun to drive as it turns and winds, going up and down hills until it brings us into the small town of Rushford, Minnesota – home of the Creamery Pizza and Ice Cream – quite possibly the best pizza in the state. It was no coincidence our path brought us here. After pizza, we shared a dish of maple nut ice cream, then got back on the road again.
We passed through Winona, driving by houses we used to live in, and talked about a lot of good memories. We saw a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the road. Watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and more – all a part of summer in the Midwest. Sweet corn seemed to be tapering off, and the strawberry stands were gone but soon it will be apple harvest and Minnesota grows some amazing apples!
We opted for another scenic excursion by going through Fountain City, then through the big hills and valleys into Arcadia, Wisconsin – home of Ashley Furniture. At one point, going up the bluff, the van thermometer peaked at one hundred and eight degrees outside. I questioned if it was really that hot. When I rolled my window down to put my hand out into the wind, it was hot! Hot, humid air gushed into the van. Ick! Some people like that real hot air, but not me. I quickly rolled the window up again.
Cattails were standing in wet ditches and at the edge of ponds. Their tall, thin brown heads were starting to show signs of late summer; looking weathered. Soon, they would burst, turning furry, then blow away. The teardrop shaped milkweed pods also looked close to opening. Light feathery seeds would emerge, floating through the air to plant next year’s crop. The further north we traveled, the milkweed became sparse, then there was none. Waves of delicate pampas grass swayed back and forth in the wind almost as if dancing to the music of the breeze.
As we followed Highway 93, then 53 into Superior, Wisconsin, the temperatures kept falling to the mid-seventies. By the time we turned onto Highway 61, the final stretch home, following the shoreline of Lake Superior, the temps dropped to 63 degrees. Ah…that’s more like it. With the AC shut off we opened the windows, taking advantage of the cool, fresh air coming in off the big lake. If my thermometer in the van is accurate, we went through a forty-five-degree temperature change in about six hours. That’s a lot.
When we got home, I was curious when the actual dog days of summer take place. According to what I read online, they ended about two weeks ago. Hmm. I guess when it comes down to it, Mother Nature has the final say over that Old Farmer’s Almanac.
I spent some time recalling the Labor Day weekend from a few years ago. I got to do some flying Friday night, which allowed me to see something I'd not seen before.
From the air, with the sun setting to the west over Duluth, I watched a large ship enter Superior Harbor. We've watched lots of ships come in through the canal and under the lift bridge at Duluth, but I had never seen one actually entering Superior. It was pretty neat.
Saturday, I spent a full day flying skydivers. I haven't done this for eight or nine years and it was really a blast. I stepped right back into it without missing a beat. My flying was good, the jump runs were into the wind and my altitudes were right where they were supposed to be. I felt very comfortable with the door opening at 10,000 feet above the ground, watching people climb out on the wheel and strut. The lead jumper nods his head, giving a three count, then they fall away from the airplane, tumbling through the air rapidly toward the ground below me. I love that sight!
Sunday, after mass, I went to the Superior airport again, to get checked out in a Cessna 172 at Superior Flying Service. This is an easy plane to fly. The checkout is a standard procedure flight required when a pilot, new to the area, wants to rent airplanes.
Three times round the patch, three landings, one with a simulated "engine out" and my instructor said, "You're good to go!" Cool. Now I have another place I can rent airplanes to take people for rides and maybe get Melissa up to do some aerial photography of the Northwoods.
After checking out in the 172, I drove all the way around the Twin Ports harbor, then out to Park Point where Sky Harbor airport is located. I got to meet John. He owns an impressive Dehaviland Beaver - the most classic icon of all float planes.
I had heard him making several radio-calls the day before when I was flying skydivers, so I came here to find and talk to him. He was having a dish of homemade ice cream a vendor was selling just outside the flying service.
I asked if he gave instruction, that I would like to get my seaplane rating. He said he didn't, but took me into an office area and gave me the name and phone number of a man who does.
We chatted for a few minutes, then he saw two of his passengers coming and he had to go. As a young couple approached, he extended his hand. "I'm John, the pilot and we'll be going up right after I finish my ice cream. You can go out, look, and take pictures, but please don't board the airplane until I am there."
A happy pilot is a good pilot and honestly, everyone is happy after finishing a dish of homemade ice cream. These young people were in for an extra good time - I could tell!
Outside, I stood at the water’s edge watching the plane tied off to the end of the dock. A couple was standing there, each eating a dish of ice cream while watching the Beaver with great interest. "Are you two going for a ride in the seaplane?" I asked.
They answered simultaneously, "I'd sure like to." She said, while he said, "No, not today."
The wife asked me, "Are you going for a ride in it?"
"I don't just want a ride in it, I want to fly it!" I answered. They both looked at me rather oddly. "Let's go stand over there, honey." The man said to his wife, but I think what he really meant was, "Come on wife. Let's take our ice cream and move away from the crazy man."
I stood in awe, watching John maneuver the plane in the water, so smooth and graceful, like...well, a beaver swimming in the water. He taxied to the takeoff area, then turning the nose into the wind, he began easing in the power. The sound of his big radial engine was chilling. More and more, the plane pushed through the water until the floats planed on top just like a boat. Within a few moments, he gently lifted the airplane into the air and away they went.
A seaplane license; that’s the next pilot rating I will work on!
After watching the Beaver disappear into the distant sky, I walked back to my car, daydreaming about flying that airplane. A man and woman were standing near the parking lot, each enjoying a dish of homemade ice cream.
He looked quite charming. Gray hair with a distinguished gray beard and glasses under a safari style hat, with the string connected by a single bead coming down under his chin.
I approached him, "Excuse me sir. I was wondering if I might have a bite of your ice cream?"
"Sure!" He said, without hesitation, extending a full spoon of the delicious treat toward me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm just kidding, I just wanted to see how you would react."
"Well you're welcome to try it, I have plenty to share." There was a sincerity in is voice that I really liked, and an accent too! He made me feel good.
"I'm happy to meet people who are friendly and willing to share with a stranger." I told him, then inquired, "May I ask where you're from."
"Chicago." His wife answered.
"Well," I commented, "You have a beautiful accent in your voice, but it doesn't sound like a that of a Midwesterner."
The man explained, "Originally, we are from Russia, now we live in Chicago. We are just visiting here.”
I welcomed them and asked how they liked Chicago. He assured me they like it very much. I wanted to ask if they root for the Cubs or the White Sox, but having just met, I thought prying into their politics would be a bit brash.
We chatted for a bit, then as we said our farewells he again asked, "Are you sure you don't want to try the ice cream? It's really good."
"No thank you. I'm good." I said, waving as I walked away. Then, looking over my shoulder, I called out, "You two enjoy the rest of your day...and that ice cream, too!" I could hear them laughing.
I sat in my car for a bit, watching the harbor where the Beaver had just taken off. I put the car in reverse, then looked over my shoulder to back up. While looking behind me, I saw the ice cream vendor with his big signs, "Homemade Ice Cream."
I put the car in first gear and started to pull away. I smiled, nodded and said, "After I get my seaplane rating, I'm gonna have a dish of that homemade ice cream.”
That fall, I did get my sea plane rating at Sky Harbor Airport and a dish of ice cream too – a double scoop.”
I always seem to have a project, or two, or three, going on someplace. Last week I undertook a new task: re-siding my Aunt Di’s garage. I went over Friday to remove all the old siding and loaded it into my dump truck. Saturday, I went to Duluth to pick up new windows and all the materials to complete the project.
Sunday after church, I started loading my tools into the van. I was pulling a trailer to carry my ladders. As I started stacking my ladders on the flat bed, I said, “Man, I sure have a lot of ladders.” While I was tying the ladders down, I wondered if I may have too many ladders?
I need the four-foot ladder for shorter areas, just out of my reach while standing on the ground. Melissa is helping me with the project, so I needed another four-foot ladder for her. The two six-foot ladders are for areas just beyond the reach for the four-footers. The ten-foot step ladder is necessary for reaching higher areas.
There are a lot of places where I need to work, that call for even taller ladders. So, I brought along my twenty-foot, and thirty-two-foot extension ladders. The ladders can’t be leaning on the building because they would be right in front of the place I’m trying to work. The extension ladders always seem to be too close, or too far from the building; plus, I have to have an open span between ladders, since I am working with twelve-foot long sections of siding. For that, I have ladder jacks.
A ladder jack is a triangular piece with two brackets that will latch onto the back side of a ladder’s rungs. By separating the sections of my thirty-two-foot extension, I end up with two sixteen-foot ladders. I lean them against the building, hang the ladder jacks on the back of each and lay a plank across the jacks. Now I have a nice platform with no obstructions between me and the face of building, upon which to work. Of course, to reach even higher areas, I have two, thirty-two-foot extension ladders and a forty-foot as well.
The ladder jack triangles are adjustable, so depending on the angle of the ladder against the building, I can change the triangles to assure a level working surface. That’s important when you’re working in the air. Still, all these angles and numbers can make your head swim.
I thought back to my days at Ottumwa High School. I sat in geometry class, gazing out the window at my motorcycle in the parking lot across the street. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day. The classroom windows were open and the breeze was blowing in. It felt good. I was thinking of all the things I could be doing outdoors; the places I could ride my bike – if I wasn’t trapped in this senseless math class.
Mr. Patrick called my name, snapping me out of my daydream, to ask me a question. I had no idea what he was talking about because I wasn’t paying attention. Thus, I answered him, “Why do we have to learn this stuff? I’m never going to use this in the real world.”
“When you get to that stage of life, Mr. Palen, you’ll figure out why you need to know this.” He explained, as he kept drawing lines and numbers on the chalkboard. He quickly caught me up to speed, then we worked out the problem together.
In my driveway, I tightened the last rachet strap across the load. I counted the ladders on the trailer. “Eight ladders, plus one I’m not taking and two that are still in Ottumwa. Do I seriously own eleven ladders? Do I need that many ladders? Does anyone need that many?” I guess I do use them all.
I thought about m(insert your web ay ladders and Mr. Patrick’s geometry class and how today, I actually DO use the things he was teaching me. I recited my high school class call: “The ladder of success we’ll climb, we’re the class of seventy-nine.” I started laughing, “I guess I made it.”
It wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did. As a matter of fact, today, I would label it as one of the dumbest things I ever did.
I had recently graduated high school and got my first “real job” at Plywood Minnesota, in Ottumwa, Iowa. In junior high school, I had worked at my parent’s restaurant, the Runway Café. In high school I worked at the China Restaurant, then Mr. Munchee’s – a burger joint across the street from the movie theater. I thought I had hit it big time when, as a junior in high school, I got on with Pizza Hut. But, to get hired at Plywood Minnesota, my first job outside the world of food service? That was really something.
At all my restaurant jobs, I lectured any co-workers who smoked. I told them about the health dangers, the high cost of cigarettes and how smoking made them smell badly. But. Now that I was in the big league of employment, I didn’t want to come across as being a smart aleck; a know it all, or self-righteous. In reality, I was eager to fit in with my new colleagues and most of them smoked. So, even though it was one of the dumbest things I ever did, I started to smoke.
In less than a year, most of the guys quit smoking but I continued. They would tell me how bad smoking was. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t going to admit that, so I told them I enjoyed smoking; it was relaxing. I told them those health problems wouldn’t happen to me because I was different. Besides, I would quit before the smoking ever became a problem. The truth is, I have a very addictive personality. I was hooked and to keep smoking was easier than quitting. I eventually did quit smoking – thirty years later.
I’ve always believed anything worth doing is worth doing well. Smoking was no exception. I didn’t want to be one of those people who only smoked two or three cigarettes a day. Why smoke at all? So, I smoked a pack a day for the first ten years. Well, a pack a day until the Marlboro Man started putting those “Marlboro Miles” on the side of each package, then I kicked it up to about two packs a day. I had to have those miles – each one was worth five points! You could redeem the points for some pretty cool stuff. I was especially interested in the camping gear.
I liked camping in the mountains - and winter camping when it gets really cold. Marlboro offered a Zero Degree Sleeping bag. A similar item retailed for over $100. I saved enough miles to get one. It was a “mummy bag,” with bright red nylon on the top, black on the bottom and bright yellow inside. When it arrived, I took a motorcycle trip to the mountains to try it out. I was so impressed with the quality I wanted to get three more; one bag for each person in my family. But that would have required a lot of smoking. Two packs a day was already too much for me, so I solicitated the help of other smokers.
I tapered back to a pack and a half per day, and friends who weren’t going to use their miles, collected them for me. Pretty soon I had all the sleeping bags I wanted. Because it wasn’t cool for the kids to have a cigarette logo on their sleeping bags, I carefully remove the Marlboro patch with a seam ripper. I still had enough points to get the red duffle bag I wanted.
It was really cool and durable. Made of bright red canvas, it had a large space for clothes on top, a separate shoe compartment on the bottom and a pocket for toiletries on the front. The bag had handles on top and a large shoulder strap that made it super easy to carry. The duffle bag had a retail value over $100. It was a well-made piece of luggage – even the zippers were high quality. I’ve had the bag for many years. (decades) It’s traveled with me through all fifty states and Canada!
On one trip to Alaska, visiting my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks, the shoulder strap broke. The bag was heavy when fully loaded and frankly, it wasn’t easy to carry without that strap. Besides, it was over thirteen years old. I told my aunt Di about the damage and said I was going to throw the bag away.
“I can fix that for you.” She said. I explained it was very heavy canvas and I didn’t want her to damage her sewing machine trying to repair it. She laughed at me, “Give me the bag.” That’s when I learned Di had commercial sewing machines that could stich several layers of canvas together at one time. After she repaired it, the bag was better than ever and continued traveling with me for years.
It was on that trip to Alaska when Uncle John and I were way out in the wilderness staying at his cabin, that I ran out of cigarettes. I lasted three days without smoking and when we returned to Fairbanks, I decided to stay off the cigarettes. Just a few days after returning home from that trip, I started smoking again. Sigh. In all, I smoked for thirty years before quitting in 2009.
One day, about two and a half years after I quit, one of the girls at work came in from outside; she had been on a cigarette break. When she walked up to the front desk, I told her. “You really stink.” She returned the sentiment. “No, I mean it. You really stink like cigarettes.” She walked away a bit offended.
I asked another girl who was there (a non-smoker) if I smelled that bad when I was still smoking. She smiled, “Yes. You did.” It surprised me that it took so long after I quit before I became sensitive to the smell. It was awful, but years later I discovered something that smells even worse!
Just the other day, I was working in Ottumwa. I was cutting down trees with the chainsaw while my helpers hauled the branches to a trailer. When we were finished, I loaded my chainsaws, gas, oil and tools into the van and started to head out of town. I was going to my daughter’s house in Waterloo. Before I got out of town, I started to small gasoline – it was strong. Is there anything that smells worse than gasoline? I stopped the van to investigate.
It seems the cap on my gas can had split. The can tipped over and leaked gasoline all over the floor of my van. My red bag was back there. The gasoline soaked into the bag; mostly into the bottom compartment, but it didn’t seem to get to my clothes in the top section. I rushed into a grocery store to buy a package of paper towels and some Windex.
I removed my clothes from the duffle bag, placing them in plastic grocery sacks. The red bag itself was soaked with gasoline dripping from it. I put it inside a separate plastic sack, setting it outside, then began cleaning up the gas with paper towels. I cleaned the floor the best I could with Windex. It seemed to have removed the gas from the rubber floor mat – but, the smell was still strong!
Outside the van, I picked up my red bag. It was really a mess. It broke my heart to admit it, but after thirty years together - it was time. I threw my red bag away. It was a long drive back to Waterloo. I reminisced about all the places we had been together – me and that red bag. I kept the windows open, hoping to air out the van.
It was 10:30 p.m., when I arrived. Before going in the house, I smelled my clothes in the sacks. They didn’t smell like gas so I went inside. My daughter walked over toward the front door to greet me. About ten feet away, she wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the front door with a stiff arm. “Out! Now!” Apparently, I had become immune to the stench of gasoline.
I took my clothes to the laundromat. Before washing my clothes, I told a lady they were clean and asked if they smelled. “They smell like gasoline.” She said, “You better wash them in hot water.”
“You’re the first women who ever told me to wash colors in hot water.” I told her and we shared a good laugh about that.
When the washer was done, I put my clothes in a roller basket and started wheeling them to the dryer. The same lady approached me. Taking a damp T-shirt from my basket, she sniffed it. “Did you use hot water like I told you?” I assured her I did. “Did you use soap?” Again, I said I did. “You’re going to have to wash them again and make sure you set the machine for hot water.” I did as I was told.
As the lady was folding her clothes, a friend of hers walked in with a few baskets of clothing. The two started chatting. Before the first lady left, she brought her friend to me. “Brenda, this man got gasoline on his clothes and the smell was still there after he washed them, so I made him wash them again. Before he puts them in the dryer, will you make sure he got the smell out?”
Brenda assured her, “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Then she looked at me, asking, “Did you wash them in hot water?”
The first lady left and about ten minutes later my machine was done. I put my clothes in a basket and started wheeling them toward the dryer. Brenda walked up and took a damp shirt from my basket giving it the sniff test. “Did you use hot water?” I assured her I did. “And did you use soap?” Again, I assured her I did. “Honey, you’re going to have to wash them again.”
She led me to the soap vending machine, pointing to a particular box, “Use this Gain with bleach and a box of this Oxy Clean. That’ll take the smell away.” I bought the products she recommended and returned to the washing machine. She followed me, looking over my shoulder, “Now make sure you use hot water or you’ll never get that gas smell out of your clothes.”
When the load was done, she smelled another of my T-shirts. She smiled, extending the damp garment toward me, “Now doesn’t that smell clean and fresh?” I agreed it did and proceeded to the dryer. “Now you dry those on medium, not high heat. You don’t want to shrink your cotton shirts.”
I was grateful to both ladies for their help. Thirty-seven dollars and almost four hours later, I left the laundromat with clean clothes. It was just after 2 a.m. when I got to Sydney’s house.
The next day, after doing a little online research, I spent a couple hours cleaning the inside of the van with a solution of vinegar, baking soda and water. It worked. The gasoline smell is gone. Fortunately, the van came along many years after I quit smoking, so that’s a stench I didn’t have to deal with.
I smoked for thirty years and I had that red duffle bag for thirty years. I still have two of the sleeping bags, thirty years later. It almost seemed like a fair trade off until I considered, the four sleeping bags and the duffle bag would have cost me $500. I can’t even fathom the real cost of getting those items “FREE.”
I thought about the demise of my Marlboro duffle bag and chuckled out loud, “I guess cigarettes and gasoline never have mixed well.”
I have always loved waterfalls with the adventure and serenity they offer. As a little kid, while visiting Grampy and Grammy in Mason City, Iowa, we would walk to East Park. My brother, sisters and I would fish and play in Willow Creek, which winds through the park and flows into the much bigger Winnebago River. We were to stay away from that river unless an adult was with us.
There were man-made concrete spillways along the creek, dropping about three feet. We called them waterfalls. On the bank, upstream from the falls, we would cast stones trying to make them skip across the water’s surface. If you were any good at all, you could make your stone jump the dam and continue into the water below.
Sometimes, when visiting our Minnesota cousins, we went to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. A much higher and far more impressive falls, but we weren’t allowed to play in them.
When my wife and I started coming to the North Shore of Lake Superior, abundant with waterfalls, I became spoiled: Gooseberry, the Beaver and Cross Rivers, Devil’s Kettle on the Brule River, Kakabeka Falls in Canada; they were all part of the lure for us to move north. Now we can hear the roar of High Falls, Illgen and Two Step Falls, along the Baptism River, from our house.
The High Falls on the Pigeon River, create a natural boundary line between the United States and Canada, as do the Niagara Falls in New York. Both are spectacular, although Niagara Falls is a bit too touristy for me. The lines you wait in to see them remind me of an amusement park. From the very large and powerful, to the small and tranquil falls, I love them all.
Just the other day, I was traveling along Highway 28 in northern Michigan, working my way toward home. It was getting late in the night and I was getting tired, when I came upon a lot of emergency vehicles at the scene of a bad accident.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it all the way home and the accident served as reminder to me of what can happen when driving while fatigued. I pulled into the next wayside park along Highway 28 to catch a few hours of sleep.
Tioga Wayside Park, is a place I often stop to rest. At night, with the windows open, I can hear the soothing sound of a waterfall somewhere off in the woods. When I awoke in the morning, I thought about walking into the woods to find the waterfall I often hear – but have never seen.
Not far from the parking lot is a small walk bridge where water rushed through large rocks on the little Tioga River below. I met a nice couple there and we enjoyed some conversation. They told me it was only a short walk into the woods to the Tioga Falls, so I started walking the trail.
The falls were small dropping only a few feet, but they certainly create a large, comforting sound. I stayed there for a few moments thinking about life and wondered how much more peaceful the world could be if more people were able to spend time near waterfalls? I took in the serenity for a few more minutes then went back to my van.
Traveling west on Michigan 28, nearing Bergland, by Lake Gogebic, I came upon an orange sign that read, “Road Work Ahead.” Another said, “One Lane Traffic” and a third had a picture indicating there would be a flagman. Great! Not only was I going to be delayed, but they were putting tar in the cracks on the road and then sand over the tar. You know, the stuff that gets on your car, shows really bad on white paint and is really hard to remove? I know they’re just preparing the road for winter, but come on – isn’t there another way?
Luckily, I was the first car in line at the stop sign. I pulled up to the man holding the sign and rolled down my window to tell him exactly what I thought of his tar business. He walked up to the passenger side. I pointed my finger right at him and said, “You guys are doing a great job!”
He smiled, “Thanks man!” He said, “I’m used to people yelling at me about the tar getting on their cars.” He pushed the button on the side of his little walkie-talkie and said, “Hey, I got a pedestrian stopped over here who just told me we’re doing a great job.” He said it with a lot of pride.
A voice came back over the radio, “Uh, a pedestrian would mean they’re walking.”
We shared a good laugh about that. The man blushed. He seemed flustered, then spoke into the radio. “He is a pedestrian, but he’s driving a van right now.”
The voice on the radio laughed, then said, “I’m sending three your way. The last one is a red Ford truck pulling a camper.” Once that truck cleared, the man turned his sign to read SLOW. He wished me a good day and waved me on.
On the other end of the work zone, I hollered out my window to two men with the stop sign, “You guys are doing a great job!”
They waved their hands high in the air and yelled back, “Thank you!” followed by a good ole “Woo Hoo!” Their reaction made me happy.
I could have been a Debbie Downer, complaining about the tar, but honestly, what good would that do? These guys are just doing their job, sealing the pavement; preparing Michigan Highway 28 for the winter months ahead. Instead of bringing them down, I felt like I lifted their spirits. I continued down the road feeling pretty good about that.
About twenty miles farther down the road, Michigan 28 takes a wide sweeping turn to the south coming into the town of Wakefield, then curves back to the west. It wraps around Sunday Lake, following the shoreline, then after one more, smaller curve to the south, 28 comes to an end, intersecting Highway 2 where I would turn right to go home.
Coming into town on the first curve brings me to the northeast corner of Sunday Lake. There is a small man-made dam with a triangular concrete spillway. As I rounded the curve, I spotted a Michigan State Trooper parked on the side of the road. Thinking he was running radar to catch people who didn’t slow down coming into town, I smiled. I was doing the correct speed so there could be no ticket for me today. Then I noticed a trooper climbing around the chain-link fence that surrounds the spillway.
He had a pole of sorts in his hand, with a loop on the end and a rope tied to the fence. He started to rappel down into the spillway. This was too much for an old radio news broadcaster to pass up. I had to stop and see what he was doing. Certainly, there was a news story here. I wondered if he was looking for evidence someone had tried to dispose of by throwing it in the lake, or maybe a body of someone who had an accident.
I parked the van and hurried over to see what he was doing. The pole in his hand turned out to be a fishing net, so that ruled out looking for a body. He wouldn’t be fishing in his uniform, and besides, fishing with a net is illegal. He must be trying to retrieve evidence.
The water spilling over the dam was only a couple inches deep; down in the spillway it was slightly above his feet. The trooper, in his perfectly pressed blue uniform and shiny boots, walked carefully across the slippery concrete to the far side of the dam. A long board, maybe twenty-feet-long, spanned from the dam to the floor of the spillway. It looked like a ramp or something from a construction site. There was a small board fastened perpendicular to the top that caused the plank to get caught on the dam. Maybe he was going in to remove it, but why would a state trooper be doing that instead of someone from public works? The trooper walked around the end of the board to the very far side.
I assumed there was a gate on that end that can be lowered to reduce the water level in the lake if needed. The water seemed to have a little more velocity coming over the gate. The trooper walked closer to the falling water; close enough that the water was splashing up, getting the bottom of his trousers wet. He began pushing the fishing net through the falling water. Whatever he was looking for must have been behind the falls.
I was quietly rooting for the cop. For all his effort to get into the spillway, I hoped he would be successful in finding whatever he was searching for. After the third or fourth attempt, he pulled the net back from the falling water. There was something dark in the net, but from my distance, I couldn’t tell what is was.
He walked with his net around the long board, then got closer to wall of the dam. He lifted the net above and over the wall. “What is he doing?” I asked myself. The trooper lowered the evidence into the water above the dam, then turned the net over and lifted it, releasing the evidence that he had worked so hard to find. The evidence floated on the surface of the water for a moment, then drifted against the current, away from the waterfall. The evidence was... I squinted my eyes. The evidence was a small duck? I started laughing.
The trooper walked carefully back to my side of the spillway. Using the rope, he pulled himself up and walked up the wall like Batman would scale a building. When he reached the top, I walked his way. I reached my arm up and he handed me the net over the top of the fence. While holding onto the fence, he shimmied along the top of the narrow concrete wall and around the end until he was back on dry ground. We had quite an interesting conversation.
He told me there were two ducks. “They got too close to the dam and the current pushed them over the wall, into the spillway.” He said, “They can’t fly for some reason and can’t get out, so they just swim circles in here.”
The trooper told me he came down on his own time and built the wooden ramps. “I put small slats across the top surface so they could get their footing and not slide backwards. They haven’t figured out how to use the ramps yet, so about once a day, I come in and set them free.”
I was impressed. Very impressed by his compassion; taking time daily as well as using his own time (and material) to help a couple of ducks in need. I introduced myself and found out a little more about him. He had only been a State Trooper for about a year and a half. Before that he served in the United States Marine Corps, then he was a police officer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before joining the Michigan Highway Patrol.
Michigan State Trooper Paul Maxinoski, you certainly have gone above and beyond your call of duty! I really felt like a better person for having met him. Seeing the example he set through his actions made me want to go out and do good things, too. We said our farewells. He got into his cruiser; I got into my van and we both pulled out onto Michigan Highway 28. He turned into the post headquarters and I continued on.
On the west side of Wakefield, there was a concession truck in a parking lot; “Taco Dan,” was the sign on the side. I was hungry and it was close to noon, so I pulled in for lunch.
A young couple was at the order window ahead of me. The man was handing his cash to the gal inside the window. Still being on a natural high from meeting Trooper Paul, I said, “His money is no good here today.” The lady was confused as was the man. I explained, “I want to get their lunch today.”
“Really. Are you serious?” They both asked. I told her I was serious and she handed his cash back to him. Confused, his girlfriend asked what was going on? “Honey, this man wants to buy our lunch for us.” They thanked me and said, “You really just made our day!”
I placed my order and started to dig in my pocket for my credit card when I noticed the sign on the truck, “CASH ONLY.” Oh my, this could be embarrassing. I never carry much cash with me. I pulled out the cash I had from my pocket. Eleven dollars wasn’t going to cover the bill. Then I remembered before I left town, I took my dog June to the pet wash in Two Harbors, Minnesota.
After a bath, I always drive to the credit union across the street to get a little cash. Actually, it’s just an excuse to take June through the drive up. “I’d like to withdraw twenty-five dollars,” I said to the teller, “and June wants to know if she has any bones in her account.”
The teller laughed, “She has a lot of bones in her account.” The drawer came out with a dog treat and twenty-five bucks in an envelope - plenty to pay for our burritos in Wakefield.
I paid the cashier at Taco Dan’s truck, then ate my meal with the young couple. “What’s the occasion for buying our lunch?” One of them asked.
I explained to them the story about the Michigan State Trooper saving a duck. “You know, it made me feel so good seeing what he did, it inspired me to do something nice for someone else, too. Just paying it forward as they say.” We enjoyed a nice conversation while we ate.
We finished eating and I was getting ready to leave when a State Trooper pulled into the parking lot. He got out of his cruiser and walked toward the Taco Dan truck. “Long time no see.” He said, waving to me. I smiled, noticing the legs of his trousers had time to dry out.
“I was just telling these guys about you and how cool it was that you rescued that little duck.” I said. I wanted to offer to buy the officer’s lunch, but I don’t know if they can accept gifts like that and I only had five dollars left after buying lunch and leaving a tip. We said our farewells and I got in the van to head out.
After thirty-five years in radio broadcasting, I’ve met and worked with a lot of law enforcement officers. People who know me, know I sometimes drive a little too fast, thus I tend to meet even more officers on the side of the road.
I looked at the clock. It was 12:40 – Forty-five minutes since I left Trooper Maxinoski at the spillway on the other side of town. I started laughing out loud. “Forty-five minutes, eh? That’s the longest it’s ever taken a State Trooper to catch up to me.” Still chuckling, I turned onto the highway, “But he’s pretty new on the force – I’ll bet he’s a lot faster next time.”
All in all, it was a real good day on Michigan 28.
…looking for evidence…maybe a body…
Melissa and I took our dog June, for a walk down the road. Passing our neighbor’s yard, I heard a voice call out to me. “Hey Tom, do you want some lettuce?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I replied to no one there. Then Gene stood up. He was bent over, working in one of his gardens. He has amazing gardens; some with fruits and vegetables and others with the most beautiful flowers.
Gene cut two heads from the garden and handed them to me. It doesn’t get any better than lettuce, right from the garden. After that, we walked around the yard. He was showing us different varieties of flowers they planted. His wife, Lois, joined us. One of the flowerbeds is her project and very beautiful.
Gene started picking and gathering flowers from around the yard. Yellow, deep orange, blue, white – there were even a couple beige flowers I had never seen before. He shuffled the bunch for a moment or two, and then handed them to Melissa. “Here, these are for you.”
Maybe it was because he and Lois grew all the flowers, or perhaps because they were fresh out of the garden, but without a doubt, it was one of the most beautiful flower bouquets I’d ever seen. Melissa absolutely loved them!
Lois invited us in for refreshments. Of course, she always includes June, and had some special treats for her too. We sat and talked until after dark. Melissa thanked Gene again for the flowers. She was so thrilled with them. Gene just blushed. He is rightfully proud of his gardens and was happy to share the spoils.
While Melissa admired the blossoms, I told Gene, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.” We shared a good laugh about that as Gene loves desserts.
I picked up my heads of lettuce from the picnic table and we started the short walk home in the pitch-black night. “We should have brought a headlamp.” Melissa said.
June confidently replied, “Follow me Mom, I know the way.”
It is true what I said about the flower delivery guy and the person with the dessert tray.
When I was cooking at the assisted living home, after a meal was served, I always went to the dining room with the dessert tray. It gave me an opportunity to ask the people about their meal. Most were happy, but sometimes I got an earful. “How was your meal?” I asked Will.
“Meal?” He scowled at me. “It was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had – if that’s what you can call it.”
I smiled as I set his dessert next to his plate. “I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” I told him. His wife, Ruth, was quick to let me have it as well.
One day the steamer in the kitchen quit working. It’s important to serve meals on time because many of the residents are on medications that have to be taken with food. As quickly as I could, I heated the frozen green beans in a pan on the stove and served dinner promptly at 5:00 pm.
Afterwards, I made my rounds through the dining room. “How was your dinner tonight?” Ruth gave me a cold stare.
“The beans weren’t done. They weren’t hot – not even warm. As a matter of fact, they were cold. Just terrible.” She shook her head.
“If I tell you a secret Ruth, can you keep it just between us?” Wanting to hear what I had to say, she agreed. Curious, her husband Will leaned in to listen. “You can eat the beans cold.” I said, “You can eat them raw if you want to. They won’t hurt you.” Will and Ruth both looked at me, appalled. I cracked a smile and said, “But I will try to do better tomorrow.”
We all have our off days, but I know I almost always serve a good meal. I viewed concerns as constructive criticism and never let the few who would complain no matter what I did, bring me down. As a matter of fact, I was now on a mission to win over Will and Ruth – and because I am not a flower delivery guy, I planned to do it with the dessert tray.
After serving a spaghetti dinner, I was making the rounds with the dessert tray. “How was your meal Will?”
“There was too much dressing on the salad and too much butter on the garlic toast.” He complained.
“Will, the dressing comes on the side in a cup.” I justified, “If there was too much dressing on the salad, that was your doing – not mine.”
Will didn’t have anything to say after that, but Ruth spoke up, “I thought the garlic toast was good.”
“Did you leave room for a piece of apple cobbler?” I asked. With each meal I served, Will and Ruth seemed to lighten up a bit.
One night I made a dessert I knew Will was fond of. “Did you leave room for a lemon bar?” I asked each of the four people at Will’s table. They all said they did. I intentionally gave both Will and John a smaller piece. Although he wasn’t going to say anything about it, I caught the expected look of disapproval. “Will, do you by chance have room for two lemon bars?”
“I can certainly make room.” He said pushing the first one over a bit with his fork. I gave him another smaller lemon bar. Then I asked John if he would also like a second piece. He too made room on his plate. I had cut the smaller pieces with exactly this in mind. The two smaller pieces combined gave each of them just a little more than a normal portion, but it sure made them feel special.
“There you go gentlemen.” I said in a secretive tone of voice as if we had just conducted a shady deal. “Now don’t tell anyone else about this or everybody will start asking for two pieces of dessert.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I went back to the kitchen.
From the serving window I watched the two men, both in their nineties, each cutting their additional lemon bar and sharing half of it with their wives. It was one of the sweetest things I’d ever seen and really warmed my heart.
A couple nights later, Will addressed me, “Say Tom, did you prepare the liver and onions yourself?” I told him I had. “Well let me say, that was the best liver I’ve ever had. I was having a hard time deciding if that was beef liver or a very good steak. And you served plenty of onions with it. I like that.”
From the lemon bars incident forward, Will and Ruth were absolutely golden to me.
Another night, Will spoke before I had a chance to ask how he liked his meal. “Say Tom, did you make the lasagna?”
“Indeed, I did.” I replied, “It’s my homemade recipe.”
“That was quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Was there any left over?” I told him there was. “If you could save a piece of that for my lunch tomorrow, I’d sure appreciate it.” I told him I would do that. Will added, “You know, I believe you may be the second best cook I’ve ever met.” He touched his wife’s hand, “Ruth of course being the finest. She’s magnificent in the kitchen.” His compliment made me smile and caused Ruth to blush. Will had a soft, loving side to him and was sure smooth with his diplomacy.
"You probably don't want one of these,” I said presenting a tray full of brownies, “so I'll eat yours for you."
"Oh no you won't. Just put it right here!" Ruth said. Will chimed in, "I left room for two!"
“Sorry, that was a onetime deal my friend - it's one per person tonight.” I said. We all shared a good laugh before I moved on to the next table.
The brownies were a big hit. Very moist and rich with dark chocolate -fudge frosting. Simply delicious. I wished I could say I made them, but I didn't. My boss Gretchen made them the day before, I just had the pleasure of serving them.
Before taking the dessert to the dining room, the head boss reminded me of a resident with a nut allergy, who couldn't have a brownie because of the walnuts. Poor Della looked so sad as I told her, “I brought a special dessert for you.” I had a cup of lime Jell-O cubes with a burst of whipped cream on top attempting to make it look a bit more appealing. Although it was pretty, it was no dark chocolate brownie. "There you go, Della. Cool, refreshing Jell-O with a little something extra on top!" I said as I placed the cup in front of her.
"Thank you." She replied, in a sheepishly polite, but heartbroken tone in her voice. Della watched with wanting eyes, her mouth nearly watering as I went to the next table with my tray full of chocolate goodies.
On the way to the kitchen, I glanced back her way. Della was poking at her Jell-O with a spoon, watching with envy as the others at her table enjoyed a brownie. She looked so left out and forgotten, it made me sad.
After dinner, when the dishes were being cleared, I noticed the cup of green Jell-O came back to the kitchen, nearly untouched. It made me feel awful for dissing her on the brownies, but I wouldn't want her to have an allergic reaction either. As I worked, I thought more about the emptiness in her eyes. Then, I remembered Gretchen telling me a while back, she didn't use nuts in any of her baked goods.
I sent Gretchen a text briefly explaining the situation. She responded, “There are chocolate chunks but no walnuts in the brownies. Della can have one.”
Thrilled with her confirmation, I stopped one of the resident assistants, told her about Gretchen’s text then handed her a plate, asking if she would take a brownie to Della.
The RA returned to the kitchen with a big smile on her face, "You just made her day! Della’s eyes lit up when I told her there were no nuts in the brownies and she could have one." The RA was happy. Della was happy. All this happiness made me happy. It was a great way to wrap up my shift.
I was back in the kitchen the next morning. One of the resident assistants came to the kitchen, telling me again how happy Della was to get the brownie the night before. “She’s still talking about it this morning.” She said. I smiled.
At lunchtime I served a homemade vegetable soup to everyone except Will and a few others who requested left over lasagna. After lunch, I took made my rounds with the dessert tray, stopping at Della’s table first. “Della, I have ginger crack cookies and just one brownie left over from last night. Which would you like?”
“Can I have the brownie?” She asked. While I put the brownie on her plate, she pointed to a small juice glass with a handful of wild yellow flowers (dandelions) setting in the center of the table. “Someone brought me daisies.” She cut the brownie with the edge of her fork, saying “I like daises.” Then taking a bite, she smiled a million-dollar smile. I moved on feeling pretty darn good.
“That lasagna seemed to be even better today. Thank you for saving me a piece.” Will said, “Say Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have any brownies left over from last night, would you?”
“Sorry, Will.” I said, “I just gave the last one to a gal who didn't get one at the dinner table last night. I baked ginger crack cookies this morning. Would you like one?”
“Are those molasses cookies?” Will asked, stretching his neck to peer over the top of the tray. I told him ginger cracks and molasses cookies were pretty much the same thing. “Well a rose by any other name is still a rose.” He said, chuckling. “Molasses cookies are my favorite.” He added, tapping the napkin next to his plate.
“Speaking of flowers,” Will said, “did you see all the dandelions in bloom this morning? They sure are pretty. I went out and gathered some for a couple of the folks who don’t get out much so they could enjoy them too.”
My heart was full. “Will,” I asked, “do you happen to have room for a second cookie?”
“I sure do.” He said, pushing the first cookie over to make room for another.
I gave Will and Ruth, and John and his wife, each a second cookie. Then announced to everyone in the room, “I have extras, would anyone like a second cookie?” Hands went up all around the room. As I handed out the extra cookies, I noticed almost all of the tables had a small juice glass with dandelions in water.
When I got back to the kitchen, I asked two of the resident assistants if they would like a cookie. “Sure!” They said, smiling as they took one from the tray.
“Take two if you’d like.” I said, adding “Come back after I get the kitchen cleaned up and I’ll give you a few in a baggie to take home to your kids.”
“What’s the special occasion?” They wondered.
“You know,” I explained, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.”
A friend of mine posts a daily series on his Facebook page, he calls “From my heart and home.” Dan is a very accomplished pianist and composer. Last Friday, on day one hundred thirty, he offered his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. “…today, my heart is full.” Dan wrote, saying he finds great solace and inspiration in that song. I do as well, so I gave it a listen.
While listening, I watched the video with Dan’s fingers so gracefully dancing and floating over the keys. He makes it look so easy. I thought about an old episode of the television show MASH, titled Morale Victory. Major Charles Winchester, had operated on a patient whose leg was badly injured. Being the top-notch surgeon that his character was, Winchester boasted to Private Sheridan, that he had skillfully saved his leg.
Looking at his bandaged right hand, Sheridan asked what happened. The doctor explained there was nerve damage and the patient would have partial loss of dexterity in three of his fingers. The private wept. Winchester, expecting praise and gratuity, didn’t understand. “Your hand will look perfectly normal,” he said, “but I saved your leg!”
Private Sheridan cried, “I don’t care about my leg. My hands are my life. I’m a concert pianist.” That was a powerful scene.
Winchester tried to convince the younger man, who was feeling hopeless, not to abandon his talent. “There are other ways to share your gift.” Charles brought sheet music for the left hand only written for Paul Wittgenstein. (a real concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI and upon whom Sheridan’s character was inspired.) Winchester pleaded with the musician, “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “I can play the notes, but I cannot make music. The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” I thought about those words as I watched Dan’s video. Many people can play the notes, but… Responding to Dan’s touch, the piano became alive; together they made beautiful music.
I was in high school when I first came to know about Dan. Although he was several class years ahead of me, we had the same vocal music teacher; Merlin Schneider – a legend.
Mr. Schneider was teaching Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the sophomore choir. The tenors, of which I was one, were struggling with the line, “and He shall reign forever and ever.” The word He, hits a high A. That’s a pretty high note for a bunch of boys whose voices had recently changed.
The tenor section practiced the line over and over. Each time we sounded more like cars pulling into a service garage with bad brakes. Really screechy, bad brakes. Mr. Schneider stopped and went to his record player. One of those vintage players that looked like a suitcase when the top was closed.
He opened the lid, carefully removed a black vinyl album from the sleeve and placed it on the platter. He moved the tone arm over, setting the needle on the record. It was the Hallelujah Chorus. When it came to the part that we were having so much difficulty with, the tenors sang smoothly and with ease: “And HE shall reign for ever and ever.” Mr. Schneider moved the needle back and played the part several more times. “That is what it sounds like when you do it right. Now let’s do it again - this time with confidence, men.”
Mr. Schneider told us the album was recorded by the Ottumwa High School, Class of 1971. Dan Knight was one of the tenors in the choir. I was impressed. He hit that high A like it was a simple mid-range note.
After school, I went to the radio station and looked through the Christmas records. Sure enough, we had a copy of the album. I asked Dad if I could take the record home to practice. He said that would be fine, so long as I didn’t forget where it came from.
At home, I played the song over and over again, singing along, convincing myself, if that Dan Knight guy could hit that A – so can I. I remembered Mr. Schneider’s instructions: “Don’t pinch your throat. Push from the diaphragm. Let it roll out naturally.”
It was time for the last number in the Christmas concert. The juniors and seniors were still on the risers onstage. The sophomore choir was seated in the first few rows of the auditorium. We all stood up in perfect unison; Mr. Schneider would have it no other way. (We actually practiced standing and sitting.) The strings ensemble began playing the introduction. The entire audience stood up and together we all sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we came to the line, I hit it perfectly and with confidence: “and HE shall reign for ever and ever.” When the song ended, the audience applauded. While some of the tenors still had “brake trouble,” I smiled and silently thanked Dan for his hours of rehearsing with me until I was able to hit that note smoothly.
I restarted Dan’s video, listening again as he played his rendition of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Taken by the sense of emotion expressed through his music, I drifted off in thought, remembering the first time I had met Dan Knight in person. It was nearly thirty years after I had first learned of him through a common high school music teacher. Through generous donations, the new Bridgeview Center in Ottumwa was able to purchase a very beautiful, brand new Steinway & Sons Concert Grand Piano. Among an impressive list of other notable organizations, Dan is a performing artist and composer for Steinway & Sons. He was coming home to perform on the new piano for his hometown.
A man of distinguished appearance, Dan was easy to pick out in the crowd. I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with him. I’ll admit to being a bit starstruck, but was also taken by his humility; how easy it was to speak with him. It was like talking to any ordinary kid from a small town – but Dan went on to make it big.
I wanted to tell him of the positive influence he had on me and how he had helped me, an awkward high school sophomore, gain confidence in my singing and learn the Hallelujah Chorus. I wanted to tell him a lot of things, but we only had a few moments. This was a homecoming of sorts and other folks were waiting to talk to him as well. It was really good to finally meet him.
I had listened to several of Dan’s prior performances in his series. For some reason the Leonard Cohen piece really captivated me, reaching my soul. After listening for a third time, I wanted to hear more. I scrolled back through his wall to the previous post, but it wasn’t a musical performance - it was a story he had written. I read it, then read it again. It now made sense to me what Dan meant in this post, “…today, my heart is full.”
I won’t attempt to paraphrase his writing. A story of unfortunate happenings and circumstances I never knew of. So, with his blessing, here is Dan Knight’s story.
I was riding a motorcycle on the south side of Ottumwa, Iowa on that evening forty-nine years ago, when I was hit by a drunk driver. That accident changed the course of my life forever.
I had a full-ride scholarship to Drake University, as an applied voice/opera major.
I lost my voice. The voice that remained after two years of hospitalizations was not the voice I once had.
I lost my scholarship, and most of the ability to earn another one.
I nearly lost my life. I had blood clots in my lungs that were so large that they could be seen on x-rays. I had pericarditis, and pleural effusions, and sepsis that nearly killed me.
But I continued. And the piano, eventually, became my voice.
So July 24 is a date that marks my death, in a way -- it was the death of the person I was, and of the career I had hoped to have.
And it marked the rebirth of the new me: the person who pulled himself up off the street after his right leg had been smashed, and stood. The person who taught himself to walk again, after ten months in a cast. The person who lost his golden voice, but sang again anyway. The person who made the piano his career.
And so we continue, all of us. We are broken, all of us, and damaged, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But still we continue, with the understanding that on some days, just managing a smile is an achievement.
I cheer for us, all of us, who, in our own ways, somehow find the courage to continue, day after day, with love, and hope, and conviction, and courage, and purpose.” Dan Knight.
Wow. I had no idea. His words; his story, choked me up. I suddenly realized the man I thought I knew – well, there’s much more to know. Read again his last two paragraphs. There’s a message, which most of us – probably all of us, need to hear today.
I don’t know why listening to his performance of Hallelujah and the expression in his music, reminded me of that MASH episode. This was before reading the story he posted earlier that day. Dan’s accident happened almost nine years before the television show aired and that episode was inspired by a true story from more than sixty-five years prior. The similarities and happenstance were most uncanny.
Major Winchester told Private Sheridan: “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” Charles went on, “You can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.”
Dan found a new way; a new voice, “…the piano, eventually, became my voice.” When I heard his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah, I came to understand, Dan’s voice is as loud, clear and expressive as ever. May your gift of music, your voice, sing to us, my friend, for many years to come. Peace, always.
Here is a link to Dan’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” if you would like to listen.
I like Scamp campers. A lot. I’ve had somewhere around forty-two of them over the years, and often own more than one at a time. Currently, I have one 13’, two 16’ and one 19’ models. Please don’t judge me.
Some women have lots of shoes. They need certain footwear for different occasions and outfits, just like I need different Scamps for different settings. My wife says I need an intervention, but I feel I am getting better. At the beginning of last year, I had seven Scamps. Besides, we have five acres of land and the trailers are on the back side of the property, out of sight – out of mind, where they aren’t hurting anyone.
Last week I went out back to pull our 19’ fifth-wheel Scamp to the driveway. I want to get it cleaned up to either use, or sell. Now, I fancy myself pretty good at backing up to connect the trailers. I put the camper hitch directly over the ball. BAM, perfect, first time. I left the truck running. The crank handle was already in place so I began rapidly turning it clockwise, lowering the trailer onto the hitch. This requires about 100 turns. A robin in a nearby tree was sure noisy, giving me a piece of her mind.
I ignored her and got down on my hands and knees, pulling the pins to lift and stow the camper legs into their towing position. While I secured the second leg, the truck died. “That’s weird.” I said. I went back to the cab and restarted the engine. It ran for just a few seconds before the check engine light came on and the motor died again. Hmm. I had plenty of gas. I tried a few more times. It turned over but wouldn’t start.
I got out of the cab and returned to the camper. The robin kept squawking, occasionally charging toward me, then fluttering back to her perch high above. “Leave me alone, lady! I’m not having a real good day here and I don’t need any of your lip!” I fired back at her before getting on my hands and knees to lower the legs again. I secured the footpads in their down position, then got up to crank the handle, to lift the camper off the truck.
Chattering away, the robin charged at me again, getting even closer as soon as I started turning the handle. I think she meant business! “Look you red-breasted baboon, leave me alone!” I said.
She answered me. “I’m not a baboon. Baboons can’t fly and birds don’t have lips, genius. But if you don’t get away from my babies, I swear I’ll peck your eyes out, mister!”
“Babies? What babies” I looked under the bunkhouse of the Scamp and sure enough the robin had built her nest under there between the vertical frame and the front wall. A robin’s nest is not very large to begin with and crammed into this one, were four young birds, squeezed in tightly.
They sat, hunkered down low in the nest. Their mouths closed; their little black eyes wide open. They were very attentive but didn’t make a peep, in case I was a predator. Each had their beak pointing upward. I suppose prepared in case they needed to peck at me, or maybe waiting to see if Mom was coming back with a juicy worm or some tasty bugs. “Okay, lady. Just let me lift the weight of the camper off my truck, then I will go away.”
There is a system of square tubing that spans across the front of the trailer, connecting the two jack legs. With each slow turn of the handle, the nest would lift about three-quarters of an inch then settle back down. I only can imagine when I was raising the jacks, turning the handle very rapidly about 100 rotations, (unaware the nest was there) these poor chicks probably thought an earthquake was happening!
Mama robin was still giving me a really harsh verbal lashing. I stopped cranking – even slowly. “You know,” I said to her, “your kids look like they are very close to leaving the nest. I think the truck can handle the weight for a few more days. But I am going to get a couple photos before I go.”
I got my pictures, then tried again to see if the engine would start. Plenty of battery, but no spark. I locked the doors and started to hike back to the house.
Along the way I ran into my neighbor. I told him about the baby birds and the truck not starting. Being a very mechanical person, he asked, “What do you think is wrong with the truck?”
“Well,” I said rubbing my chin, assessing the situation. “either that mother robin tampered with my motor, or it’s just God’s way of saying, ‘Leave them be. Let the truck stay there until the birds move on.’”
“Do you really think so?” He asked.
“Yep.” I said with certainty, “I’ll bet you a buck the truck starts right up once the birds have flown the nest.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I walked home.
A couple days later, I went back to the truck. The birds were still sitting in the nest and the engine wouldn’t start. While walking back to the house, I called Triple A to see if my roadside assistance would cover towing the vehicle to Duluth, almost seventy miles away. The lady said it would and asked if I wanted her to get a tow truck on the way. “No, not yet.” I said, “I have to wait until the birds have flown the coop.” She didn’t understand, so I filled her in with the details. “I’ve got a strong hunch the truck is going to start once the birds are gone. But I’ll call you back in a few days if I need you.”
About three days later, I went back again. My neighbors were standing out by their garage, “The baby birds were all gone when we looked in on them this morning.” They informed me, then asked, “Do you really think your truck is going to start?”
“Yep.” I said, and walked on.
I sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key. The motor started right up. I repositioned the Scamp on our lot, then disconnected the trailer from the hitch.” The neighbors were still standing by their garage when I drove past, going to my house without the Scamp.
“Did the birds steal your camper?” We shared a good laugh about that.
“No,” I said explaining, “but the check engine light is still on, so I left the Scamp there. I’ll take the truck into Duluth to get the engine checked, then come back for trailer.
I called Triple A to let them know they could close out the service ticket which was still active. The lady read the notes in my file. “You had birds in your truck and they disabled it?” We shared a good laugh about that.
“I was carjacked by a family of robins” I said, “They took my truck and camper for several days before giving it back.” The operator laughed. “We live in a pretty rough neighborhood.” I explained, “I guess you could call it a Robin’s Hood.”
It was around ten in the evening. I stood on the front porch looking toward the northwest. In the distance I could hear thunder rumbling. I watched the black skies. With each flash of lightning, the overcast of clouds lighted, turning to a greyish-purple color. The wind kicked up substantially, coming sporadically from different directions. The temperature dropped rapidly and large raindrops started to fall, making a plunking noise as they hit the wooden steps. The thunderstorm the weatherman promised, was arriving. I went inside and started closing windows until I could determine from which direction the rain would come.
I tiptoed quietly into the dark guest bedroom where my two granddaughters were fast asleep – or so I thought. After closing each of the windows about halfway, I silently moved toward the door. “Papa, what are you doing?” came a soft, sleepy voice.
“I’m closing the windows a little.” I whispered, “It’s starting to rain and I don’t want water to get in.” I pulled the covers up over her shoulder and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Evelyn.”
“I love you too, Papa.” She whispered back. “Papa can you stay in here with me?” Those words would melt any man’s heart.
“I can for a little bit.” I replied, still whispering so as not to wake her sister. “Are you okay?”
From the other side of the bed came a not so sleepy voice, “Papa, Ev doesn’t like the lightning and thunder.” Addison explained, “It scares her.” I assured them both, they were safe inside the house and that I would be in the living room if they needed me.
As I walked down the hallway lightning illuminated all the rooms through the windows; a very loud crash of thunder seemed to shake the whole house. I heard Ev start crying in the dark bedroom. I went back and laid on the bed next to her. “Would it be okay if I stayed in here with you for a while longer?” Stretching my arm across the pillow, Ev curled up with her head on my shoulder and nodded, yes. “Addie, are you okay with the thunder?”
“Not really,” she said, “I don’t like it.” I reached my arm a little further laying my hand on her shoulder, asking if that made it better. “Yes.” She said, scooching toward Ev and me. She let out a sigh of contentment and drifted off to sleep. Funny; I went in to comfort the girls and somehow, laying there with them, they made me feel safer in the storm.
After a while, Sydney came into the room. She would stay with the girls so I could get on the treadmill for my evening walk.
I picked up my stride as rain continued to fall and thunder boomed. With the windows open, I enjoyed a cool breeze and the smell of fresh rain. It was very pleasant. I would normally be looking out a large picture window into the yard, but this night, the big window looked more like a black TV screen. When the lightning would flash, the whole yard lit up like daytime, then, just as quickly returned to darkness. I love walking in the dark on nights like this, it’s a good setting for me to think and reflect; taking time to consider what is really most important in life.
I thought about our day; the Fourth of July. It was 90 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun was hot, the air was humid and there was not the slightest breeze along the Northshore. Melissa and I took Sydney and our two granddaughters down to Grandpa Ken’s Beach on Lake Superior. The water is always cold, but today it felt good.
The beach was busy with sunbathers and swimmers. Paddle boards and kayaks glided over the calm waters. Dogs joined in the fun, charging into the lake to retrieve sticks and balls and such, then dog paddling back in to shore. The spot we wanted was already taken by another group, which was no problem. There is plenty of shoreline for everyone. We walked down a little further.
We all waded into the lake. My wife and daughter stayed with Evelyn, close to the shore. Addison and I went out beyond what I call the safe rocks, out to the slippery rocks; the slippery rocks are larger and tend to stay put when the waves kick up, thus building up slime. The safe rocks are smaller and roll in and out with the waves. As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Addison cleaned the top of a rock by moving her foot back and forth over the surface, removing the slime. She stood on the rock while I stood in front of her in my own sure-footed spot. We counted to three then she sprang up as high as she could. With my hands on her waist, I continued to lift her over my head, much like a talented figure skater would lift his partner high into the air, performing a platter lift. With a little more practice, we might be Olympic contenders, but for now we were just a little girl and her Papa having a good time in the largest fresh water lake in the world.
The people up the way headed out so we moved to the spot we first wanted where there’s a very large, flat rock formation. Between the rock and the shore, is a real nice place for little kids to play and splash in the water. Most of the rock’s edges taper off into the lake but the western end is more like a small ledge, dropping straight into the lake. Addison, would come to that end to jump into the water. The ledge is less than thirty inches high and the water about sixteen inches deep with a nice area to land. Pretty small for an adult, but when you’re six years old? What a thrill.
Evelyn, wasn’t so sure about this jumping in business. At three-years-old, that twelve inches down to the water seemed like a really big fall. She wanted Papa to help. Ev would hold onto my hands and swing forward down into the water, like a teenager swinging out into the swimming hole on a rope tied to a tree branch above. I did get her to jump in on her own once while I was standing there, but she didn’t like it much so I didn’t push her to do it again. She eventually did jump off with her older sister and her mom.
The three of them stood at the edge, holding hands, pondering the challenge before them. It was like they were on the edge of a jagged cliff looking at a raging river, one hundred feet below in the canyon. Collectively, they mustered up their courage. “On the count of three!” Sydney called out, “One. Two. Three! Ahhhhh!!”
They all jumped together, plunging into the icy waters below. Laughing with excitement, Evelyn started climbing back up the rock, “Come on Mom, let’s do it again! Let’s do it again!” Her sister and her mom were right behind her. We jumped and played and splashed together until the sun and the waves had us all worn out. We gathered our things to head for home. As we were leaving, I took a look down the beach. There were a lot more people now than when we got there. I smiled. We were having so much fun swimming and rock hunting, we didn’t even notice them come in. It was a day that provided memories to last a lifetime.
I increased the speed on the treadmill just a little and thought about the contrast between our day today on Grandpa Ken’s Beach, compared to the last time I was there about two weeks before.
I woke up around 4:30 on a Thursday morning. Like a prelude, the soon to be rising sun turned the horizon bright magenta behind the tops of the pine trees. I decided to stay up for the main show. I put on a pot of coffee then went to the bedroom to ask my sleeping wife if she wanted to go watch the sunrise. “Uuh nuh da blah duh muh.” She mumbled then rolled over, adjusting her pillow. (translation: “I need to sleep some more.”) A morning alone with the sunrise would be good for me, giving me a beautiful time for meditation and prayer.
I filled my thermos and made way for the front door where my dog June, was waiting for me. “June Bug, I’m going alone this morning.” I told her. I gave her a good rub on the head, “I’ll be back in about an hour.” I hurried to the van and drove to Grandpa Ken’s Beach.
There are two vertical posts with an upper and lower chain draped between them to keep cars out. A spider had woven her web diagonally from the post down to the chain. Dew that collected on the web overnight, glistened in the morning light. An unsuspecting insect that flew into the trap was bound in silky webbing. The spider sat on the edge of the web near the post, keeping watch on her prey. “Nice catch, Charlotte.” I congratulated her, “That bug will make a nice meal for you.”
Dew collected on my toes, making my sneakers wet as I walked down the path through the open, grassy field. I felt like someone was with me. I turned around looking for June; did she sneak out the door and come with me? No. She wasn’t there. The presence was very strong. I turned again, “Charlotte?” I called out softly. “I’m losing my mind. A spider did not follow me down the trail.” I looked all around me and into the edge of trees. I couldn’t see anyone but there was definitely someone there; not in the woods watching me from a distance, but very close – like right next to me.
The presence was not threatening, but gentle, loving and nurturing. Being one who believes in angels, I pressed on. “Fine,” I said, “If you’re going to follow me, keep up. I don’t want to miss the sunrise.” I walked quickly toward the lake. On the beach, I picked a spot to sit and drink my coffee. I gave thanks to the One who created all this beauty before me.
Off the very peak of a peninsula to the east, the sun broke over the horizon. She cast her beams into low wisps of clouds, turning them amazing shades of yellow and orange. Silhouettes of three small pine trees on a rocky island, seemed to face the sun; anticipating her arrival and welcoming her as the new day began. The sound of gentle waves touching the shore was mesmerizing.
Consumed by serenity, I felt completely weightless. I had no worries; no problems. Just the gift of a glorious new day filled with hope and promise…and the presence of someone beside me, although I had no idea who this friendly spirit was.
As the sun rose higher into the sky, I picked up my thermos and started walking back to the van. I looked up and down the shoreline, and again, into the woods. There was no one there, but the spirit was still with me. Walking back through the open grassy field, I looked toward the memorial marker that had been placed for Grandpa Ken. At the base of the large grey stone there were three very colorful painted rocks. I must have overlooked them in my haste to get to the beach before sunrise.
I knelt down to have a look. The first stone had a purplish cloud with a white edge – a silver lining if you will. The name Melina, was written between two red hearts. On the back it read, “Thank you for loving me from heaven…and I love you. XO Melina.”
The next rock had a turquoise background with a colorful rainbow pattern that had three pink hearts on top. Vertical lines looked like a forest under the rainbow and the name Asher, was written in big pink letter. Below, in smaller green letters, were the initials, gpk. I assumed this to be Grandpa Ken. On the back it read, “Thank you for watching over us, love Asher. And for teaching my mommy so she can teach us.”
The third, and smallest rock, was perfectly round. It had what looked like two flowers on green stems. The word “Bing” was written in pink letters with a red and white heart to dot the i. I thought to myself. maybe those aren’t flowers; they’re Bing cherries. I turned the rock over and read the back: “Love you grandma Bing! XOXO Lisa Rose.”
Still on my knees in the wet grass in front of the marker, I smiled. “So that’s who you are.” I said to the angel. She stood behind me, looking over my shoulder as I gently placed each rock back exactly as I had found them. I stood up and thought about the three pine trees on the rocky island out in the lake, facing the rising sun to the east. “You have three beautiful granddaughters who sure love you a lot, Grandma Bing.”
I stood up and looked out to the lake. The sun was shining brightly. Even with cold, wet feet and knees, I suddenly felt very warm and content; completely at peace, but it wasn’t the sun that was warming me. I felt like I was being squeezed – in a good way. Grandma Bing was giving me a big hug. “Thank you for coming and having coffee with me this morning.” She said, “If you should see those three granddaughters of mine, you tell them I love them and I am watching over them. I will always be watching over them.” The squeeze lightened as she said, “I have to go now. Thank you again for coming by.” The breeze picked up lightly from the north, blowing toward the water. I could feel her departing; returning to the beach by the big lake.
I slowed the pace as I was finishing my walk on the treadmill. I recalled that morning on the beach with my new found spiritual friend. As well, I thought about all the fun Melissa and I had with our granddaughters on the beach that day; laughing, playing, splashing in the water, swimming and collecting rocks – we were making lifetime memories. I hope Nana Mac (Melissa) and I are creating as many good memories with our children and grandchildren as Grandma Bing did with hers.
It was just before eleven in the evening when I shut the treadmill off. During my walk, my mind was so full of thoughts and memories, I didn’t even notice the thunderstorm had ended. The angry clouds had moved out leaving thin wisps of clouds in the sky. The full moon was breaking through, rising above the silhouette of pine tree tops, lighting our yard brightly. The picture window again looked like a big screen TV playing the best show in town. I walked outside on the deck. A light breeze was blowing gently southward, toward the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
I have a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, with an extra lot adjacent to it. The property used to have a large, very deep ravine behind it, rendering most of the land unusable. Over a twenty-year span, we filled in the gorge and now have a house that sits on a rolling hillside, with a huge yard. I’ve owned it for many years, most of which it’s been a rental property - but I have lived there a couple times and some really good things happened while there.
We stayed there while Melissa and I were searching for just the right home to buy. We eventually found just the house we wanted, but we were still living in that rental house when we got a puppy and named her June. Since the day we met that cute little border collie-blue heeler mix, she has loved to play ball.
From the back porch, I could throw a tennis ball way out into the yard. Because the house sat much higher than the back of the lot, it appeared I was throwing the ball much farther than I am capable. It worked out well. I got to look like a pro athlete and June loved making those long runs to retrieve that ball.
One beautiful spring morning, Melissa stood in the kitchen window enjoying her coffee while overlooking the yard. The rising sun created beautiful colors and shadows across the lawn. “Come look,” she said softly, “Gus is in the back yard.” Having no idea who the heck Gus was, I joined her.
I didn’t see anybody in the back yard, but there was a very large groundhog sitting upright on his back feet, eating clover. He held the little round, white blooms in his front paws; his whiskers wiggled rapidly as he nibbled away the flower, stuffing it in his cheeks, then munched down the stem like people will do with spaghetti. The angle of the sun cast a long shadow from the marmot. “Look at the size of that groundhog!” I said, pointing him out to Melissa. She wrinkled her face and looked at me oddly.
“That’s Gus.” She said as if I should have known.
“Gus?” I repeated, “You named a groundhog Gus?”
“Yes. Gus.” She explained, “He’s out there every morning, so I named him.”
Doing the morning show at the radio station, I would leave the house (usually in a hurry) about four hours before Melissa had to be at work. In my haste, I’d never noticed a groundhog in the back yard. I did however, start noticing Gus in the yard when I drove by during the day and in the evenings, especially when I was mowing the lawn. It seemed he was always out there eating and he wasn’t bothered much by my lawn tractor.
Sometimes I would talk to him from the seat of my John Deere, “Hey Gus, if you’d eat more, I could mow less, but you are getting a bit portly there, big fella.” I’d laugh and keep riding by. Another time, I just couldn’t resist, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He shook his head, rolled his dark eyes and snatched another clover stalk.
One day Melissa and I were driving down the alley behind our house. Gus was in the yard eating as usual. “Gus is looking kind of thin,” I said with concern, “I wonder if he’s feeling okay?”
“That’s not Gus,” She said as if I should have known, “Gus is over there. That’s Millie.”
“Millie?” I repeated with a mischievous smile, “Gus has a lady friend? Atta boy, Gus, you da man!”
I drew a look of disapproval from my wife, “She’s not just a lady friend, she’s his better half. She is a proper lady and I’ll not have you speaking of her in that tone, thank you very much.” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
After moving into our new house, just a few blocks away, we would often go by the old house (once again a rental property) and we would see Gus and Millie. I also saw them every time I went to mow the big lawn. They would be out in the yard eating together; clover tops, daises and any other flowering weeds they came upon. Millie didn’t seem to mind the lawn tractor either. Gus must have told her the guy on the mower is safe; albeit a little annoying at times. They always seemed to watch out for one another.
One day while mowing, I passed Gus, “Hey Gus.” I called out in jest, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if…”
Millie stood up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt then interrupted me in mid-sentence, “Okay, give it a rest, lawn boy! We’ve heard that one a million times, alright?” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
Gus and Millie never seemed to be very far apart. If they were spooked, they always ran away in the same direction. While Gus and Millie moved together in one direction, Melissa and I moved together in another.
Our long term plan was to relocate in Minnesota. We found our house on the north shore. Our youngest daughter would be heading off to college in the fall and I hired someone to mow the big lawn at the rental property. Things were falling into place nicely. The time was right for us to go.
At our new home in Minnesota, we have a lot more wildlife going through our yard. Deer and moose, bears, wolves, lynx, fox, martens and fishers. Of course, squirrels, rabbits, racoons and this one possessed chipmunk. We have all kinds of birds too, ravens and eagles, seagulls, hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and many more. But for all the wild things in our yard, we just don’t see many soulmates like Gus and Millie.
We did see a pair of pileated woodpeckers together in a tree, doing what I thought was a courting ritual – until someone explained they were both males. (how was I to know?) There’s also a lot of grouse courting that goes on in the springtime, under the apple tree. It’s easy to spot the male grouse. He’s the one that struts an awful lot like that swanky guy in a nightclub. I miss old Gus and Millie.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Iowa. I drove down the alley behind our rental property, stopping to take a couple pictures of a large woodchuck in the yard behind the house. He was sitting on his hind legs, eating dandelions in our back yard. I smiled and wondered, “Could it be? Nah, it can’t be.” It has been almost six years since we moved away.
Less than a minute later, another woodchuck, a smaller one, lumbered across the alley, passing in front of my van. It kept going until it was within ten feet of the first, where she also started eating the bright yellow flowers tops of the dandelions.
Curious, I rolled down my window and called out softly, “Gus?” The bigger marmot stopped chewing for a moment and stared at me as if he knew me; he recognized my voice. I smiled, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He rolled his big dark eyes and picked another dandelion. The other groundhog sat up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt. I laughed, even though I knew I was about to be put in my place.
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