a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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I enjoy camping, but one must always be aware of the surroundings and potential dangers of nature. In the Northwoods, it's imperative to be bear smart; appropriate storage of food and trash is a must.
We were camping in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. One evening I was preparing chicken hindquarters at the picnic table to roast over the wood fire. In this situation, I would typically expect to be shooing pesky flies that come around, and I had the fly swatter nearby if I needed it. But this day was different; were no flies at all – just bees.
I know bees are attracted to a pitcher of lemonade or other sugary foods, but I've never known them to come around for chicken.
It was difficult to trim chicken fat with a kitchen knife without losing a finger and counting bees simultaneously. I tallied about a dozen swarming around me, and they kept trying to land on the fresh meat. I'm no dummy; I know better than to swat at a bee. So instead, I'd just move my hand gracefully toward them, and the bees would fly off, then come right back from a different direction. A few of the bees even landed on my arm, overlooking the feast, choosing the drumstick they wanted. But, again, I didn't strike at them; I just let them ride on my arm. As long as they weren't stinging me, I saw no sense in poking the proverbial hornet's nest.
Eventually, I created a small pile of chicken fat on the other side of the table; the bees gathered there and left me alone. It was a good lesson on cohabitating peacefully with nature; no bees were harmed, and no humans were stung.
The day before, we had met a new friend at the campground and invited her to join us for dinner. We ate well, then enjoyed wine and conversation around the campfire. Everyone agreed the chicken was delicious – even the bees. The following morning Melissa and I packed up and headed to our next destination.
Black Canyon Campground is in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico. At 8,500 feet above sea level, walking and breathing at the same time can be a challenge for a flat-lander from Minnesota.
I had chicken breasts marinating for dinner while we went hiking mountain trails and exploring Historic Old Town Santa Fe. It was dusk when we pulled back into our campsite. I quickly fetched an armload of wood from the van and got a fire started; we would need a good bed of hot coals to grill the chicken.
Once the fire was going, I brought the rest of the wood over. There was one piece from a branch about three inches round and thirty inches long. Melissa poured two glasses of wine and brought the camp chairs to the fire area, and became the self-appointed supervisor. Honestly, I had everything under control.
I watched the meat on the fire while also frying potatoes in the cast iron skillet on the camp stove. With onion, green pepper, mushrooms, and my special seasoning, these potatoes are the bomb. I was pretty proud of the meal I was fixing.
It was now dark out, so the supervisor kept a close eye on things; mostly her wine and everything I was doing, "You better turn the chicken; the potatoes need to be stirred; you should put another log on the fire, and watch out for that raccoon."
I stood up from the fire and looked around, "What raccoon?"
"The raccoon by the firewood pile…oh honey, be careful. That's not a raccoon; it's a big skunk!"
"WHAT? You mistook a skunk for a raccoon?" I can understand her error; I mean, raccoons wear a black mask, where a skunk has a wide bright white stripe down its back – anyone could easily confuse the two. This, my friends, is a fine example of why supervisors should not drink wine while on duty. (Although I will admit, it was a good, local cabernet.)
Standing before me was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen, and he looked to be on a mission. But, should the skunk and I engage in battle, I wasn't sure I could take him with just the metal spatula I was holding to turn potatoes and chicken.
He waddled a few steps my way; I was the only thing standing between him and my chicken. "What do skunks eat," I asked my wife.
"Mostly bugs and small rodents, I think," said the super.
I kept my headlamp shining on the skunk, "Do they eat people food?"
"I think they'll eat garbage if they're hungry. But, honey, don't shine your light on him; you're blinding him."
"Well, I'm not taking my eyes off him, for Pete's sake!" I had to defend my turf – and my chicken. I quickly reached down and grabbed the short branch log. "Back off Pepe Le Pew," I ordered, "this ain't garbage, and you ain't getting it!"
With a kitchen utensil purchased at Dollar General in one hand and a stick in the other, I immediately doubted that I was equipped well enough for the impending confrontation. Nevertheless, I held my position and warned the intruder, "You take one more step, and we're going to play golf – and you're the ball!" I shook my stick at him, and he took a couple more steps my way.
"Honey, leave him alone; don't hurt him," said the spectator from her chair. I wasn't sure if she was talking to the skunk or me. I'd never been this close to a live skunk – other than one time at a petting zoo, and frankly, I don't know that much about them.
I don't know much about skunks, but I knew this couldn't be good when he turned around and raised his tail. "Look, buddy, nobody raises their tail and points their butt at me and gets away with it – well, except for my cat Edgar, and I don't like it when he does it either." I presented my stick, "You wanna play golf?"
"Honey be careful," Again, I didn't know which of us she was warning. "I think they can spray up to twelve feet or so." I assumed her warning was for me since I didn't have a Super-Soaker squirt gun or a can of skunk repellant.
There were about six feet between my opponent and me, meaning the skunk, not my wife. (Come to think of it, there was also about six feet between my wife and me, and frankly, I wasn't sure if she was rooting for the beast or me!) I looked at the thirty-inch stick in my hand, "Twelve feet? Dang, I'm going to need a longer golf club."
The skunk arched his rear end higher in the air and puffed his tail; it looked as bushy as a foxtail. Then he started stomping his front feet on the ground. For a moment, I was dumbfounded. "I didn't know skunks could flair their tails like that, and what's he doing stomping his feet?"
"Tom, he's doing the skunk stomp! Back off; he's getting ready to spray!" I probably should have taken heed of her advice; I even thought about running and taking cover behind the supervisor's chair, but I still wasn't sure who's side she was on.
There I was, looking directly into the business end of an agitated skunk, who had his gun loaded, cocked, and ready to fire. I already mentioned this was the biggest skunk I'd ever seen. From my current point of view, he looked to be twelve feet tall and bulletproof. Still, I bravely (or foolishly) held my position. Waving my spatula that had a couple of half-cooked potato slices stuck to the flat surface, I stomped my foot to intimidate him, "Get outta here, ya bum!"
The skunk's chest inflated as he took a deep breath while looking over his shoulder with me in his crosshairs. "It's never happened to me before, but here it comes," I prayed, "Dear Lord, save me!" Just then, much to my surprise, the skunk lowered his tail and scurried in retreat to the far side of our concrete picnic table area. Had he been bluffing? Was his stinker all out of stink?
At the edge of the woods, the polecat turned around, staring me right square in the eye. He raised his tail, stomped his feet again as if to say, "I know where you live, Betty Crocker!" Then, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he warned, "I'll be back."
Almost with glee, my wife declared, "Oh honey, I think he's got your number."
Feeling tougher than John Wayne, I victoriously puffed up my chest. First, I tossed the seven-foot-long timber I was wielding one-handed back to the woodpile. Then, spinning my spatula like a six-shooter, I blew the smoke from the tip and pretended to sling it back into a holster – a potato slice dislodged and fell on my foot. "Oh yeah? Well, you better bring your little sister to help you!"
Fortunately, during the commotion, June was inside the Scamp. I can only imagine how this would have turned for the worse with a dog in the mix. Our cat Edgar Allan was also in the Scamp, looking out the window; he also watched the skunk closely.
I went back to tend to my meal cooking over the fire, "Darn it!" I burned the chicken. "Stupid skunk."
I felt like a real hero for saving our camp. Meanwhile, the supervisor poured another glass of wine. I reached my hand out to accept her token of appreciation. She pulled the glass toward her, took a drink, then returned to her chair. "Honey, during all the mayhem, I couldn't help but wonder what you would have done if that skunk had sprayed you?" Her concern was overwhelming, "I mean, with no showers or even running water in this campground, there's no way I was going to let you take the van into town, and you sure as heck weren't getting into the Scamp smelling that way." She took another sip of my wine, "I just don't know what you would have done, but it sure would have made for a good story if he sprayed you." She was laughing so hard; she shot a little wine out her nose, which bothered me because a good local cabernet shouldn't be wasted like that.
I'm not sure who won the contest, me or the skunk. Every time I thought I heard a noise in the woods, I snapped my head to look. If the wind wrestled the leaves, I jumped from my chair, reaching for the stick. In the Scamp, with the lights off, I peeked through the curtains, keeping a vigilant watch for my nemesis. Just then, Edgar brushed against my bare leg in the dark, "Sweet Jesus have mercy!" I jumped, hitting my head on the overhead cabinet, and I think I peed a little. It was a restless night, to say the least.
The next day while we were driving, Melissa asked, "Honey, do you remember last night when you were in the stand-off with that skunk."
Even though I had nightmares about that critter, I acted as if I had forgotten all about it, as if it was not a big deal. I rubbed my chin, trying hard to recall the incident, "Oh yes, I vaguely remember. The skunk I chased away when it wandered into our campsite. What about it?"
"Would you be upset if I told you I was secretly hoping the skunk would have sprayed you? That would have been pretty funny."
I enjoy getting out to camp in the wild, but one must be prepared; there are a lot of potential dangers in the woods: bears, bees, skunks, wives…
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I love hearing echoes. As a kid, it didn't seem like my family went to many places where I could hear them, but when we did, I'd bellow all sorts of sounds, then listen to them repeatedly. Sometimes when we were walking home from school, my brother Gerard and I would go by the concrete drainage ditch. If the water was low, I'd push my head through the big grates covering the opening of long culverts that disappeared into the dark underground. "HELLO," I'd call, then listen; "Hello, hello, hello," came my reply. Maybe that's why I got into radio broadcasting – I liked hearing my own voice.
In 1976, my ninth-grade class set out on Ottumwa school's maiden voyage to Washington D.C. When we visited the capitol building, our tour guide had us stand in a particular spot in the rotunda. He went to another area on the other side of the room and spoke softly, but because of the way the sound bounced into the dome and back, we could hear him perfectly where we stood. It seems politicians have been eavesdropping on each other ever since discovering this phenomenon.
Since that trip to Washington, I've traveled all over the country. Along the way, I found many exciting places to throw my voice and hear it return like a boomerang. It fascinates me, like a stone tossed in the water, makes rings until the ripples continue to dissipate slowly. From caves to canyons and valleys – I've enjoyed echoes in some pretty cool places.
My wife and I paddled our canoe into the Boundary Waters to see the pictographs on North Hegman Lake, near Ely, Minnesota. The ancient Native American drawings are said to be over 400-years-old. They're painted high on a stone wall, on the edge of the water. Anytime my paddle bumped against the canoe gunnel, the sound bounced between the wall and the water, creating a sharp echo.
I hear echoes in man-made places too: in a large cathedral, state capitol buildings, hallways with terrazzo floors – even in a bathroom. I've often sang or whistled a tune in a public restroom to enjoy the unique acoustics.
I stood on stage under the bandshell in parks in Mason City, Iowa, and Winona, Minnesota. I spoke toward the back wall; the sound ricocheted and projected my voice outward where the audience would be sitting. Some of the best places to hear an echo are places where I've inadvertently stumbled.
My wife and I were driving from Lake City, CO, to Santa Fe, NM, with plans to stop in Chama for dinner. Chama is a small touristy town with several places to eat, not far from the Colorado-New Mexico state line. We'd heard great reviews on the green chili at one restaurant and wanted to try it.
Chama also has an operating vintage railroad. On scenic rides, train cars are pulled by old steam-powered locomotives. We stopped to watch an engine maneuver in the train yard. Black coal smoke flowed from the chimney of the idled engine. Bright white steam belched near the wheels as the locomotive began to move. The engineer reached up, pulling a chain while he looked out the window, and the train's whistle echoed down the tracks. It was a thrill to watch.
When we got to the restaurant, we found a seat in the dining room. A waitress set menus on our table and quickly moved along. She didn't respond when I greeted her; perhaps she didn't hear me. We sat at the table for well over an hour, and after numerous failed attempts to get waited on, I went to the hostess. She was annoyed by my request for service, "Your waitress will be right with you." Twenty minutes later, we finally decided to leave.
On the way out, the hostess seemed offended that we were leaving, "Did you pay for your drinks," she snapped.
"We didn't have any," I replied, "we were never waited on."
It was noticeably darker outside. Melissa glanced at the time, "Well, that was an hour and twenty minutes of wasted daylight!"
We drove down the highway, enjoying the beautiful New Mexico scenery in what little daylight was left. It was rapidly getting dark, but we could still make out the horizontal ribbons of color in the silhouettes of mountains around us. It was a shame to be making this drive after dark.
A couple of miles later, rounding a corner, Melissa read a small sign, "Hey, look, there's a campground ahead. Let's check it out." We pulled into the Echo Amphitheater Campground in the Carson National Forest. It was dark, and we really couldn't see anything. With a flashlight, we found the registration post. Since we were only planning to get some sleep and head out at dawn, I didn't even disconnect the Scamp from the van.
In the morning, my dog June and I were the first up. We stepped out into the chilly morning desert air. It was after sunrise, but the sun hadn't yet made its way over the mountains to the east. I looked up, turning in a circle, taking in the magical beauty that surrounded me. I was stunned as I turned to the west.
Nature had carved out a massive cove in the side of the mountain, a perfect amphitheater. I looked in awe at this work of natural sculpting set against a perfect blue desert sky. At the top center was a dry stream that would produce waterfalls when it rained. From the mouth of the stream, streaks from minerals naturally stained the face of the rock; it looked like mother nature had spilled a giant can of paint while creating this wonder. June and I started walking that way on the path that went through the woods.
June stopped suddenly, hearing the cry of coyotes echoing through the air. She turned her head back and forth to determine the direction of the predators. It was hard to tell if the sound was coming from the left or the right. All the same, I hesitated to go any further. It would be reckless to lead my dog into a potentially dangerous situation, so we turned back toward the campsite.
Just then, we heard voices coming from the hill, soft laughter, and then the cry of the coyotes returned. June and I made our way to the top of the trail, where we found a young couple sitting with their feet hanging over the rock wall, looking into the amphitheater. The young man had some sort of wooden instrument next to him. It was about three feet long, hollow in the middle, and had all kinds of decorative carvings on the side. I asked him if he would play the instrument for us. "Awesome," he said. "Sometimes people think I'm disturbing nature when I play."
He pointed the instrument toward the dome and blew into it until it made a low bass tone. The sound echoed around the amphitheater. Then he took a deep breath and started making wolf sounds into the end. He'd move the tube from side to side until the echoes created an illusion of an entire wolf pack. He noticed the sounds put June on edge, "Maybe I shouldn't do that," he said.
It was time to go, "June, come on, girl; we need to go." My dog was confused. She looked at me, then left and right, then back at me, trying to figure out how I was calling her from several different places. When I saw this, I had to mess with her for just a bit. I said farewell to the young couple, then June and I started down the trail. "Let's go get Mom to see this," I told her.
Melissa, June, and I hiked back up the trail. At the top, the clicking of the shutter echoed as she began taking photos with her camera.
Another couple walked up with an Australian cattle dog mix on a leash. Both dogs growled a bit, which echoed, causing each of them to look to see if more dogs were coming. The dogs got along and began to play when we let them off their leashes. June found a stick and brought it to me to throw. When I did, both dogs went after the stick. "Oh June, it looks like you have some competition!" The dogs played, and we talked with the other couple for a while. Melissa pointed to the sky.
Ravens were flying overhead, enjoying the morning as well. They would fly into the amphitheater and call out, "Rawk, rawk, rawk." It sounded like there was an entire conspiracy of ravens with the echo, all though there were only three. Ravens are such characters; Melissa assured us they were doing it on purpose just to hear their own voices. Maybe the ravens wanted to become radio broadcasters, too.
The whole experience at the Echo Amphitheater was fantastic, the sights, the sounds, the feel – it was one I'll remember forever.
Had it not been for the ladies at the restaurant wasting an hour and twenty minutes of our daylight, we might have driven past it unnoticed. Who knows, maybe on the way home, we'll stop at that restaurant in Chama to thank them and give it another try. We've heard the green chili is really good.
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I drove a 1974 Chevy Nova in high school. It was burgundy with a black vinyl top; it had a 350 V-8 motor, and boy could that car go. One day I took it into my auto mechanic's class to tweak the engine timing – it didn't need it, but that's what high school boys did.
I set down the timing gun and took a moment to quiz Mr. Corbet, my auto mechanics teacher: "So, all GM products have teeth on one side of the key, and it goes in the ignition with the teeth down." He concurred, and I continued, "All Chrysler products have teeth on one side, which point up when you put the key in the ignition." Again, he agreed. "Do you know why Ford products have teeth on both sides of the key?"
"I spect that's just the way it is," he replied, then to assure I wasn't wasting valuable shop time, "Do you have a point to make?"
"Yeah, a Ford has teeth on both sides of the key because people who drive Fords aren't smart enough to know which way the key goes in." I laughed and waited for his response.
Mr. Corbet was all about Chevrolet. He laughed for a moment, then scowled, "Mr. Palen, if you don't have anything better to do, you can sweep the classroom and the shop."
I pointed to my Chevy, "I was just adjusting the timing on my car - but did you like the joke?"
"Then get to it, Palen. This is Vocational Auto Mechanic's class, not Comedy 101. But if you'd like to transfer, I can arrange it." I walked back to my Nova, feeling pretty smitten with myself. Even briefly, I made him laugh.
There were other acronyms for Fords: Fix Or Repair Daily, and Found On the Road Dead. Ironically, not long after high school, Ford products became my brand of choice – and still are today. But, speaking of found on the road, lately, I've been noticing more things along the roadways that cause me to wonder.
For example, on highway 53 heading into Superior, I saw five orange life jackets together in the ditch on the side of the road. I imagined someone heading for the north shore had a flat tire, set them aside while getting out the jack and spare tire, and then drove off without them. They would undoubtedly be frustrated when they arrived at their favorite lake to go fishing – and lost their life jackets.
I followed a utility service truck out of Two Harbors. The driver had groceries in the open space between the tool cabinets on each side. A twelve-pack of Pepsi was bouncing on top of his tools; I was worried that it would bounce out. I wanted to get alongside him to let the driver know, but we were in a construction zone on Highway 61 with single-lane traffic.
The blue cardboard carton took one final bounce, jumped over his short tailgate, and burst open on the new asphalt. Cans of soda skipped and scattered about the road. Pop, pop, fsh, fsh, pop. Five or six cans exploded as I crushed them with my tires. "Man, he's going to be bummed when he gets home, and his Pepsi is missing."
A large cushion with a vintage floral pattern was lying in the ditch on I-35 not far from Duluth. It must have blown out of someone's vehicle while moving their couch. I hoped it wasn't from an heirloom they'd inherited from grandma.
I saw a half-dozen eight-foot, 2X6' boards scattered on the right shoulder; with today's lumber prices, that's quite a loss. A few miles farther, a small red tabletop grill with a busted bag of black charcoal briquettes littered the shoulder. I always feel bad for people when I see things they've lost on the road – I genuinely feel their frustration and loss.
A couple of months ago, I found a classic 1977 Kawasaki KZ650 for sale in Wisconsin. It was love at first sight in very good, original condition; bright metallic blue with red and gold pin-stripping, bright white lettering on the gas tank and side covers, and shiny chrome tailpipes and fender. It was identical to the motorcycle I bought new when I was in high school. The seller and I agreed on a price. We loaded it into my van, and I took the motorcycle home.
The first time I took the bike out, I planned to ride to Grand Marais, Minnesota, and maybe to Grand Portage and the Canadian border. Right after turning north on Highway 61, I passed a group of southbound Harleys. They all gave me the two-fingers down sign as they passed, meaning be safe, keep both wheels on the ground - a friendly greeting between bikers. It felt good to share it again.
Riding this 650 was as big a thrill now as ever. With the wind was blowing through my hair, I was on a natural high, as high as one can be. I stopped at Buck's Hardware in Grand Marais to buy a pair of gloves. I walked out with my gloves, excited and ready to keep riding toward Canada. When I looked out to admire my beautiful machine, my heart sank. I felt like someone punched me in the gut when I noticed I had lost my right-side cover.
Literally feeling sick, I empathized with the people who lost their life jackets, a grill, or several boards. The person who lost the floral couch cushion can't just go to the store and buy a matching replacement. The same was true for my forty-four-year-old Kawasaki side cover. Feeling deflated, I decided to go home.
On the way home, I watched for my cover. Over the next several days, I walked or rode my bicycle, searching in vain; the cover fell off somewhere along a fifty-mile stretch of highway. Finally, I surrendered, "It would take a search party combing these ditches to find it." That gave me an idea.
I contacted the state of Minnesota to see if the Adopt-a-Highway groups might come across it while picking up litter from the highway. Hopefully, they would find it before a DOT mower came along and chopped the side cover to smithereens.
Several days later, I talked to the guy mowing for the state and asked if he'd keep an eye out for it. Certainly, sitting high up in his tractor cab, he would see my side cover. I even posted on several social media sites, offering a reward to anyone who found it.
The truth is, I was searching for a needle in a haystack, and it wasn't looking very promising. I knew it was lost forever and began looking online for a replacement. I couldn't help but think of all the strange things I saw on the side of the road while walking; I was disgusted by the amount of garbage people throw out their windows, but that's a whole story in itself.
Speaking of things on the side of the road, I was heading north to Duluth a couple of weeks ago. It was dusk when smoke began billowing out from around my engine. "What the heck?" I immediately thought the engine was overheating, but my engine temperature gauge was showing normal. So I pulled off the road, turned on my flashers, and popped the hood.
The smell was pungent but not like antifreeze or smoke from a fire. I dipped my fingers into the liquid on the ground. "Transmission fluid under the radiator? Oh, this is not good." I called Triple-A for a tow truck. Fortunately, my membership includes RV towing as I was pulling a Scamp at the time. Not knowing my exact location, I told the operator I was just a few miles north of Hinckley, Minnesota, northbound. After a brief hold, they told me it would be thirty-five minutes for the wrecker to arrive.
Not far ahead, a green mile marker sign reflected the headlights of passing cars. I walked until I could read the sign, then called Triple-A again. I gave the operator my service order number and told her I was at mile marker 186. She thanked me for the location update, "We haven't found anyone to tow your vehicle yet."
"What do you mean?" I was concerned, "The last operator I spoke with said the wrecker would be here in thirty-five minutes." The operator said that towing service declined the job; they didn't want to pull the camper; they would call me as soon as they found someone that would. Great. Hurry up and wait.
I started laughing, "Found On the Road Dead," I said aloud, "and this isn't even a Ford; it's a Dodge." About then, red and blue flashing lights were reflecting brightly in my side mirror. This is not something you want to see if you've been speeding, but man, was I happy to see them when I was stranded.
Trooper Sarah asked me what was going on. "I think I blew the transmission," I told her.
"Do you have a wrecker coming?" I explained the situation. "Let me see what I can do for you," she said, "Can I see your driver's license please?" She took my license and went back to her patrol car. I knew what she was doing.
Even though I hadn't done anything illegal, an officer will always report the vehicle plate number to the dispatcher. They'll also check to ensure no warrants for my arrest exist. Of course, some people get offended by this – but I'm thankful they do it; it's a big part of keeping the public safe.
The officer returned to my window about ten minutes later. "Keith's towing is on the way from Hinckley; it will be about thirty minutes," she said, "I would stay here with you, but I have to respond to another call." She handed me my license, told me to be safe, and rushed off with all her lights on.
The wrecker arrived. While the driver was e was working, I noticed headlights setting back away on the shoulder behind us. "That's the state trooper." He said, "She's got her lights on to mark us for oncoming traffic." He loaded my truck onto the roll-back, then connected the Scamp, and away we went back to Hinckley, where the driver dropped me off at the Days Inn motel.
"You can call in the morning if you'd like our service shop department to look at your transmission," the driver said. I took his card, thanked him, and went into the motel with my iPad, charging cord, and cell phone. I didn't plan on an overnight stay and had nothing else with me.
My room was clean and comfortable. A handwritten note from housekeeping welcomed me and thanked me for staying. "I would rather be staying here for better reasons," I said and went to sleep.
In the morning I called the repair shop. The mechanic had to order a new radiator, and it wouldn't be in until the next day. Dang. It would be three hours before my wife would arrive to get me. It was a fiasco, but in the end, everything worked out.
Two weeks later, we were in our van headed for Colorado. While driving through heavy rains on I-35 south, the motor started running roughly, and the check engine light came on. Great! I stopped at a gas station near Hinckley of all places, checked the oil and coolant levels. Both were good, and the engine resumed running smoothly, so we continued on.
I hoped we would make it to the twin cities; if not, I would call for another tow. I chuckled, thinking, "Found On the Road Dead – and this time it is my Ford." Finally, we made it to an auto parts store, letting me use their code reader.
"You're showing a recurring misfire on cylinder number five. You need a new coil pack," the parts guy said. It was after five; I asked him if he knew anyone who could change it for me. "Change it yourself. It's not hard," he said. He handed me the part and loaned me a wrench.
I raised the hood and thought back to my high school auto mechanic's class. I could imagine Mr. Corbet saying, "Change it yourself, Palen. It's not difficult." Then he leaned in to observe my work. First, I removed the old coil, but the new part had a different size connector. The clerk said it should be the right part, but they didn't have another one in stock, but a store a few miles away did. So I reinstalled the old coil and drove to the other store, where I installed the correct part.
Mr. Corbet said, "Very nice, now start the engine." So I did, and it ran smoothly as could be. "I told you, you could do it." We were on the road again, just a few hours late.
About seventy miles before Ridgeway State Park in Colorado, signs indicated Highway 550 would be closed ahead for construction until 6:30 the following morning. So we pulled off to sleep in the camper rather than taking a long detour through the mountains after dark. In the morning, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise over Blue Mesa Reservoir. We arrived at the campground, set up the Scamp, then drove into Montrose for supplies.
On the way to Montrose, my Ford van started to overheat. "You've got to be kidding me?" I recalled the acronym "Fix Or Repair Daily." We called several repair shops, each told me it would be anywhere from ten to thirty days before they could look at the van.
The man at Elk Creek Automotive said I could come by, and they would at least look at it to see what the problem was. We made it to the shop; the water pump was leaking. This was not something I would fix in an auto parts store parking lot with a borrowed wrench. The mechanics were able to put a temporary fix on it to drive back to the campground. The owner said they could order the part and squeeze me in on Monday morning to help us out. I was beyond grateful.
First a radiator, then a coil pack, and now a water pump. If bad things come in threes, I should be good to go for a while, auto repair-wise. Despite the car troubles, I was feeling pretty good.
When leaving home for Colorado, I told Melissa I needed to pick something up by the turn-off at Little Marais before we go. About an hour earlier, my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number but decided to answer the call. "This is Jason with M-DOT," I wondered; who do I know from the DOT, and why are they calling me?
"You stopped me a couple of weeks ago and told me about the cycle part you'd lost. This morning I came across your card and wondered if you ever found it?" I told him I had not.
"I was mowing along 61 today, getting ready to make my turn around, when I saw something blue laying way down in the tall grass. I found your side cover. I stopped just before it went through the mower." I was shocked! I had already given up on the idea of it being found.
"I can't believe it! You found the needle in a haystack." I anxiously told Jason I would come to get it before we left town. I tried not to get my hopes too high, and I didn't tell Melissa, "What if it's not my side cover? I'm sure other bikers have lost them too."
When Jason opened his toolbox, my eyes lit up. He took out a bright metallic blue side cover with red and gold pin-stripping and bright white letters, KZ650. I asked if I could give him something for finding it, "No sir, I'm just glad to help you get it back."
I thanked him again. Grinning from ear to ear, and carried my side cover back to the van.
I hope the other people can recover items they'd lost along the road. Especially the one who lost the vintage floral pattern cushion. Like my side cover, they won't find a replacement at the store – but maybe someone like Jason will come across it and go out of their way to help get it back to them.
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Through a combined series of misfortunes, distractions, and sheer stupidity on my part, I managed to burn two gallons of homemade chili in the pot on the stove. The putrid burnt flavor made its way through the whole pot, so I threw away the chili. I scraped an inch of burned beans, meat, and tomatoes from the bottom of the pan, exposing that really hard, burned black stuff. Charcoal had nothing on this pan. I put some soap and water in the pan and left it to soak overnight.
I went back the following day, looked into the pan assessing the damages, and decided to just throw it away. That's when it happened.
I heard my mother's voice saying, "Don't you dare! You get over to that sink and clean that pan right now."
I sassed back, "You can't tell me what to do. I am an adult now!"
I could feel Mom’s presence as I scrubbed on the charred bottom of the pan, I tried to reason with her, "Look at this mess – let's just throw the pan away and get another one."
It was an expensive pan, a nice stainless steel ten-quart pot with sturdy side handles, and a vented glass lid. My wife bought it for me as a gift. I was sure it was ruined. "Keep scrubbing." I heard the voice say.
"It's not coming out," was my plea of defense.
"Use Comet," she replied.
I argued, "but it's…"
I scrubbed and scrubbed that pan with Comet and a green scratchy pad, then rinsed the pan. Then, feeling it was good enough, I started to put it in the strainer when the voice clarified, "It’s not clean. There's still more in the pan." Admittedly, there were still a few black spots.
Again, considering throwing the pot away, I looked over both shoulders. I couldn’t see her, but still I was sure Mom was watching from somewhere around the corner to see that this didn't happen.
After the final scrubbing, I rinsed the pan. Finally, I looked into the bottom of a once again shiny stainless-steel pan. I felt a warm pat on my shoulder, and heard a softer voice asking, "Now, aren't you glad you didn't throw away that perfectly good pan?"
I took another glance over my shoulder. No one was there. I examined my fingertips; they were pink and tender from scrubbing with the abrasives. My wrist ached a bit from the odd angle used reaching into the deep pot. I quipped to myself, "People should not be able to talk from the grave."
The voice replied, "I heard that too."
As I dried the pan, I thought about how much I miss those days in the kitchen with my mom and the lessons she taught me. They were lessons about cooking and cleaning, right from wrong, living, loving, and believing. Lessons about not wasting anything – food, or pans.
It's been over 20 years now since she passed away. From time to time, Mom still stops into my kitchen, offering me some remedial training. You know, people like mom, who've passed before us, don't talk from the grave – they continue to speak through the heart.
Melissa walked into the kitchen. I smiled, showing her the pan, and proudly said, "Look, I got it clean."
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I tried something different a couple of weeks ago, leaving home about ten minutes earlier to go to mass. Doing so allowed me to hear something which I'd not heard for a while.
The morning air was mild, with freshness coming in off Lake Superior. I arrived in Two Harbors at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in time to hear the church bells ringing before mass.
The bell tower stood tall against the sky; a few white clouds accented the beautiful shade of morning blue. I paused on my way and watched as the bells in the open tower rang out their call for the morning gathering. It was spiritually moving.
A younger girl wearing a pretty blue dress was kneeling on the sidewalk several feet in front of the large wooden front doors of the historic brick church. I wasn't sure what she was doing. Finally, she stood up, revealing a cat at her left side, which she had been petting.
The cat was a lovely grey tortoiseshell, speckled with yellow and orange on her soft fur coat. She seemed to be clean and well cared for.
The cat wore a red collar and was well-mannered and friendly. When the little girl stood up, then it moved on, looking for someone else who would give her some attention; a simple rub on the head would do.
Although it was the first time I had ever seen this cat, I heard someone say it was a neighbor's cat who often showed up on Sunday mornings. Like a mass greeter, the feline welcomed parishioners as they arrived.
I walked in through the front doors and climbed the flight of stairs. On this occasion of being early for mass, I met Father Steve standing in the vestibule. Usually, when I arrive, he is already on the altar.
"Good morning," I said to him, "There's a cat outside the front doors greeting the people." Father Steve looked down the steps and out the open doors. He didn't seem surprised by the cat's presence, but unlike me, Father Steve is always there before mass starts, so he's probably seen the cat before.
I couldn't restrain myself, "He must be Catholic, wouldn't you think?"
Like the response one would expect after telling a corny 'Dad Jake,' Father Steve gave a soft, groaning chuckle. "That's a good one," he said. With a few more minutes until the opening hymn, I went into the church and found a seat.
I appreciate a priest who can draw the attention of his parishioners by talking about something in current times. And then ties it together with biblical events that happened two thousand years ago. Father Steve got the congregation's attention when he talked about an early scene in Saving Private Ryan, the movie. He then related what happened in that scene to the Gospel, when Jesus restored a deaf man's hearing and removed his speech impediment.
Jesus and Private Miller, from the movie scene Father Steve spoke of, both distanced themselves from the crowd and the noise. They each sought some time alone or one-on-one time with another person. We all need that sometimes. But, there was much more to his sermon.
It was an excellent sermon, straightforward and easy enough for anyone to relate to. I wished everyone could have heard it. Father Steve's message would be beneficial in helping people deal with the crazy events of the world today - even that cat that hung out in front of the church, seeking attention.
The following week, I had intended to get to church a little early again. But, for all my good intentions, it didn't happen. I was late – again.
Many cars were parked on the street; I had to park a couple of blocks away from the church. Walking down the sidewalk alone, I reflected on last Sunday morning; how peaceful it was on that beautiful day even with people all around, and how good it was to be a little early.
On this day, the sky was just as blue when I looked up to the bell tower, but the bells were done ringing; still, I could hear them in my mind.
No people were gathered visiting on the front walk, and the little girl in the blue dress wasn't there. So I said to myself, "I wonder where everyone is?" I suppose they were already inside.
I could hear the pipe organ playing and the people singing the opening hymn through the open front doors as I got closer to the church building. Although I was alone on the walk, I felt the presence of another. "Is that you Lord," I asked softly.
It was about then that I noticed the grey cat with the yellow and orange speckles, wearing a red collar. She was walking on the sidewalk, coming toward me. "No, it's me," she said, "and you're late, sir."
The cat and I shared a good laugh about that. I took a moment, reaching down to give her a rub on the head. She paused to accept my attention and pushed her face into my hand for a good scratch on the cheek. "All the other people went inside already," she told me, "You better get going."
I enjoyed arriving early for mass the week before, but being a few minutes late gave me a little quiet time alone. I also had a moment alone with the church cat on the sidewalk. I recalled Father Steve's sermon from the week before; sometimes, we all need a little alone time or one-on-one time with another. Today, I got both.
Next week, I think I'll arrive a little early for mass. Maybe there will be time to tell Father Steve another corny little joke before mass. But, in case I don't make it early, I think I'll take one of our cats, Edgar Allan's, treats with me – on the chance I might meet the church cat on the sidewalk again.
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About ten years ago, or so, my brother Danny planted a variety of fruit trees. The peach trees seemed to fair well with the climate at his southern Iowa home. Occasionally, we get to reap the benefits of his harvest.
Dan brought a large bag of fresh peaches with him when he came up to Minnesota. He arrived at our house around ten-thirty at night, and I ate two peaches before bed.
A couple of days later, I took a road trip to southern Minnesota with my granddaughters. We packed a lunch and some snacks for the ride. Dan prepared a peach for each girl, putting the pieces in two small plastic containers. When we stopped to eat, the girls were thrilled with the surprise. Addison ate about half her fruit. Evelyn ate all her's, then asked Addie if she could have the rest of her peaches; Addison gave them to her. Good, ripe peaches are magical; they put people in a happy, loving mood, and these were good peaches.
A short time later, four-year-old Evelyn struck up a conversation in the car, "Hey Papa, guess what."
Sensing a possibility of being pranked, I answered cautiously, "What."
Evelyn said, "Your daughter Sydney (her mom), Aunt Delaney, and Aunt Annie are pretty."
I smiled while looking at her in the rearview mirror, "What about Nana Mac?"
Ev quickly responded, "Oh yes, she is very pretty, and June Bug is very pretty too."
Addison piped in, "And Edgar is cute."
I quizzed Addie, "Edgar's not pretty?"
"No, he's a boy," Addison answered as if I should already know this. "Boys aren't pretty; they're cute. Edgar is a cute cat." I agreed.
"Wait a minute," I muttered under my breath, "they addressed everyone in the family except me, even the dog and cat. What am I, chopped liver?" Maybe it was the sweetness of the peaches, and extra peaches at that, which inspired Evelyn's nice compliments. We finished our travels, then headed home.
I thought more about Danny and his peach trees; I don't know their variety, but I wouldn't mind having a couple of peach trees in my yard. Although I'm not sure they would survive the harsh winters of northern Minnesota, it couldn't hurt to try growing them indoors to start.
A few weeks earlier, I had purchased some Colorado peaches at a fundraiser for the Encounter Youth Center in downtown Duluth. After eating the peaches, which were terrific, I dried the pits, cracked them open, and retrieved the seeds from the center; I was surprised how small they were compared to the pit. But that wasn't the first time a small seed baffled me.
A few years ago, I met my friend Tony when I delivered a trailer to him on the west coast of northern California. Tony gave me a tour around his yard. Living in the Redwood Forest, he had sequoias in his yard, over one hundred feet tall! I was amazed at how tiny the pinecones were lying on the ground beneath the trees. I mean, these came from trees that are of the largest in the world. So I asked Tony if I could take a couple of pinecones for the seeds.
Tony said the seeds in those cones had already been eaten by squirrels and birds and such, but when the new pinecones fell, he would harvest some seeds for me. He did and sent them to me, but I failed to plant them and doubted they would germinate after two years in an envelope. I thought about trying to grow them anyway.
Planting new trees from seeds would be a good idea right now, especially with the wildfires that continue to burn through Minnesota's north woods. Fire is nature's way of cleaning the forest, making way for new growth; I understand that - still, it's scary! Some of those fires are only about twenty-five miles north of our house. We've been in a drought all summer, and the winds have been brisk, so we've been monitoring the fire's movement daily.
It's very cool, almost poetic, that amid all these trees burning near us, I got an envelope/postcard from Tony in the mail. Inside were more sequoia seeds; on the outside of the package were directions on how to plant them. And, so the process begins.
I'm planting sequoias to start my career as a tree farmer. I know these trees will not withstand Minnesota winters. And peach trees that most likely will not either. With this in mind, it would seem futile to even try, but…
If the seeds germinate, I will transplant the redwood trees into pots, and when they grow a foot or so tall, I'll give most of them away as gifts, keeping a couple of them in the house for myself. Maybe when they get big enough, I'll decorate them with colorful lights, ornaments, and shiny tinsel every year around Christmas time. Then, when they get as tall as the ceiling, I'll have to give them to someone in a suitable climate that could plant them outdoors.
I had a funny vision that I was away from home for a while, and when I returned, the sequoias had grown, pushing their way through the ceiling and rooftop. Like in the story, Jack and the Beanstalk. They were growing taller than the pine trees in our yard. Maybe one day I could climb them through the clouds, all the way to the sky where I'd find a hen that laid golden eggs.
The peach trees could present a problem. Protected from the outside elements, I could imagine them growing in pots and producing fruit in our three-seasons room. June would be in paradise. Thinking she had her own grove of tennis ball trees, she'd jump up and pull soft fuzzy peaches from the branches, then look for someone to throw them for her. Well, I'm getting way ahead of myself here. First, I'll have to see if the seeds will germinate.
I decided to keep some pits from Danny's peaches to plant along with the Colorado peaches. I'll keep you posted on how this all turns out.
I don't know anyone who doesn't like peaches. They make people happy and happy people are more friendly. That's why they call a nice person "a real peach."
My granddaughter is a peach. It was fun to hear Evelyn's compliments after eating a peach. I'll bet Tony likes peaches too.
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Last Thursday, a person commented on one of my stories: "These are all stories. Nice stories, but totally made up. Urban legends in a way." Totally made up? Ouch! I've literally spent my life living these stories – all true stories that really happened.
I'll often quote things said by my dog June and cat Edgar Allan. Doubters will say dogs and cats don't talk; I'll openly confess that I take the liberty of translating what they say into English for people to understand. Then I quote John Denver's song, Boy from the Country: "He tried to tell us that the animals could speak. Who knows, perhaps they do, I know they do. How do you know they don't, just because they've never spoken to you?"
My stories are true, and I'm sorry this person felt they're made up. But, all the same, I shouldn't worry about it. I know the truth; and, they're entitled to their thoughts and to express them. But admittedly, I was letting it bother me, and I need to focus on what I was doing.
I talked with a man about buying his camper that was for sale, and I needed to get ready for my trip, leaving early Friday morning to go look at it. Although I'd rather avoid Chicago traffic, finding a Scamp with the floor plan I wanted made it worth driving through the Windy City.
The journey would give me ten hours of windshield time, also known as thinking time – of which I spent way too much stewing over that person's comment. Finally, I arrived at the man's house Friday evening. Everything was just as he had described it. (I love honest people!) We finished our business deal, hitched the trailer to my van, and I started for home.
My home was another ten hours of driving away. Obviously, I wouldn't make it all the way, but I wanted to get north of Chicago to avoid the morning traffic. I was still wide awake, feeling so good about finding this camper. I drove through the big city, all the way past Madison, and finally stopped near the Wisconsin Dells, at a rest area where I got a good night's sleep. The following morning, I decided to treat myself to a nice breakfast.
I pulled into a Denny's Restaurant, which was attached to a large truck stop. There was a single black ankle sock in the driveway between the gas pump islands and the store. It was laid out perfectly as if someone was going to press it with a hot iron. It must have been run over by dozens of cars as it had tire tracks and was mashed as flat as could be. It just looked odd laying there; I stopped briefly to study it, then went inside.
I asked the waitress for a seat at the counter, then ordered a big breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, toast, hash browns, and pancakes. Remember, I was treating myself. After placing my order, I got another treat when the man next to me struck up a conversation. Meet Dave.
Contently satisfied, Dave wiped his mouth with his napkin, then laid it on his plate. As the waitress gathered his dishes, he said, "You tell the cook that was the best sirloin I've had in years, and I've had a lot of steaks. It was perfect." Then he addresses me, "I don't know what you're having, but you can't go wrong with the steak." I told him I'd already ordered cakes and eggs. He shook his head as if I should reconsider, "You're missing out."
Dave was older than me. As he drank his coffee, he told me he drove a school bus. "It gives me something to do. I retired after forty years as a salesman with the National Cash Register company." Dave had lived in Ohio, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Arkansas, and more during his career. Since both of us traveled extensively around the country, we had many tales to share. But, no matter whose turn it was to tell a story, they all seemed to start the same; "Have you ever been to…"
"You ever been to Detroit," Dave asked?
"I went to a Lion's game a long time ago, but I usually just drive through. I love Michigan, especially the UP, but Detroit isn't my favorite place."
Dave jumped in, "Well, you're not missing much. That city has always had a problem with crime. The interstates and major roads are in a hole, low spots. When it rains heavily, the roads flood. At least they did when I was there in '75. If you hit the water going too fast, your engine could stall out. Anyway, you didn't want to stop on those roads for anything. Raining or not, there were always thieves and thugs around.
"Well, I was late for a meeting at the office one morning, and I'm never late; we had too many meetings, but that's not the point here.
"When I finally got there, the meeting was almost over. I'd left my jacket in the car. I was hot and sweaty, and my hair was a mess. My white shirt was partially untucked; I had dirt and grease all over it and my suit pants; we all wore suits back then.
"Everyone asked, 'Where've you been?' and 'What happened to you?' They all assumed I had trouble because it was raining and figured the roads were flooded.
"So, I told them I had a flat on the highway; it was the front tire on the driver's side. Anyway, I got my jack and tire iron and loosened all the lug nuts before I jacked the car up, then I went back to the trunk to get my spare tire. When I was rolling the tire around to the front of the car, my hood was up. I said to myself, 'What the heck? I didn't put the hood up.' So I went to close the hood, and there was a punk up there bent over my engine.' What do you think you're doing,' I asked him.
"He looked surprised by my question. He stood up and said, 'Since you're taking the wheels, I thought I'd take the battery.'" Dave and I shared a real hardy laugh about that; I could tell he'd laughed a million times telling that story – it was a good one!
I asked Dave if he'd watched the movie Smokey and the Bandit, "Many times. It's a great movie."
"Your story reminds me of the bride who stopped her car on the side of the road, then hopped into the Trans Am with the Bandit. As soon as they sped away, the Dodge van pulled up, and the guys jumped out to start stripping the car."
"Yeah! It was just like that!" Dave recalled as we shared another good laugh.
Dave looked at his watch, drank the last swallow of coffee, set the cup on the counter, and picked up his ticket. He spun around on his stool and stood up, "Well, I've got to get going. It was fun chatting with you."
We said our farewells, and he walked toward the door. I looked over my shoulder to see him at the front counter. It looked like he was telling the cashier a story. I laughed, wondering if maybe he was telling her that he'd sold Denny's the cash register she was using?
Another man came in and sat at the counter on the second stool to my right. I was just finishing my last bite of pancakes when he asked me, "Did you have the steak? I wonder how it is today."
"Nope, cakes and eggs. But I heard the sirloin steak was really good." I picked up my ticket, "Have a good day." I said to the man, then headed for the register.
When I walked outside, a quite round, elderly gentleman with a cane was bent over at the waist trying to pick something up from the ground, but he couldn't reach it. The walk was a ramp sloping downhill toward the driveway, and he was leaning way forward. Then, finally, he stood up, kicked at it, then bent over to try again. "Dang it. Just forget it, I can't pick it up," he said disappointed, talking to himself while slowly standing up again.
I leaned down, picked up the shiny dime in front of his left foot, and handed it to him. "Sure you can," I said, "we all need a little help sometimes." We shared a laugh about that.
He was offering me the coin, "You picked it up; you may as well keep it." Then added, "I just can't stand to walk by a coin laying on the ground."
"Me neither, but you saw it first, so rightfully, it's your dime."
He slipped the dime into his pocket, smiling, "Well, thanks, I'll keep it."
Feeling like I had just made his day, I walked to my van with a spirited step.
Because I was pulling a trailer, the van was parked on the far side of the lot. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to buy a bottle of water for the trip home, so I walked back to the convenience store.
A guy was standing in the middle of the driveway looking at the black sock. I stopped and looked at the abandoned garment with him, then broke the silence. "I hope the dude wasn't wearing it when this happened." We shared a laugh about that.
With a somber tone, as if to offer a memorial service, he asked, "Do you suppose we should say a few words, then put it in the trash can?"
"What? And spoil the fun for everyone else coming by wondering what happened? No way, man." We shared another laugh. I got my bottle of water, then hit the road.
A couple of hours up the highway, I heard a clanking metallic noise. It sounded like my trailer's safety chains were dragging on the pavement. I turned down the radio and looked in the side mirror. That's when I noticed the car passing me in the left lane, pulling a rental trailer. His chains were dragging, and one of them had actually worn in two.
I accelerated to catch up to them. I tapped the horn to get the passenger's attention. When she looked at me, with exaggerated mouth movement, I said, "Your safety chains are loose," while pointing to the back of their car. I wasn't sure she understood what I was saying, so I waved my hand, motioning them to follow me. There was an off-ramp right there, so I pulled off, and they followed – the car behind them did too.
We stopped on the shoulder and examined the broken chains. The man explained the people at the rental shop connected the chains. "They shouldn't have let you leave with the chains that loose." I told them I'd rented a lot of trailers, and knew how to fix the problem and get them back safely on the road, then asked, "Do you have a pair of pliers?"
He told his son, the younger man in the second car, to bring me the tool. But, unfortunately, his pliers were too small. So I went to my van a grabbed a couple of tools. We shortened the chains to a proper length and reattached them to the car.
The lady thanked me, "I'm so glad you took time to wave us over. That would have ruined our vacation if that trailer came loose. I hate to think what could have happened." Then, with the chains securely attached, we were all on our way. I drove away first.
On the highway, the car with the trailer was passing me again in the left lane. The lady looked at me, patted her chest, then, with an exaggerated movement of her mouth, said, "Thank you. Thank you." I smiled and waved as they went by. Crisis averted.
As I drove home, I reflected on the events of the day and all the friendly people I had come across. I had to put this into a story. Then I started thinking about the person who said my stories were all "totally made up." I began to feel bitter about the comment.
What about Dave and his adventure with the flat tire and the battery. I'm sure some would say he made it up – but I believed his story; every word because it came from his heart.
My emotions became thankful instead of feeling offended; because I have truly been blessed to live these stories my whole life.
I swear, it's true – all these things, and more, really happened in one day, and I couldn't wait to get home to tell June all about it. I already knew what she would say, "Gee, Dad, I sure wish I would have been with you."
Oh, and to the skeptics who don't believe my dog June talks: how do you know she doesn't, just because she's never spoken to you?
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Being the second youngest of eleven children, you could say my father-in-law comes from a rather large family. He and his siblings take turns organizing and hosting the Carlo Family Reunion. With his brothers and sisters, their children, spouses, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, it's a lot of people. To keep one person or family from bearing the duty of all the cooking, everyone brings a dish, side, dessert, or something for the dinner. It turns out to be an annual celebration where everyone eats very well.
I was making rolls for the Carlo Family reunion and having so much fun, I got carried away and made way too many! Eventually, I ran out of pans to bake them. I could have frozen the rest, but I prefer rolls to be made fresh for every meal. After filling my last two round cake pans, I still had a lot more dough. I needed to give some of these away.
I went to a couple of friends' houses to borrow a pan and a clean dish towel from each, then returned a short time later with a pan of rolls and baking instructions. I still had more dough at home.
I went to my neighbor's house. Francisco speaks very little English, and I speak even less Spanish. Still, we communicate well enough for our occasional meetings/bull sessions in the back alley. I knocked on his door to explain that I wanted to give them some rolls. He didn't understand.
His wife came to the door to see if she could help, but I think she speaks less English than Francisco. I asked if they had a nine by thirteen-inch cake pan. They didn't understand. He leaned on the banister and called up the open stairwell for his daughter.
His daughter, probably ten or eleven years old, came down the stairs with a youthful spring in her step. "Si Papa." He explained what he wanted, and she attempted to translate for us, but she didn't know what I meant either. "A nine by thirteen-inch baking pan? Do you mean a cookie sheet," she asked?
"Kind of, but it's deeper," I answered, holding my fingers to indicate two-inch sides. Her mom came from the kitchen with various cookie sheets, cake pans, muffin tins, and bakeware.
I nodded my head and took the rectangular pan she was holding. I told them I would bring it right back. "You want to borrow," Francisco asked?
"No," I replied, "I'm going to bring it right back with rolls in it."
He still didn't know what I meant but graciously offered to let me keep the pan, "Okay. You have it."
Then I asked if they had a clean dish towel that I could use to cover the rolls. Again, I didn't know the Spanish word for towel, and Francisco didn't know what I was asking for. His daughter had already returned upstairs, so I smiled, "I'll be right back."
I filled the pan with fifteen rolls and covered them with one of our clean dish towels. When I returned to Francisco's door with the pan covered with a green checked towel, he smiled, "Oh, Toalla." I assumed that to be Spanish for a towel. I lifted the corner of the checked cloth to show him the rolls inside. His eyes lit up, "Aah!" With this new visual, he understood what I had been trying to tell them. His wife waved for me to bring the pan to the kitchen.
I pointed to their wall clock to help communicate times. Using hand gestures, I said, "The rolls needed to raise for about 30 minutes under the towel," while running my finger from the twelve to the six. "Then bake them at 400 degrees (I pointed to the oven temperature setting, held up four fingers, then made two zero signs) for twelve to fifteen minutes" (pointing again to the clock). His wife nodded as I spoke. Finally, we all seemed to understand.
I went back to my kitchen, formed the remaining dough into rolls filling a pie pan. I covered them with another towel. They just needed to rise, then I could bake them and be off to the family reunion.
The next afternoon I went to Francisco's house to retrieve my towel. He was working in his shed. When he saw me coming, he walked out to cheerfully greet me in the driveway. I asked him how the rolls turned out. He nodded and said, "Very, very good." He smiled and continued, "They no more. They all gone." Waving his hands like an umpire making a safe call at home plate, he repeated, "All gone, right away. My wife bake, and they all gone. We eat them all." That made me smile.
A sparkle came over his soft brown eyes. He patted his chest over his heart and said, "My mom in Mexico make very the same. Just like my Mama." A tear welled up in his eyes. Although we spoke different languages, I could see in his eyes and hear in his voice – very fond memories had been rekindled.
Francisco took my hand with his right hand and affectionately covering it with his left. Then, while shaking my hand, still with that look in his eye, he said, "Gracias. Mucho gracias mi amigo." I understood that very clearly. Then he gave me a hug.
Feeling the depth of sentiment within his embrace, I fought back a tear of my own. Who knew one extra pan of rolls could bring another man such joy? When he let me go, I said, "You're welcome. I will make more for you sometime." Francisco smiled. They say the smile is a universal language. His hug and smile said it all.
When we allow communications to come earnestly from the heart, in both talking and listening, in giving and receiving – speaking different languages cannot stand as a barrier.
On that day, everyone was understood; love was felt. We said our farewells, and I left, forgetting all about the green checkered dish towel I went to retrieve. My heart was so full I thought it could burst. Grinning all the way home, I walked up the alley feeling lighter than air.
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While looking at photos from a trip to New Orleans (N’awlins, as the locals say), I began craving some good Cajun gumbo. I had it at a restaurant in the French Quarter, and it was delicious. So, I pulled a recipe from the internet and made it. Unfortunately, eating it left me with an even stronger craving for some good Cajun gumbo (the keyword being good). Needless to say, it didn't go well.
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If a man is lucky, he may go through his entire life never being put to the test. But for many men, it has been and remains to this day, a moment that can negatively impact him for years, if not the rest of his life. It's that moment when she asks, "Honey, do these jeans make my butt look big?" Lord help you, my friend!
Many young men have been permanently scorn for incorrectly answering the question. Unfortunately, I'm still not sure there is a correct answer. My best advice, if you see her standing in front of a mirror, twisting from left to right trying to catch her backside, leave the room immediately. Nay, run from the room. Go scoop the cat little, dust off the old partial cans of paint in the garage, rearrange the condiments in the refrigerator door. Go find something to do and fast before she asks because this quiz weaves a treacherous web from which you cannot escape.
I heard a tale about one ole boy who answered, "I don't think it's the jeans, honey; it's your big behind making the britches look that way." Legend had it; he never showed up for work on Monday. As a matter of fact, he was never seen or heard from again – and they never found his body. So be vigilant to never get caught in such a situation where you could be asked.
If you innocently roam into a situation, and the question is asked, do not look her in the eye. Instead, act as if you didn't hear her. (Selective hearing; we'll cover that another time) For example, pick up a newspaper and say, "Honey, there's a big sale at the mall, would you like to go? I can hold your purse for you while you shop."
Wait, don't ask that! She could take that to mean you're saying the pants don't look good on her, and she should go find some jeans that fit. I just don't know what to tell you, friend, other than, there is no correct answer. If you say the jeans look great on her, she'll assume you're patronizing – and woe to the man who answers honestly. You're in danger at this point. It's like walking on thin ice and hearing a cracking noise. Not even running away will help.
Personally, I am very fortunate to have never been asked this question – at least not by my wife, but not long ago, I asked myself.
I was standing on the scale in the bathroom – the scale gave me an unflattering number I didn't particularly like. I caught myself looking in the mirror, twisting left to right, then finally concluded, "It must be these jeans."
It's hard to maintain a healthy weight, especially for someone who likes to bake as much as I do. With only two of us in the house, a whole pie or a cake is a lot of desserts. I usually share these desserts with friends and neighbors, lest I eat the entire thing myself, and my jeans end up fitting too tight.
I wondered if there was a way to make a smaller cake without messing up the proportions.
Doing a little research, I discovered a six-inch, round cake pan holds precisely one-half the volume as a nine-inch. Since I make my cakes from scratch, not a boxed mix, I could easily cut the recipe in half. So, my search for these more practical pans was underway. I had no idea there were so many choices.
I found cheap pans that were only a few dollars each – cheap being the operative word. Others were up to thirty dollars each; I wasn’t spending sixty bucks for a pair of cake pans. I could get good quality pans for five dollars each, but had to buy them in quantities of fifty. I finally found a good set of two for twenty-five dollars, including shipping. It was more than I wanted t spend, but it was an excellent set, and besides, they came in a really cool box.
When the pans arrived, I opened them; they were so shiny and new; I set the sturdy, cool box with its hinged lid to the side for storing and protecting my new bakeware. Now I had to decide what flavor I would bake first. I stacked the two pans imagining what size the cake would be, "That's exactly the size of the top from our wedding cake."
Our wedding cake was awesome; Jan from Vanilla Bean in Two Harbors made it. It was beautifully decorated in fall colors with real orchids from Anderson Floral – and talk about delicious! Rather than the usual white or chocolate cake, ours was a spice cake with maple frosting – perfect for an autumn wedding. "That's it! I'll make a spice cake with maple frosting."
The cake turned out so well that I made another; the next one was dark chocolate, then a third chocolate cake! Yum. We (I) ate the whole spice cake (Melissa got one piece) and gave the chocolate cakes away – well, I kept a couple of slices and gave the rest away. I was having a blast making these little cakes.
A couple of days later, I stood in the kitchen admiring my new little pans while getting ready to bake another cake. I held them up. Laughing, I asked, "Do these pans make my butt look big."
From the bathroom, I heard the scale yell back in reply, "Not yet, but they're going to if you don't stop putting cakes in them." I was aghast!
I marched to the bathroom and picked up the mouthy scale, "That was not the right answer, little mister!" I scolded, then tossed the weighing device into the dark cabinet under the sink. "You can just sit in there and think about what you've said." I closed the doors and returned to the kitchen.
On my way out, I overheard the scale asking some ole boy, "What'd you get locked up for?"