It was late in the afternoon, actually early evening. I pulled the airplane onto the end of the runway. I made my radio call, "Ottumwa traffic, twin Cessna seven-six kilo tango, is holding for departure, runway 2-2 Ottumwa."
I did a check of the instruments and gages on the panel. I double-checked the fuel selector levers; both were on the main tanks. I placed my hand on propeller levers, feeling the smooth contour of the knobs. I did the same with the fuel mixture levers. Then I moved my hands to the throttles and began advancing them while holding the brakes. The turbochargers whined as they spooled up; the engines were at twenty-five inches of manifold pressure.
I made another radio call while simultaneously releasing the brakes and easing the throttles full forward. "Ottumwa traffic, seven-six-kilo-tango (7-6KT) is rolling runway 2-2 Ottumwa. Will be departing to the north."
The airplane picked up speed, rolling down the runway. Looking out the side window, the wings were bouncing with rhythm as the wheels crossed any bumps in the pavement. Each tip tank holds fifty gallons of AV-gas; that's three-hundred pounds each. It's always amazed me the wings can carry that much weight - just hanging there on the very end.
At 90 knots, I pulled back gently on the yoke, raising the nose wheel, and held it steady until the airplane lifted off the runway on her own. While climbing, I tapped the brake pedals to stop my wheels from turning, then raised the lever to retract the landing gear.
I banked the airplane to the left, climbed to 1,500 feet, circling around back to the runway I just took departed. "Ottumwa traffic, 7-6KT is on final for 2-2 Ottumwa - will be a low pass only." Lowering the nose and applying full power, I was picking up speed. Dropping down to about fifteen feet above the runway and I buzzed the entire length of the field, at over 170 miles per hour, then pulled the nose up and turned right toward the sun. I adjusted the engine settings and climbed to 2,500 feet.
The air was cool and smooth; the airplane was running very well. It felt good to be flying again. I switched the radio to 118.15, "Good evening, Chicago Center, 7-6 KT is with you off Ottumwa, climbing through two-five-hundred for three-five-hundred feet."
The traffic controller answered, "7-6 KT, are you looking for flight following?"
"Yes, sir. 7-6KT," I replied.
He instructed, "7-6KT, squawk six one zero five and ident. What is your destination?"
"Just going up to Oskaloosa tonight," I told him.
A few seconds later, the controller called back over the radio, "Twin Cessna, 7-6 Kilo Tango, radar contact, three miles west of the Ottumwa airport at three thousand one hundred feet." I replied, "Altitude checks, 7-6KT."
The controller gave an airliner an altitude change, then the frequency was quiet. I called "Chicago Center, 7-6KT. Do you have time for a comment?"
He answered, "Go ahead, 76KT."
"Chicago Center, I've been a pilot for 33 years. For the last 32 years, I've been flying with Ottumwa Flying Service. The city decided to pursue a different fixed-based operator and terminate their business relationship with Ottumwa Flying Service. I think they've made a big mistake, but only time will tell. This is the last time I'll ever fly the charter plane for OFS.
"Over the years, the men and women of Chicago Center have tracked my flights' hundreds of times under blue skies. You've stayed with me all the way to the airport in some nasty weather, too.
"I just want you to know you've been a good friend and a darn good co-pilot for the past 33 years. It's important to me that you know how much we've appreciated you and all that you do for us!"
There was a pause, then the controller replied, "7-6 Kilo Tango, thank you. I appreciate that very much." He sounded a little choked up.
I reported, "7-6KT has the Oskaloosa airport in sight. I didn't really need flight following today; I just wanted to hear you release me one last time."
"No problem, sir." Then, with respect, he paused and said what I've always loved hearing them say, "7-6 Kilo Tango, I see no traffic between you and the field. Radar service is terminated, squawk VFR, one two-zero-zero. Change to advisory frequency is approved."
I repeated, "7-6 Kilo Tango, squawking VFR and changing to advisory frequency" Typically, this would have been the end of our conversation. In the old days, pilots and air-traffic controllers exchanged a salutation unique to aviation. We never said goodbye.
Affectionately, I said, "G'day Chicago Center, thanks again for all your help."
"G'day, Seven-Six Kilo Tango, I wish you well, sir." I must admit, that got me, and my eyes welled up. I couldn't land yet.
I wanted to keep flying forever. I banked the airplane in a steep 60-degree turn, away from the airport, and descended to 1,800 feet. Flying over Ottumwa's northside, I could see my parent's headstone not far from the bell tower in the cemetery.
Turning a full circle, I looked down the wing toward the ground. "Come on, Dad. Get in, go for a ride with me. After all, you're the one who got me into this flying business in the first place."
Feeling my father's presence, we flew together over our radio station building, then out over the radio tower site. I could hear Dad giving me instructions: "Keep your wings level, watch your altitude, stay on your heading. You may need to crab into the wind." I smiled. Oh, how I miss those days, flying with him. Dad would have been so proud of me for being a charter pilot. Together we flew back north of town and circled over our old farmhouse on Angle Road.
I reminisced days long ago, how much Dad loved living there, watching the airplanes flying low, coming into land – our house was on the approach to runway 3-1. Every time Dad heard a plane coming, he'd look up.
Blocking the sun by holding his open hand like a visor toward the sky and squinting, Dad would announce the make and model of the aircraft passing overhead. Most of the time, he could name the pilot, too. Sometimes, he was inspired to say, "I think I'll go out to the airport. Do you want to ride along?" I never turned down that offer - it meant we were going flying.
As long as I was in the area, I decided to make a final pass over Ottumwa's runway, then climbing out, I turned the airplane toward Osky.
The setting sun before me was bright and warmed my face as I descended to the runway. The tires squeaked softly as they settled gently onto the pavement. It was a perfect landing. How appropriate, landing into the sunset on this, the final flight I would make for Ottumwa Flying Service.
I taxied to the ramp, then pulled back both fuel mixture levers. The engines shut down simultaneously. As the propellers came to a rest, I said, "G'Day OFS. So long, Seven-Six Kilo Tango. You've all treated me very well."
Recently a person in their early twenties looked and me, wrinkled their nose, and declared something smelled funny. I immediately sniffed my shirt sleeves, starting at the armpits. It wasn't that. I also sensed the foul aroma near my cuffs. I washed my hands after the incident, but apparently, I should have scrubbed my arms too. I began to explain, "Do you know what a corn bag is?"
"Yeah, you use them to play Bags, you know? You throw the corn bag to a deck about twenty feet away, trying to put it through the hole for points." They explained, "You also try to knock your opponent's bags off the deck to keep them from scoring."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the game," I said, "but I thought those bags were filled with beans." We both looked doubtful, second-guessing our knowledge. I researched it later. The bags can be filled with various materials: field corn, popcorn, beans, rice, wood pellets, plastic beads, aquarium gravel, or anything else you want to fill them with – but not kitty litter.
One article specified cat litter would break down inside until it became a bag of dust - unless it got wet, in which case, the filling would clump. Another article said the game of Bags is also called: Cornhole, Bag Toss, Sack Toss, "or whatever y'all call it in your part of the country."
This younger person sincerely thought the game was one their generation created. "It's been around for centuries in various forms but is most commonly called Shuffleboard." They acknowledged seeing such game tables in some of the pubs. "Bags is sort of a cross between that and throwing Horseshoes," I said.
Having no idea what that was, I suggested to them, "Lawn Darts?" They looked at me as if I was really old and possibly crazy. "Anyway, when I was a kid, we called the game Bean Bags." They seemed interested, so I continued.
"We didn't have fancy, high-gloss finished decks with painted lines for scoring; we drew circles on the driveway with chalk. When we didn't have chalk, we etched lines with a piece of lime-stone gravel. It was like scratching circles in the dirt with a stick to play marbles."
They were baffled, "Marbles was an actual game?" Their reaction caused me to feel old, giving me aches and pains that weren't there when this little chat session started. Suddenly I needed the kind of corn bag I had initially been talking about!
"Never mind the games; we're getting way off the subject." I continued, "A corn bag is a cloth bag, with dried field corn in it. You put it in the microwave for a minute or so, then place it on whatever part of your body hurts. The corn holds its heat for a long time, so it works like a heating pad without an electrical cord."
The younger person grinned with enlightenment, as did I. We were finally on the same page. "Okay, I know what you're talking about! My Grandma makes those for Grandpa, but I thought she filled them with rice." My smile went awry. Part of me wanted to walk away from this conversation – but I stayed to explain.
It all started in the kitchen earlier that day. I had some writing to do, but first, I seasoned a pork roast. Adding a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a cup of water, I put it in the crockpot and turned it on high. I was wearing socks but no slippers; my feet were cold from standing on the ceramic floor tile. I put a corn bag in the microwave oven, setting the timer for ninety seconds.
My cousin, Robin, made this corn bag for me with a tie-dye patterned cloth. A little larger than most, it was the perfect size for my intended use. When the timer beeped, I set the warm, colorful bag on the floor under the kitchen table. It was comforting to rest my cold feet upon when I sat down to write.
The words were coming to me quickly; I was on a roll. I didn't want to break my stride, but the hard floor soon drew the heat from the kernels. The corn bag was cold, and so were my toes. Working for nearly an hour, a quick break was in order.
We have a plastic lid in the microwave oven that we set corn bags on when heating them. I put the corn bag inside and set the timer for ninety seconds. I lifted the lid on the crockpot and checked my pork roast. "Oh my!" The seasonings were coming alive, and the aroma was amazing.
Smells are a powerful memory trigger. The scent of that roast reminded me of something I wanted to include in my story. I quickly went back to my laptop to write a couple of lines before I forgot them. Then a couple more lines, and just like that, the momentum I had going came right back to me. I kept pecking away at the keyboard.
Melissa called out from the living room, "Are you cooking something." Apparently, the fragrant seasonings were making their way to the other room.
"I have a pork roast in the crockpot," I boasted. "It smells awesome, doesn't it?"
"It really stinks," she complained, "can you turn on the exhaust fan." Wow! I've never had anyone tell me a roast in the crockpot stinks.
Trying to remember the line I was working on, I got up to turn on the fan, but it was already running. "Strange, I don't remember turning that on." I glanced at the microwave oven door – the light inside seemed a funny color. I'd check it in a minute, but first, I wanted to see why she said my roast smelled terrible. When I tipped the glass lid, the steam rose, smelling just as good as it should. I set the cover down and glanced at the timer on the microwave panel.
"How can that still have seventy-four seconds left?" It felt like time stopped for a moment. The digits, seven and four, weren't changing, but the two numbers to the right of the colon continued to count down. "Oh my God! That's seventy-four minutes left."
"What did you do?" was all I heard from the living room.
I quickly opened the door to stop the possessed appliance. Plumes of black smoke belched from the opening; the exhaust vent tried to capture them, but it was too much, and the smell was absolutely putrid! I slammed the door shut. "What is that? What did you do?" She was standing right behind me, so I couldn't hide it.
"I must have accidentally set the timer to ninety minutes instead of seconds." I was trying to answer her and figure out what I was going to do simultaneously.
"How could you possibly…? How long has that been in there?" She was not a happy woman.
"It hasn't been that long, and you can't get on me for entering the wrong amount of time." I defended myself by recalling where I had experienced this nasty, awful stench before. "Remember that time in Winona, when you burned popcorn, and it stunk so bad we had to throw away the popcorn bowl and the microwave?" (Smells are a powerful memory trigger.)
"That was thirteen years ago! You can't bring that up now!" The unhappy woman was getting unhappier.
"Oh, all of a sudden, there's a statute of limitations on bringing up what you did?" My reply was only making matters worse. "Besides, it's not my fault – the smoke detectors didn't even go off to warn me of the problem."
"That's because the microwave was so hot, it automatically turned on the exhaust fan." She snapped back.
I muttered under my breath, "…is that how the fan got turned on?" My attempts to minimize my error were working about as well as trying to put a fire out with gasoline. "Look, we can hash this out later. Right now, I have to figure out how I'm going to get that burning pile of grain and rags out of the house."
Wearing a pair of oven mittens with the non-slip finish, I used a knife to raise the edge of the glass turntable. I lifted it out of the microwave oven and set it in a large glass baking dish I had placed on the stovetop below. Melissa opened the back door, and I rushed the smoking mess outside to the deck. I returned with a quart bottle of water to extinguish whatever was burning.
I examined the charred pile of rubble and wondered, "Where did that plastic lid go?" I poked at the mass with a chopstick, "Oh, there it is." The three-inch tall cover had been reduced to a melted flat crescent; some sections of the plastic piece were just gone.
The corn bag itself, which used to be about an inch-and-a-half thick, was bloated to four or five inches. Amidst this disaster, I was able to find some humor, "I guess field corn will pop like popcorn – if it gets hot enough. Maybe I should save this and ask Melissa if she wants to have a movie night tonight." I quickly looked around to be sure she didn't catch me laughing.
About twenty minutes later, Melissa pointed out the window, "Your corn bag is smoking again." This time I saturated the smoldering mess. The once-mighty nuclear inferno was fighting to survive, but the full gallon of water was too much. The beast released two final puffs of smoke, then surrendered to its demise.
I went inside to wash my hands and face. I brushed my teeth, fixed my hair, and put on a clean shirt. I would be singing at 7:00 that evening at Saint Mary's Church in Silver Bay. I wanted to go over the music one more time before then, so I drove to Holy Spirit, in Two Harbors, where the cantor would be singing the same songs at the 5:00 mass. I could follow along.
The conversation with the younger person occurred on my way from one church to the other. "And so," I concluded, "I'll probably have to replace the microwave oven - that smell never goes away." I sniffed my sleeves again, near the cuffs, "I washed my hands well enough, but I guess I needed to wash a little further up my arms." They nodded in agreement, and we said our farewells.
I hummed through my songs while driving to Silver Bay. Turning into the church parking lot, I thought about the charred remains on my back deck at home. I had to laugh at the irony; the reason for an evening mass on a weekday? It was Ash Wednesday.
We generally go through about two 500-gallon tanks of LP gas in a heating season. We had the tank filled mid-December. We were on the third day of a cold snap. The weatherman said the arctic blast of cold air was forecast to stay in our region for another week.
I checked my laptop. The temperature was negative 27 degrees, with a windchill pushing forty below zero. My trips outdoors needed to be useful and planned. I would check the fuel level in our tank and take June Bug out to potty.
Bundled up tightly, June and I walked out the door onto the front porch. June darted down the steps to find the squirrel that had been on the feeder. "Leave it alone and go potty." I stood for a moment to enjoy the cold air. Just to breathe was exhilarating. I thought, how many times I've stood here when it was even ten degrees above zero, taking deep breaths, filling my lungs with crisp, fresh Northwoods air and the scent of pine. Not today.
There was a tingling sensation around the edges of my nostrils every time I inhaled. In these temperatures, I didn't want to fill my body with bitterly cold air rapidly. I was very aware of my breathing being slower, as if trying to warm the air a little so that it wouldn't freeze my lungs. June was off to her business meeting in the yard. "This is awesome," I said. I genuinely love these cold snaps. "Cold weather brings out the best in people."
I walked down the steps and to the left. The snow squeaked under my boots. I only walked a few feet in the deep snow before getting on a path the deer had made through the yard. The walking was much easier there. June saw me heading away from the house and came plowing toward me through fresh snow.
Each time she came down on her front feet, she intentionally pushed her head into the snow, then lifting her head, shaking about, she threw a cloud of the white stuff around her with every leap. She was having a blast playing in the snow, and the cold didn't seem to bother her.
At the LP tank, June sniffed about the area. "What's this?" She wondered. The deer had packed the snow down in the area. Perhaps they huddle there using the tank and the pine tree as a windbreak, finding shelter from the cold. We'd been using the woodstove a lot on these colder days. The tank level was still more than one-third full. I would order more fuel just to be safe; I don't want the tank getting too low, especially with another week of this weather ahead of us.
June and I walked around the other side of the tank. There was quite a gap in the big pile of wood from me restocking the smaller stack up on the deck. "Maybe I should move more wood up to the deck while we're out," I said but decided I would take June in first. "Come on, Bugs, let's go inside."
June took off running and splashing through the snow. About twenty feet ahead of me she stopped, and gave me a helpless look as if to say, "Dad, my feet are freezing." June does not like me to pick her up, but she gladly let me lift her and carry her back to the house. "Thanks for giving me a ride, Dad." She tried to give me an affectionate kiss, but I turned away.
"I don't want my face wet from you licking me; it would freeze." She understood. "As for the ride, June, it's just what people do when it gets this cold – they help one another out." She offered me another kiss, but again I turned away. "Save the kisses for inside."
As we walked on, June asked, "Dad, is our woodpile getting smaller? Have the squirrels been taking our wood? I can chase them away for you."
"The squirrels are fine, June." I said, "With this cold snap, we've been using the woodstove a lot more." I chuckled and added, "We're going through firewood as if the stuff grows on trees." June and I shared a good laugh about that as I turned up the front steps to the house. Inside, I dried her paws, took my coat off, then June and I sat in front of the fire to warm up.
I had an early dentist appointment the next morning in Duluth. To allow travel time, I would leave by 6:30. I went out to start the van about fifteen minutes before I needed to leave. It was bitterly cold; the temperature was negative thirty-five degrees with a windchill of minus forty-six. When I turned the key, the motor sounded a bit labored as it turned over, but it did start. "Good girl," I said, then set the temperature to high and turn on the windshield defroster and parking lights. When I went back inside, the belts on the motor squealed and howled.
I finished getting ready and ate breakfast, then went back to brush my teeth. I filled my thermos with coffee and let June out one more time. I checked the time. "6:40. Darn it. Not a problem. I allowed a fifteen-minute cushion." I needed to leave right away to be on time, but I still went back to the bathroom to check my teeth one more time, making sure there was not pepper or anything else in them.
While I put on my coat, hat, and gloves, June came and sat by me, looking at me as if she wanted to go along for the ride. "Baby, it's too cold outside for you to wait in the van while I'm at the dentist's office." I walked back to the kitchen and gave her a treat. "Maybe next time, okay?" I gave her a rub on the head, then walked out the door.
Steam flowed from the exhaust pipes of the van as it idled in the driveway. The red taillamps made the rising cloud of steam glow with pink billows. It was pretty. When I reached for the handle on the driver's door, it was locked - with the keys inside. I must have bumped the knob when I got out. I have a spare in the house, but fortunately, the van has one of those digital code pads on the door. I climbed in and sat down on the cold, hard seat. "Too bad it doesn't have heated seats too."
I shivered, turned on the headlights, and shifted the van into drive. The tires made a crunching sound as I pulled away. I glanced at the clock. "6:45 - I'm still okay." It takes exactly one hour and fifteen minutes to get there. At the stop sign, I took my glove off to feel the air coming out of the vent. It was warm, but the large interior of the van takes a while to heat up. The steering wheel was still ice cold, so I put my glove back on, then turned right on highway 61.
As I went south to Duluth, I could see a car on the shoulder ahead. Its amber flashers cut brightly through the frigid air - I could tell there was no steam coming from the tailpipes. Perhaps the car wasn't running. As I got closer, I could see someone leaning over the car's front – but the hood wasn't up. I turned on my flasher and pulled over behind them.
I walked up to the car. A young man, probably in his early twenties, was fiddling with something on the vehicle. The wind chill was minus forty-six degrees, and he didn't appear to be dressed warm enough for this weather – he didn't even have gloves on. "Is everything okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied, then explained, "my wiper blade keeps trying to come off. I'm just putting it back on so I don't lose it."
"I've had that happen before." I told him, then asked, "Your car's not running. Is it going to start okay?" It was an older car, which can often have many little things that need attention or repair.
"It should," he said. "My gauge doesn't work, and I know I'm pretty low, so I shut it off to make sure I won't run out of gas before I get to Beaver Bay."
"I have a can of gas in my van. You're welcome to it if you'd like." I offered.
He was polite. "Thanks, I should have enough to get to the Holiday station."
"Are you sure?" I told him, "I always carry gas just in case I meet people who've run low. It'd be no problem to give you a couple of gallons." I could tell he was considering my offer but then said he thought he'd make it. "It's pretty cold out here," I took my gloves off and offered them to him. "Do you want these? I have another pair in my van."
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pair of worn, brown jersey gloves. He smiled and said, "I'm good."
"Okay," I said, "I'll tell you what; I can wait in my van until you get your car started, and I'll follow you to make sure you make it to Beaver Bay." He seemed genuinely relieved by my offer.
He smiled and said, "I would sure appreciate that, sir." I went back to my van. He got in his car and turned it over two or three times. Each time it started, coughed and died again. I opened my door to see if he wanted the gas – or offer him a ride to where ever he was going. Just then, his engine started. He revved the motor a few times, then pulled away.
He drove well below the speed limit the next five or six miles. His taillights dimmed, and his brake lights never came on as he turned into the gas station drive. I was pretty sure he ran out of gas and coasted in. I stopped on the shoulder to make sure he got to the pumps; if not, I could help him push his car the rest of the way. He got out of his car and waved at me. I gave a couple of toots on the horn.
Pulling away, I looked at the time. Now I was going to be late, and that was fine. If it had been thirty degrees outside, I probably would have driven on past. But it didn't matter if I was in a hurry; I wasn't going to just drive by someone stranded on the side of the road in these bitterly cold temperatures. I do believe cold weather brings out the best in people – even me.
I called the dentist's office to tell them I would be late and make sure they weren't going to reschedule me. "No problem," a friendly voice replied, "Drive safely, and we'll see you when you get here."
I rushed to the front desk, taking off my coat as I walked. "Hi, I'm Tom Palen; I have an eight-o-clock appointment. I'm sorry I'm late." I said, huffing.
She looked puzzled at her computer screen. "Mr. Palen, we have you down for nine. You're forty-five minutes early."
"Early?" I was confused. "I don't know what to do. I've never been early for anything in my life. Should I leave and come back?" We shared a good laugh about that.
She looked again at her schedule screen. "You're here for a dental cleaning. Actually, her first appointment canceled because of the cold." The receptionist said, "We can get you in now if you'd like." That sounded good to me.
When the dental hygienist finished, I paid my bill, bundled up, and went to my van. I climbed in and sat in the cold, hard driver's seat. "Boy, it didn't take long for the van to get cold again. I should have just left it running." While I let it warm up, I pulled down my sun visor. I opened my mouth wide, closed my jaw, and turned my head back and forth, looking at my teeth in the mirror. "They sure looked good." Then I ran my tongue across them from side to side. "They feel good too." It's a routine I go through after every dental cleaning. I don't know what I'm looking for; I just do it.
After running several errands in Duluth, I decided to eat before going home. Today I went to Perkins to breakfast for lunch. After the hostess seated me, I noticed two elderly ladies across the way. Their coats were on the bench next to them; they each wore their knitted scarves wrapped around their neck.
It appeared they had finished their meal and were enjoying coffee and conversation. I was eavesdropping as the ladies talked about how cold it was. "I don't mind this cold," the first lady said, "I just have to dress a little warmer and be careful." The second lady added, "I do believe people are kinder to one another when it's cold like this." I couldn't agree with them more. I wanted to join their conversation, but the waitress was coming with my coffee.
She set the coffee down, asking, "What can I get for you?" I took note of her name tag.
"Before I order, Jordan, could I get the ticket for those two ladies over there? But I don't want them to know who paid for their meal." Handing her my card, Jordan smiled and said she would take care of it.
When she returned, Jordan handed the ladies their receipt and told them someone had taken care of their ticket. There were several tables of people. They asked who paid for their meal. "They didn't want me to say." She answered, smiled, and wished them a good day. The ladies looked around the room. I remained nonchalant and kept looking straight ahead at my computer screen.
After the ladies left, Jordan approached my table, "That was a very nice thing you did," she said, setting their ticket next to me. On the back was a note. The handwriting was very neat and looked like my mom's: "Thank you to the anonymous angel that paid for our lunch. We will pay it forward also!! God Bless You." They made a smiley face with the exclamation points. I smiled, folded the note, and tucked it into my top shirt pocket. I'm not sure there is anything in the world that I appreciate more than God's blessings.
I bundled up and headed out to my van. Standing outside the driver's door, I reached inside, turned the key, and started the engine; then I climbed in. The thermometer read minus 14 degrees. I felt my hind end tingling - rapidly chilling on the cold, hard driver's seat. Unzipping my coat a bit, I reached in my pocket, took out the note, and shivered as I reread it. "I'd take a note like this over a heated seat any day!"
That note from those ladies completely made my day! I pulled out of the parking lot, thinking, "This cold weather really does bring out the best in people."
My wife wheeled the trash can from the back to the front of the house. She cautioned me about the sidewalk behind her. "You might want to put some salt down on that icy patch." I had things to do, and salting the walk was not on the list. Besides, it's just a small, narrow walkway between the house and the bushes, and nobody uses it except us.
"People need to take responsibility and watch where they step," I told her, justifying my lack of concern. I rolled the can to the curb, dragging it down the steps along the way, then set it on the snowy boulevard. Walking back to the front door, I looked down, "I don't see any ice patches."
After work the next day, I used the snow shovel to clear small snowdrifts that worked their way across the front walk. "They must have missed us this morning," I said, looking at the trash can that still sat up right where I left it in the snow. Usually, after picking it up with the mechanical arm to empty it, they set the can back down several inches from it was sitting; often, it falls over on its side, and the lid is open. But today, there were no extras prints in the snow; no one had moved the receptacle.
Lifting the top, I was surprised to find it empty. "Man, he's good!" I said of the driver who put the can back in the very same spot, standing up with the lid closed. I grabbed the handle, pulling the trash can through the snow to take it around back.
Bang, bang, bang; it boomed like thunder with each step it bumped over. "This thing sure is loud when it's empty." I pulled the trash can along the west side of our house with my left hand and carried the snow shovel in my right.
My foot slipped just a bit on the slightly uneven sidewalk. Naturally, I put my other foot down to steady myself. Both feet began sliding and shuffling, desperately seeking dry ground. It was one of those moments where you don't have an opportunity to even think about what you're doing. Without conscious input, my body instinctively began making corrections to avoid a catastrophic injury.
My mind was trying to catch up to my swiftly moving feet, "What's going on here?" Things only got worse when I started thinking. "The trash can! Lean on the trash can to get your balance!" The receptacle's angle with additional downward pressure applied and the fact it has wheels - gave me a lesson on the physics of motion.
I started to fall backward. To keep the can from pulling me down, I released my death grip on the handle. The trash can took off like a hockey puck slapped with a stick! The hollow plastic drum made a heck of a racket when it hit the nearby tree and bounced back to the concrete. The hinged lid slammed against the sidewalk, like a drummer striking a cymbal at the end of a solo. Meanwhile, my panicking feet did everything they could to keep me upright. Releasing the handle gave me one free hand to assist.
I began flailing my left arm wildly through the air; that was not helping. Still behind in the game, my mind started barking orders to the thrashing hand. "Grab the bushes!" Lefty grabbed the leafless, dormant shrubs, but the branches were brittle. They snapped off, offering me no support.
I was now facing west with a handful of broken twigs, a full 90 degrees off my intended course. My feet continued doing their best to keep me from going down. In the back of my mind, I heard Michael Jackson's song, Billie Jean. Was I inadvertently doing the moonwalk? My brain, trying to help, shouted more orders: "Use the shovel. Steady yourself with the shovel, man!" I tried. I really did. I tried using the shovel as a cane or a walking stick.
Our shovel has an ergonomically correct handle to reduce pressure on your back when lifting snow. I briefly wondered why you never see an ergonomically designed cane with a disproportionately large base? I soon learned the answer.
As I poked and stabbed frantically at the ground, the curved handle entered the match and engaged battle with my knees. The shovel would be another contributing factor to my imminent demise. Holding on for dear life, I contorted in ways I didn't think were possible.
While the handle sparred with my knees, the shovelhead began striking at my feet like an angry rattlesnake. In the mayhem, I somehow turned 180 degrees from my original heading. There were too many elements involved in this attempted rescue mission. "Drop the shovel," was the new command from Brain Central, and so I did.
My left hand was still clasping the handful of broken twigs; my right hand now waved rhythmically through the air. My torso was thrown and tossed about as my lower body struggled to hold on. I felt like John Travolta riding the mechanical bull at Gilly's in the movie Urban Cowboy. This situation was not going to end well.
I envisioned myself being thrown from the bull, landing in those prickly, cold, stiff bushes. I could lose an eye. I wonder how many stitches would be needed to repair my torn body. Would I require a cast or two? Was a hospital stay in my future? If so, how long would I be in traction? I should never have attempted moving the trash can without a helmet and proper eye protection. "Lord, help me!" I cried out.
The shovel I heaved a second before deflected off the side of the house and began sliding back toward me. My left foot was going up, as my right foot was descending. The head of the shovel came to rest under my right shoe. Finally, I found solid footing on the shovelhead; unfortunately, the shovel itself was not stable.
My foot pushed backward, riding the scoop like a plastic saucer sled. The shovel stopped abruptly when the tool's wide handle grip struck the frozen base of the bushes. My upper body momentum caused me to lunge forward from the now stationary shovel. It was happening - I was going to fall.
Remember that trash can I dropped behind me a few seconds ago - the one which was now in front of me with the lid laying open on the ground? I was headed right for it! While reaching out, I opened my hands, preparing for a crash landing. My fist-full of broken twigs spewed ahead, landing in the lid.
I fell to my knees, also landing on the hinged lid. My boney knees crushed the sticks with the force of a swinging mallet. Ouch! I interlocked my fingers, hoping my clasped hands would keep me from breaking my nose when I face-planted on the front, which was now the container's top. Landing on my elbows kept me from falling all the way forward.
The chaos finally ceased - my exhausted body came to a rest. Anyone who has prayed on a kneeler in a church can visualize my position.
Since I was already on my knees, I used the moment to offer a prayer of thanks! Although I would be stiff, tomorrow - it seems I had once again eluded the services of paramedics, a squadron of EMS staff, and first responders.
I got back on my feet and looked around to ensure no one had seen this atrocity. There being no witnesses, I gathered my trash can and my snow shovel. I stepped to the right, avoiding the sidewalk, on the narrow space between the house and the concrete.
I looked back to examine the area where the incident occurred, "I wonder if that's the ice patch Melissa mentioned yesterday?" Shaking my head, I walked on, "Someone should put some salt on that before somebody slips and falls."
It was cold outside when I woke up, a few degrees below zero. I opted to use the percolator to make coffee rather than the drip coffee machine. I filled the stainless-steel pot to the six-cup line with cold water. I placed the basket on the hollow stem, added three scoops of coffee grounds, and put the perforated cover on top. I lowered the assembly into the water, closed the lid, set the pot on the stove, and turned the knob - Tick, tick, tick, tick, woosh. I adjusted the blue flame below.
Above the percolator, I rubbed my hands together, warming them in the heat rising from the flame. Thinking a fire in the woodstove would sure be nice on such a chilly morning; I went out on the deck to bring in a few logs from the woodpile.
Wearing my buffalo plaid, flannel pajama pants, a Smokey Bear t-shirt, and my house slippers, I stood where the woodpile should be – but there was no wood. I shivered and recited a children's poem. "Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard – but when she got there, the cupboard was bare." That's exactly how I felt. I forgot to restock the small pile we keep close to the door.
I walked to the edge of the deck, staring at the big pile of firewood across the yard. "Why couldn't some of that be up here?" I seriously contemplated trekking over to gather an armload of logs. I looked down at my feet and bare ankles inside my slippers. In sub-zero weather, running across the snow-covered yard, still in my pajamas, would not have been exemplary of good decision-making skills. It was starting to snow. "I should have worn socks." I shivered and went back into the house.
Back in the kitchen, the coffee was perking with a steady rhythm. There's something about that sound that warms the soul - well, it usually warms the soul. That little excursion out to the deck had me plenty chilled. I poured a cup of coffee and wrapped my hands around the warm mug. "Oh, that feels good."
The mug warmed my hands, but my body was still cold. I wrapped an afghan from the couch around my shoulders, then stood with my coffee, looking out the bay window. The snow was falling much faster now. There were only a couple of chickadees at the bird feeder. Maybe it was too cold for the rest to come out yet.
A small red squirrel was in the pale green feeder that looks like an old-fashioned metal porch glider. The critter was sitting on his hind legs; his bushy tail pointed upward. He held and turned sunflower seeds using his front paws as he nibbled through the shell. Once he had the tasty treasure inside, he tossed the empty husk over the railing, and picked up another seed. He amused me: how fast his little jaws moved. I wondered where the little guy goes to stay warm on these bitterly cold nights. Just then, something spooked the squirrel.
He jumped from the porch, scurrying across the top of the snow, to the safety of a woodpile. He must have a nest in there because my dog June goes nuts running around that pile looking for him. "So that's where he stays warm." I smiled, thinking about commonalities between the squirrel and me. To get through the winter, he has nuts and food stashed all around the yard, where I have piles of firewood stacked all around the yard to get me through the winter.
I looked at my dark, empty woodstove, then at firewood outside. The snow was accumulating on the blue tarp that kept the logs below dry. I scowled, "That squirrel is using my firewood to stay warm while I stand here freezing." It just didn't seem fair. "I sure wish I had some of that wood in here." I rechecked the outside temperature; it was up to one degree above zero. "I don't want it that bad."
I just wanted a way to get warm. Even June was warm, curled up on the sofa. I had an idea that caused me to smile.
Happiness is telling your dog (who is not supposed to be on the couch) to get off the couch, so I can take a nap with my blanket - in the warm spot she left. "Oh, that feels nice." I said, tucking the covers under my chin.
While doing some decluttering, I came across several cookbooks I'd acquired along the way. I thumbed through them to see if I could find or remember which recipe enticed me to keep the book. I never did find such a recipe, but some of the cookbook covers were quite interesting. Maybe that's what captured my curiosity. I laughed, "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Although I hadn't made one for years, looking through the pages stirred a strong urge within me to bake a cake. More specifically, a chocolate cake - from scratch. None of the recipes in the books were appealing to me. I remembered Mom having an excellent recipe for chocolate cake. I looked through my cookbook but couldn't find it. Instead, I drifted off reminiscing good times in the kitchen cooking with Mom. My laptop chimed with a new message, snapping me back to the moment.
The message was from Sonja Larsen, a longtime, dear friend of Mom's – the text was almost supernatural, considering what I was doing when it came in.
While I was decluttering, Sonja was going through "stuff." While I was going through books looking for something Mom gave me, Sonja found a book Mom gave her over forty years ago. She wrote, "I would like you to have it. I think it gives a special glimpse into her heart and why she would have bought that book for me." I immediately replied with my address. Perhaps the book would have the recipe I was trying to find. I would have to wait and see, but I needed to find that recipe for now.
I was trying to decide if I should keep or toss the cookbooks, I looked at the covers. I started thinking about the book I'm working on; how important is the front cover? I mean, the stories inside will be the same no matter what cover I use. I had an idea how to find out – using chocolate cake. I would work my project over ten or twelve days to keep from overloading the house with more cake than we could possibly eat.
I would bake a square cake, a layered cake, and cupcakes using the same recipe. Each was dark chocolate, with dark chocolate frosting. (metaphorically, the same story with three different covers) I posted photos of the three together on several social media sites, asking readers which they preferred. Nearly 300 people responded and I was surprised by the results.
The layered cake was the number one choice with more votes than all others combined. The number two choice was "all of them." In a distant third place were cupcakes, while the square cake was the least favorite. A lot of people said anything chocolate was good. One lady replied, "I would eat dirt if it had chocolate frosting." The research was fun; I gained weight doing it and learned the book cover is essential.
On the day I was making the layered cake a large envelope from Sonja arrived in the mail. I put the round cake pans in the oven, then sat down to open the package.
Inside was a thin, hardback book. The cover was beige with a grey tweed stipe down the left side, wrapping around to the back. In the beige field, tall plants sprang up from the grass; some looked like dill, other like young ferns – which I absolutely love. The book's title blended in with the blades of grass: To Those Who See-- The title alone reminded me of Mom in the way she shared wisdom.
I thumbed through the book, starting in the middle. The pages were various colors and textures to compliment the beautiful artwork. Some were on thick paper, and some were thin as parchment. Some of the page edges were cut smooth while other pages had tattered, worn edges, creating a comfortable feel, or mood, for the book. The soothing words caused me to meditate, allowing my mind to drift off to places – all good. I was at ease, content – at peace. I poured a cup of coffee and sat down to read the book, front to back.
On the fourth page, I found the author; words and block prints by Gwen Frostic. Before I finished the book, I decided the second page was my favorite.
On the second page was a blue jay with his wings spread, gliding through the air. It also had a diagonal, hand-written inscription from my mother: December 6, 1979. Dear Sonja – Happy St. Nicholas Day ~ We have another nice memory with dear friends. Love Bev.
Just below was a second hand-written note: October 31, 2020. Dear Tom, I pass this on with all the memories I shared with your Mom. This book gives us a glimpse into her heart and why she would have bought it for me. Love Sonja.
Together, the two short notes told a story of their own. It was a tale of friendship, love, and caring. It spoke of laughter and tears shared. Most importantly, it was a story of memories between best friends. A story that lasted a lifetime and beyond. The story will continue as one day, I, too, will write in the book and pass it along to my daughter.
It's easy to fall prey to judging a book by its cover. Although the cover is essential, and tells a lot, I found the real beauty; the whole story, on the second page.
When a friend boasts, “I lost ten pounds,” I rub my belly and reply, “I’m pretty sure I found it.” That line always gets a good laugh. Over the holidays, I found way too many pounds that other people lost.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore, because the only one I ever kept was: quit making New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’ll choose a thing or two at the beginning of each year to give a concentrated effort to change. This year on the list: 1) Going to church (not just virtual) every Sunday. 2) Losing some of the weight that found me.
I decided to stop conveniently eating out; staying out of the drive-through lane at burger and taco joints is a good start toward achieving the latter. When I dine out, I want it to be more meaningful – not rushed. With busy lives, that’s not always easy to do.
I had a lot to do that Sunday, including a trip to the Twin Ports to run various errands. Staying focused on my concentrated efforts, I left my house at six in the morning to make the 7:30 a.m. mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior. I enjoy Father Ricci’s sermons; his messages apply easily to everyday life; and since Wisconsin allows indoor dining, I could go someplace to sit down for bacon and eggs with a short stack on the side.
After mass, I headed to a restaurant that serves breakfast on the east side of town. While driving on Belknap Street, I passed Julie’s Family Restaurant. I prefer to eat at a local establishment rather than a big corporate chain restaurant. I turned around and went back to Julie’s.
Inside, I chose a booth by a window. The couple across from me immediately caught my attention. The waitress came by with a menu, tableware rolled in a napkin, and a glass of water. “Good morning. Can I get you anything to drink while you look at the menu?”
“Yes, I’d like a cup of black coffee, please,” I replied, then tipping my head sideways, “and I’d like to get the ticket for the people in that booth.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “The older couple right behind me?” I nodded, yes. “No problem. I’ll have them both coming right up.” I couldn’t quit looking over at the couple.
When I finished eating, the waitress brought both tickets to me. Before going to the register, I approached the table of the couple. “Is this your first date together?”
“Oh, heavens no.” She replied, while he confirmed, “It’s our first date this week.” We all shared a good laugh about that. His answer sounded like something my dad would say.
“I hope I wasn’t staring at you two,” I said, then told the man, “You look a lot like my dad.”
His wife didn’t miss a beat. As if sticking a feather in her hat, she asked, “Is he a handsome man, too?” She and I had another good laugh; he just blushed.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was – where do you think I got these good looks?” After another laugh, I said, “I just stopped by to make sure you weren’t him,” then addressing her, “because you don’t look anything like my mom, and that wouldn’t be good if he were my dad.” We shared another good laugh before I headed for the register with both of our checks.
Outside, I glanced at the man one more time through the window. The waitress was standing by their table. He had a confused look on his face. I could almost read his lips, “He did what? Well, why did he do that?” I smiled and walked to my truck.
The following Sunday, I had a lot to do. I left the house at six in the morning. Father Ricci gave another great sermon, addressing the question, “What are you looking for?” After mass, I was looking for some more bacon and eggs. I headed to Julie’s for the encore – I even sat at the same booth. The same waitress came with a menu, tableware, and water glass. “Good morning. Can I get you anything to drink while you look at the menu?” I was hoping to find the same couple sitting across the aisle, but the section was empty except for me.
Some people came and sat in the booth behind me, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. I was busy studying the menu. Should I repeat last week’s order? “Ooh, what’s this?” I ordered the homemade hash browns, loaded with diced green pepper, onion, ham and smothered with cheese, “And can I get two eggs over easy on top?” The waitress nodded as she scribbled on her ticket pad.
Shortly after my food arrived, the waitress, along with an entourage, passed by with a plate of flaming breakfast – it might have been cherries jubilee flambe, I don’t know, I was too busy devouring my loaded hash browns. When the ladies started singing happy birthday, I came up for a breath of air and turned around to watch.
The wait staff was no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but they weren’t bad either. Most importantly, a little blonde three-year-old boy was grinning from ear to ear; his sparkling eyes were nearly as big as the silver dollar pancakes in front of him. His grandmother, who brought him to breakfast, was looking on, smiling just as wide.
Sitting on his knees, he was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the table. “Make a wish, Johnny.” He took a deep breath and blew hard, blowing out the candle and relocating some of the whipped cream from his flapjacks to the tabletop. What fun to watch, and did I mention his priceless smile?
When the waitress came around with the coffee pot, I asked if I could get the ticket for the table behind me. “It’s already gone,” she said, “the staff all chipped in to buy their breakfast.” How cool is that? She topped my cup, laid my ticket face down, and moved on to the next table. The little boy was soft-spoken, but I smiled when she said, “Oh no, Johnny. You can’t eat the candle. Candles aren’t edible.” I had to wonder, whoever came up with the idea of putting flaming wax sticks on top of food?
Before I left, I turned around to wish Johnny a happy birthday. The waitress was back, not with the coffee pot, but a big can of whipped-topping. She added another swirling burst to each cake. “Wow, we didn’t get extra whipped cream on our pancakes when I was a kid. You must be pretty special.” Johnny laughed.
Walking to the truck, I rubbed my full belly. “This is not staying focused on your concentrated efforts, Thomas.” But man, was it good. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I again questioned, “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?”
I ran my errands and drove home, reflecting on Father Ricci’s sermon. He started by saying, “I am fascinated to see people on fire…” I wondered if there was a connection; his reference to fire and the flames on Johnny’s candles. Of course, Father was speaking of someone’s passion for what they do, and Johnny was passionate about those flaming pancakes. I wanted to listen to his message again, but first, I wanted to quench that nagging question about birthday candles.
When I opened my tablet, I swear I heard a voice ask, “What are you looking for?” I typed into the search bar: the origin of birthday candles. As I looked at the myriad of results that popped up, I muttered, “I’ll bet Jesus never told anyone: Google it.”
"Hey old buddy, do you want to help me move a piano?" If you've ever volunteered or been conned into help move one, you're probably trying to forget the whole incident. Counseling and chiropractic care can help. Okay, I jest; it's really not that bad.
Selling or even giving away a piano isn't easy. It's not that people don't want them; they love pianos – they don't want to move them. They're big, heavy, and cumbersome.
I've always had a piano. When we moved to Minnesota, we found one we liked, and it was free, but we had to move it. We brought the antique upright home and placed it in our dining room. Recently my wife bought an antique buffet, which will sit where the piano is. Our piano had to go.
There were a lot of listings online for cheap and even free pianos. Some had been listed for up to twenty weeks, and more. Common to every advertisement was: you move it, you haul it, or bring your own helpers. I realized it might be more challenging than I thought to give away a piano.
My years of radio advertising and marketing experience came into play to be creative with my ad, making it stand out from the others. A lightbulb lit up over my head. I smiled and started typing. "The Best FREE Piano Offer Ever" was my title line. That would spark a reader's curiosity. I continued typing.
"There are a lot of free pianos available; what makes this offer better is I will help you move it to your home." I included some stipulations, "I can't move it alone; you'll have to provide helpers and possibly rental equipment."
People like pictures, so I posted several along with a video link of my wife playing. With the sheet music panel removed, the motion of the hammers was mesmerizing to watch. The relaxing melody and beautiful tone and sound of the piano made me question giving it away. "I better upload this ad before I change my mind," I said, clicking the post button.
Within five minutes, I received the first message. Someone wanted it delivered to southern Iowa. "Five hundred miles is too far away," I replied. I had a delivery range in the ad. Still, I thought of another potential issue that could arise and quickly edited the script to include a disclaimer: "Offer to help move the piano is dependent on where it's going. Third-floor apartments with narrow staircases aren't going to work."
I had several more inquiries and four solid offers from people who wanted the piano. Overwhelmed by the response, within three hours of posting, I marked the ad as pending. I committed to Natasha's offer, who has five daughters and wants them all to learn to play. They lived outside my delivery range, but I knew this was the right family for our piano and we began making arrangements.
I could put the piano in the back of my pickup, or her husband, Derek, could come to get it with his flatbed trailer. Either vehicle would require lifting and lowering the piano about thirty inches to the ground – that's a lot for something so heavy. They lived about sixty miles away; it would be better to transport the piano inside an enclosed trailer. Natasha said Derek would have no problems lifting, but they would have to arrange for more guys to help.
I suggested using a U-haul trailer that sits low to the ground. With only one step going into the house, Derek and I could move it alone. Natasha said they would gladly pay for the trailer and gas if I would do that. I told her we had a deal and I would be up the next afternoon.
The issue now was at my house. Out the front door, we have eight steps. Going through the basement and garage involves twelve stairs. The back deck has no steps but sits five feet in the air. Not a problem. I called my neighbor Steve, who has a Bobcat.
Steve carefully pushed his forks under the piano. The machine easily lifted the heavy object, lowering it from the deck. He moved it around the house to the driveway, where the two of us slid it into the trailer. (That's also how we got it in the house) With the piano secured, I drove to Ely.
Derek met me in the driveway to show me where the piano was going. A few inches of snow had fallen the day before and he had the gravel driveway cleared. What little snow remained would create a challenge for me, backing the trailer up the slight incline to the house. Trying to move slow, the tires on my two-wheel-drive van slipped. Without good traction, I had no control over the trailer. With my first attempt being unsuccessful, I pulled forward and tried again with a tad more speed. Finally, on the second (or fifth or sixth) attempt, I had the trailer positioned where I wanted it.
With relatively little effort, Derek and I moved the piano from the trailer onto a concrete slab. We lifted it over the one step into the porch and put a flat cart under it. Their girls watched with excitement and anticipation as we rolled their new piano into the house. When the work was done, Natasha offered me a cup of coffee and a cookie. I gladly accepted.
Having five children in this day and age is a big family. Having come from a very large family myself, I could relate and enjoyed watching them interact. Their girls were well behaved and polite. One asked, "Mom, may I have a cookie." Soon we were all enjoying homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The oldest daughter held the baby on her hip while mom made the coffee and served treats. That reminded me of growing up. The kids in my family all pitched in to take care of the little ones.
In our conversation, I learned they home school the girls. The family raises chickens and other livestock. They hunt to put meat in the freezer and grow their own vegetables in a garden. Not because they have to – they prefer to. They're teaching their children how to provide for themselves and others. I really admire that.
Derek said they used to raise many more birds each year, trading the excess with a neighbor - chickens for beef. Raising the birds, cleaning, preparing, and freezing them is a big job. "It's a lot easier to just buy the beef from my neighbor." I'll bet it is.
It reminded me of the old days. A time when neighbors would barter their goods and services; a doctor would accept a chicken, a pig, or whatever you had as payment. I think it would have been fun to have lived back then.
I loved their house. They'd been restoring and remodeling the old two-story structure themselves, making it their home. Derek and Natasha explained how they stripped layer after layer from the walls to expose the original cut logs. "Every time we peeled a layer away, it seemed there was another one under it." As they spoke, they remembered all the work and the mess. Their effort showed; the walls were impressive, and they were rightfully proud of their accomplishment.
Natasha handed me some cash for delivering the piano, but she gave me too much money. "I told you I'd be happy if you just covered the trailer rental," I said, keeping a twenty and handing the rest back to her.
She tried giving it back to me, reasoning, "But your time and the drive all the way up here…"
"The piano was advertised free. I can't take your money." The truth is, I was thrilled it was going to such an appreciative family where it would be well used and enjoyed.
"Okay," she insisted, "but you did say you would let us pay for your gas." I wasn't going to win this, so I humbly accepted another twenty for the fuel and thanked her.
While we were talking, one of the other girls came in the back door with a frozen bird. Her dad said, "Honey, that's a turkey. Can you go put that back and bring in one of the smaller birds? Those are the chickens." Without fuss, she said okay and went to exchange the bird.
I glanced at the time and was almost embarrassed for staying so long. I was infringing at supper time. Although I enjoyed our time together, I needed to head home, leaving the family to prepare their evening meal.
Their daughter returned with another frozen bird and handed it to Derek. He, in turn, offered it to me. "Would you like to take a chicken home with you?" Are you kidding? Of course, I would. I tried to refuse their cash, but heck yes, I would take a chicken!
Derek said something to Natasha, but I didn't make out what he said. She left for a moment then returned, handing me a sealed canning jar. "This is maple syrup we made by tapping our own trees." This was getting better all the time!
After saying our farewells, I took my chicken and maple syrup to the van. I sat the bird in the passenger seat, fastening the belt for safety. To protect the glass jar, I wrapped it inside a packing blanket from the piano. At the end of the driveway, I gave two toots on the horn as I pulled onto the road.
"The best FREE piano offer ever." I looked at my chicken, smiled, and told him, "I made out like a bandit, dude." I felt like I just sold the free piano for a million dollars. Not too shabby, considering I got free myself.
When I got home, I showed Melissa the chicken and the syrup and began telling her my story. She was well pleased with the generosity of the Brekke family. I put the bird in the refrigerator. In a couple of days, it would be thawed and ready to roast.
"I know I shouldn't show you this right now, but…" She pulled up a listing for an antique, mission style, Baldwin player piano. I looked at the pictures. It was beautiful.
"Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, is over one hundred fifty miles from here," I told her.
The ad read, "Free Piano – you haul it." I smiled at her. Pianos really aren't that difficult to move.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s has always seemed awkward for me. On the one hand, it's too many days to waste, but on the other hand, why start any new projects when we're headed right back into another holiday – and there's usually a weekend in there to boot.
Everyone's focus shifts toward the new year, reflecting on the last twelve months of good memories and events. 2020 is different. People talk about how bad it was, saying they wish to put it behind them and never look back.
While trying to find some good in 2020, I recalled a conversation with an elderly friend. We talked about getting caught up, trying to salvage a lost situation. He said, "You have to recognize when you can fix something and when it's time to let go and start over." I listened intensely to his words of wisdom as he continued, "You can't polish a turd." He said, then shaking his head, added, "Try as you may, you'll never get it to shine." I nearly died laughing. He smiled at my laughter, "You’ve never heard that?" I admitted I had not. "You've got a lot to learn, Tom."
I thought of his words and conceded, "Yep, that pretty much sums up the year 2020." It was time to move on.
Our girls were here for Christmas. They started a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas evening. One thousand pieces with an image that would be difficult to assemble. Delaney and Annie had to return home for work, but Sydney was able to stay the week. She and Melissa have been making slow but steady progress on the puzzle.
I heard them talking, accusing our dog, June, of eating a piece from the puzzle. Defending my trusty friend, I insisted, "You cannot convict the canine until you've completed the puzzle. As of now, you don't even know if any pieces are missing." They knew I was right; still, I got glaring looks and was informed June's breath smelled like puzzle pieces. "Circumstantial evidence won't hold up in court." I declared and hurried June off to the other room for her safety.
Speaking of pieces, Sydney had been searching a long time for a single piece that would complete the area on which she'd been working. "If I could just find this one piece..."
Hearing this, her seven-year-old daughter, Addison, approached the table. Glancing over hundreds of loose pieces, she picked one up and pressed it in place. "You can quit looking, Mom." She smiled and walked away, smugly. Addison was now an admired hero.
Speaking of heroes, I didn't really want to work on a puzzle. It had snowed overnight, leaving about six inches of fluffy stuff. Clearing the driveway would give me something else to do. I told my granddaughters, "I'm going to snow blow the driveway. Do you want to come with me?"
Dressed in frilly white ballet outfits with shiny tinsel and glitter, they informed me princesses do not shovel snow. "Princesses?" I challenged, "You look like snowflakes to me, and I'm going to pile all the snowflakes on the side of the driveway."
I went into my bedroom and put on my navy blue long johns and matching long sleeve thermal shirt. I pulled my white tube socks up over the legs about halfway to my knees to keep my long underwear from riding up when I put my pants on. When I picked up my jeans, I spotted something that gave me an idea; a light blue bath towel hanging on the towel bar. I laughed an evil laugh.
Today I intended to make snow blowing more fun than usual – even memorable. Over my socks, I put on my new dark blue knit slippers. I tucked the bath towel into my collar on the back of my shirt and wore my blue, white, and orange ski mask. With only an oval opening for my eyes and an extended neck, it looked like a helmet. I put on my camping head lantern and a pair of sunglasses. Oh, I also added blue latex gloves to cover the rest of my flesh, complimenting the goofy blue theme.
With my headlamp set on the flashing mode, I ran down the hall to the living room – my towel, I mean cape, waving behind me. The girls screamed and laughed. Melissa rolled her eyes. "Oh my gosh," Sydney exclaimed, "Who are you supposed to be?"
I turned my head slightly, lifting my chin with dignity. In my best French accent, I announced. "I am a north shore superhero. My name is Long John Jerry. (pronounced Lawn Jawn Jair-ee) I am here to pile all zee snowflakes on zee side of zee driveway!" The two little girls, dressed in white, screamed and ran. I began chasing the snowflakes around the house. "I am Long John Jerry! I shall pile you in zee snowbanks! Mwahaha!"
After a couple of laps around the living room, Addison pulled my towel away – I mean my cape. "You're not Long John Jerry – you're Papa." She laughed.
"Oh, no!" I declared, "Everyone knows a superhero is powerless without his cape." I quickly snatched the towel – I mean my cape, from her hands and retreated.
After clearing the drive, I drove into Silver Bay looking for a snowman or snowflake cookie cutter so the girls and I could bake and decorate cookies. There were none to be found. Before heading home, I thought I would check the Dilly Dally Shop – maybe they would have one. They didn't, but I found something even better.
The Dilly Shop had an old-fashioned Tupperware popsicle maker. It was complete with all six cups, handles, lids, and the tray with six slots to hold the popsicles upright while they're in the freezer. Everything was on sale – 75% off, so it only cost me 67 cents with tax!
Addison, Evelyn, and I filled the molds with pineapple/orange juice then added a little grenadine for color. We pushed the handles through the slots in the lids. "What are we making, Papa?" They asked.
After I snapped the lids on, the girls placed each container in the tray. I lifted Evelyn and she set the tray of unfrozen treats on the freezer's top shelf. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out," I said, setting her down and closing the door.
Early the next morning, something happened that hasn't happened for about twenty-five years. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came into my bedroom whispering, "Dad? Dad, wake up, it's…" I opened my eyes briefly then drifted off. It was still dark out. I wasn't yet coherent and mumbled something about waiting until the morning. "Dad, just come look at this." She pleaded with urgency, tapping on my arm.
I pulled myself from under the toasty covers, put on my slippers, then followed her down the dark hallway. I thought she would show me some deer or wolves in the bright moonlit yard, but she stopped at the thermostat. "It's freezing in here," she said, pointing to the temperature.
I squinted my eyes to see, "Sixty degrees is not freezing." I replied.
"But it's set at sixty-nine. I don't think the furnace is working." She was more concerned than I.
"The furnace is only five years old." I explained, "I want to sleep a few more hours; then I'll get up and look into it."
I checked the time and temperature; 6:34 a.m. and minus twelve degrees outside. "Twelve below?" That made me shiver; I was awake now. "Are the girls in your room?" I asked. She said they woke up cold and came to bed with her. "Okay, I'll look at it now. You go back to bed and keep them warm."
I checked the breaker and the fuse at the furnace. I made sure the filter was clean and had not been sucked into the fan. It all was good. I shut everything off to reset the unit. The lights came on, but not the furnace. Next, I put on my coat, hat, and boots; I went outside to check the air intake and exhaust with my flashlight. Both were clear. We had just filled the LP tank, but I trudged through the snow across the yard to check it anyway. It was full.
Back inside, I lit a burner on the stove to make sure gas was getting to the house. It was. I even changed the batteries in the thermostat; nothing. It was still before 7:00. I called the furnace repairman, leaving a message to get my name on his list, then started a fire in the woodstove.
I heated corn bags in the microwave for each of the girls and my wife. Putting my coat and boots back on, I went to get more firewood. Knowing my furnace was on the fritz and having no idea when the repairman would be able to get here made it seem even colder outside.
I knelt and grumbled as I set each log in the cradle of my arm. "Twelve below zero, a full tank of gas, and my new furnace isn't working. Screw you 2020." I stood up with a heavy armload and banged my head on an overhead beam. I cursed, rubbed my head, and started walking back to the house. "At least I cleared a path to the woodpile yesterday." I smiled, "Well, actually, Long John Jerry cleared the way."
In the house, I crawled back into bed and tried to snuggle up to my warm wife. She woke up, shocked. "Are you crazy?" she asked, shoving me away. "You're freezing!"
"Fine!" I said, grabbing my pillow. "Come on, June, we'll go sleep on the couch."
"I don't think so, Dad. I'm not cuddling up with your frozen bones." June said, curled up in her warm dog bed.
Our black cat, Edgar Allen, rubbed against my leg as we passed in the hallway. "Meow, meow."
"Are you coming to sleep with me?" I asked him.
"No way, man. You're too cold for me." He explained, "But as long as you're up, how would you feel about putting some crunchies in my bowl?" Humph. I gave him his food, then I laid on the couch with my pillow and an afghan in front of the fire. Ahh. It wasn't too long before Edgar was purring next to my chest and June curled up behind my knees.
Around 8:30, I got up, put some more wood on the fire, then turned the oven to 450. The heat would be welcome in the house and homemade biscuits and gravy would be perfect on such a cold morning.
After breakfast, I went to the freezer, pulling out the tray. My granddaughters were excited to see what we made. I pulled them from the forms and handed one to each child. "Popsicles!" They were well pleased with the fruits of our labor.
While washing the breakfast pots and pans, I got a text. I dried my hands and picked up my phone. "This is Denny. I'll get there in the afternoon." I took a deep breath and exhaled. Just knowing he was coming took a ton of weight off my shoulders.
Denny looked at the furnace. "I'm going to have to order a blower motor," he said, "with the holidays, it may take a few days to get." He assured me he would be back as soon as he had it.
After he left, we all got dressed in warm clothes to go outside. Seeing me in my blue thermals, Addie called out, "Evelyn, it's Long John Jerry." Her French accent is cute.
"No, no." I said, "He only comes out with the snowblower."
Sydney brought her saucer sleds. It was time to prove septic mounds have more than one use. Romping and diving through the powdery snow, June retrieved sleds for the kids, carrying them up the hill in her mouth like they were frisbees. The only problem was trying to get the sled back from June at the top of the mound.
After sledding, we came back into the house. Melissa put more wood on the fire while I turned on the burner. I made a batch of hot cocoa, just like Mom used to make. The girls got marshmallows with theirs while the adults got a splash of peppermint schnapps. Mmmm. I drank mine while sitting on the hearth in front of the fire.
The girls began dancing and singing, "Hot, hot, hot. Hot chocolate." Melissa put Polar Express on the TV. I cleaned up in the kitchen, pouring the extra hot cocoa into the Tupperware molds, and setting them in the freezer.
After the movie, Addison, Evelyn, and I went to work in the kitchen. For Christmas, we gave them a pop-up book: Stone Soup, along with a handwritten recipe. Melissa happened to have a perfect soup stone that came from the shores of Lake Superior. I rounded up some ingredients, and we soon established an order.
Addison was the head chef; Evelyn, the sous chef. I was the prep cook while Melissa and Sydney were assigned wait staff to prepare the dining room.
The girls poured four cups of water into a pot, then added the soup stone. Next, they added chopped onions, carrots, celery, and diced potatoes. They stirred in some seasonings, peas, green beans, corn… Everybody helped and in about thirty minutes, we gathered at the table to feast on a full pot of delicious stone soup. Yum!
After supper, I put another log on the fire. My wife and daughter proudly announced the completion of their big jigsaw puzzle – except for that one piece on the bottom edge that was missing and one other piece that was pretty mushy from being chewed and spit out on the floor. I gave June a rub on the head and whispered in her ear, "The jury is back. You might want to go hide out in the other room for a little while."
The next morning, before dawn, Sydney stood next to my bed, "Dad, the fire is out, and it's cold in here." I got up, rekindled the fire, then went outside to get more wood. When I came back inside, I was cold and anxious to return to my warm bed.
Edgar was sleeping soundly by my wife. From the motionless lump under the covers on the far side of the bed, a voice spoke out, "Don't even think about it." Humph. I thought she was asleep.
I grabbed my pillow. "June?" She shifted in her cozy dog bed and let out a sigh. "Never mind," I said and went to sleep on the couch in front of the fire. A certain dog and cat soon joined me, but I'm not one to drop names.
The next day we had homemade fudgesicles. The girls loved them. That 67 cents was definitely money well spent. We got dressed to go sledding on the big hill at the golf course. It was a blast!
On New Year's Eve, the wall clock chimed twelve times. I got up and opened the back door to let the old year out, while Melissa opened the front door to let in the new year. We toasted the new year, then danced in front of the fire to Guy Lombardo's Auld Lang Syne. After throwing a couple more logs in the woodstove, we sat on the couch and watched the flames.
I gave up trying to tally the ugly events of 2020. Instead, I focused on the previous few days – just those awkward days between Christmas and New Year's. Was my furnace dying in subzero weather a curse or a blessing? I have a good woodstove and plenty of wood. Many people don't have the luxury of a backup source for heat. It also gave me cause to remember what's truly important; time spent with my wife, children, and grandchildren, making memories that will last a lifetime for all of us.
Considering all the good things that happened over these last few days, the furnace going out seemed pretty menial.
I often think about that conversation long ago with my elderly friend. It wasn't the best year, and you can't polish a turd. But still, there was too much good in 2020 for me to write it off as a turd. He was right in saying I had a lot to learn, and I have learned much since then. Now I am blessed to still be here with yet more learning to do.
Welcome, 2021. Let's see what you've got.
The other day I picked up fresh tomatoes at the grocery store for our salad. The tomatoes were the best you’re going to find this time of year on the north shore – but they were no match for the tomatoes I used to grow in my garden.
I held the overly firm orb in my hand. Having just past the winter solstice, I sang a line from an old Guy Clark song called, Homegrown Tomatoes: “Plant 'em in the spring, eat 'em in the summer, all winter without 'em's a culinary bummer.” So true. Placing them in my basket, I thought they may not taste as good as homegrown, but the bright red tomato wedges against the dark green lettuce will look nice for Christmas dinner.
I often ponder another line from the same song: “Only two things that money can't buy, that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Again, so true. If you go to a farmer’s market in the summer and purchase locally grown tomatoes, they might be farm fresh tomatoes but they are not technically homegrown tomatoes because you didn’t grow them. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here, but that’s how I feel.
Just before dinner, I called out, “Who all wants tomatoes on their salad?” One by one came the replies; No thank you. None for me. I don’t like tomatoes, but thanks anyway. Not one person wanted them. I wasn’t going to cut a whole tomato just for my salad – I’ll save it for tacos later this week.
After dinner we gathered in the living room to open Christmas presents. I handed my wife the last package; it was a gift for the two of us that would also solve a household issue; annoying shuffling of the feet. (specifically, my feet)
Our floors are all hardwood, so we don’t wear shoes in the house. The kitchen and bathroom floors are ceramic tile which can be cold in the winter. We wear house slippers to keep our keep warm. I always tell guests coming to stay with us, “This is a slippers house – bring ‘em if you want ‘em.”
I’ve not found the right slippers for me. The problem is they tend to have hard rubber soles that slap against the floor when I walk. As the tops of new slippers stretch a little and become loose, I find myself dragging my soles across the floor to keep them from falling off my feet. This creates a shuffling noise that my wife finds more annoying than fingernails being dragged over a chalkboard. Ew!
When I was little, Mom would hand me a few tin cans; a coffee can and a couple of old cookie tins with metal lids. Each was filled with miscellaneous buttons. Mom never threw away a worn-out jacket or article of clothing without first removing the buttons and good, re-usable zippers. “Here, find me a few pairs of matching buttons.” She would say as she sat on the couch with her legs pulled up under her and her feet tucked in between the cushions.
Below her on the floor was a wicker basket with balls of yarn in various colors. Mom would carry on a conversation as her hands moved methodically. Strands coming from the basket were wrapped through and around her fingers to feed the tips of two long knitting needles. Sometimes she would be pulling different colors of yarn from multiple balls at the same time.
I would pour the buttons on the floor to look for matching pairs. “I need buttons with large holes this time.” She would say, while knitting away and I started poking through the little plastic discs.
Mom would knit sweaters, scarves, stocking hats and mittens – she could knit anything. Some things were one solid color and others were multiple colors with neat patterns and designs. When it was the right size, she’d remove the piece from her knitting needles. She’d thread the eye of a big needle with the same color yarn and start stitching the pieces together. “Hand me those two dark blue buttons.” She would say, then fasten them at the front of the foot opening. “Here, try on these slippers.” She handed them to me, “Can you find another big red button like that for me?” She said, while pointing to a button in the pile with her long knitting needle. I put the slippers on my feet and started looking through the pile. Another big red button should be easy to find.
My feet always felt nice and warm in a pair of mom’s homemade slippers and I don’t ever recall them making any shuffling noises when I walked. If a pair had holes in the toe, Mom would stitch them up. When a pair had holes worn in the heels, we cut the buttons off and put them back in the can. Then we threw the slippers away and Mom would make a new pair.
I did some looking online and smiled when I found hand-knit slippers for sale. I bought dark blue slippers for myself and a pair for Melissa in sage green yarn.
After she opened the package, I immediately put on my new slippers and pranced around the room. “Look! No slapping on the floor and no shuffling noises. They’re stealth, silent slippers.” I ran across the room then slid across the smooth oak floors like a kid sliding on the ice. Wheee!
I walked around more in the slippers. They were nice, but not quite as comfortable as Mom’s. Maybe they were made with a different yarn, I don’t know – they just weren’t the same.
I walked in my new slippers to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to get a glass of eggnog. There sat that whole tomato. I smiled. There is a difference between someone else’s homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes you grow yourself. There is also a difference between hand knit slippers and homemade slippers that mom knitted for you.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!