"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.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!