a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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A few years ago, my brother Dan, the plumber, came up to Minnesota to help with my home remodeling project. I went to Duluth to pick up an order he had called in for supplies. I decided to take my car as it gets substantially better fuel mileage than the pickup. Besides, I still had the big trailer hitched to the truck and saw no need to disconnect when the car would do just fine. My dog June wanted to ride along but told her she had to stay home this time.
When Mike, the cashier, was totaling the order, he struck up a conversation, "So your brother Dan is a plumber?"
"Yep." I answered, "The funny thing is, I can get him to help plumb the house, but I can't get him to pay for my materials." We laughed about that, then I asked Mike, "Do you have a brother like that?"
"Nope," he said, "I'm an only child."
"I can't even imagine that," I said.
"Can't imagine what?" Mike asked.
"I can't imagine being an only child."
"Is Dan your only brother?" He asked.
"No," I chuckled, "I grew up in a family with sixteen children. I have seven brothers and eight sisters."
"Wow! I can't imagine." He said, "Did you ever have your own bedroom?"
"Are you kidding?" I replied. "I didn't even have my own bed until I started paying rent at my first apartment." We had a good laugh over that.
"That must have been tough," Mike said.
"Not really, it's just the way it was – the way I thought it was for everyone." I explained, "You see, you and I grew up on the opposite ends of the sibling spectrum. As I see it, the problem with being an only child is that your parents already knew who did it whenever something got broken. My parents, on the other hand, had to figure it out. I had a pretty good chance of dodging the blame."
"I never looked at it like that," Mike said, "You're right; they always knew I did it - you can't blame the dog for everything." We shared another good laugh over that. I paid for my order, thanked him for his help, then headed out to put my purchase in the car.
One significant error I make repeatedly is tending to forget my car is just that, a car - not a truck. My order was mainly ten-feet long pieces of PVC pipes and bags of fittings for the drains. To reduce the pipes' bulk, I slid the inch and a half pipes inside the two-inch lines, then slid the two-inch pipes inside the three-inch pipes. There were a lot more pieces than I anticipated.
Out in the parking lot, I discovered the pipes were not going to fit inside the car. "I don't understand; I've had boards that were ten feet long in the car before." Admittedly, they go from the tailgate, almost to the windshield, but they do fit. I failed to consider that the pipes are over three inches, where the lumber was only one and five-eighths thick. I also didn't t take into account how many pipe sections I would be hauling and that they would have to be stacked a few rows high.
With the back seat down and the front passenger seat fully reclined, I managed to get all the three inches pieces in by running them diagonally from the left rear corner to the front right. I closed the tailgate carefully. No problem. Looking through the back window, I had well over an inch to spare. It appeared the next row would go in just fine as well. I smiled, thinking I was pretty clever. "I've got this under control."
I reopened the back hatch and loaded another row of two-inches pipes that had smaller tubes inside. I again closed the gate slowly. It was pretty tight; the pipes barely touched the back of the end gate, keeping it from latching, but it looked like it would close, so I gave it a little extra push. Nope. The tailgate and the windshield both curved inward toward the top of the car, shortening the clearance. The pipes were not going to fit.
"Not a problem," I thought to myself. I would have to put the passenger window down and let the pipes hang out a few inches. It seemed like a redneck way to do it, but it would work. I'd turn the heat up to high for the 65-mile trip home with an open window.
When I went to the front of the car to put the passenger window down, I noticed two new star-shaped cracks in the windshield. You know the kind; they start at a single point, then sprawl out like a spider web. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as I looked at my windshield. "Aw crap! That's going to raise the cost of this project." It's a sickening feeling when you do something so stupid.
I immediately began trying to figure out how this could have happened. I know glass will fracture more quickly when it is sweltering hot or bitterly cold, but today it was neither. "There is no way I could have pushed the end gate hard enough to crack the windshield. There's just no way!" It was impossible. What could have caused this?
Well, maybe it was not impossible. Maybe I did push too hard. Maybe I should have tied the pipes to the rack on top of the car. Maybe I should have unhitched the trailer and driven the truck to Duluth rather than using the car as a truck. Maybe I should have...
Maybe, maybe, maybe. None of these maybes mattered now. The fact is the windshield cracked, and I did it. I must have done it - I was the only one there. Not being one to cry (too long) over spilled milk, I started laughing over a silly idea, "Maybe I should have let June ride along."
Then I heard a voice in my head. It was Mike reminding me, "You can't blame the dog for everything."
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Once upon a time, grasshoppers threatened to devour all of Finland's grapes in a land far away. Legend has it; Urho chased the hordes of insects away, saving the vineyards in ancient Finland. His noble deeds resulted in canonization and earned Saint Urho a day on the calendar: March 16th - the day before Saint Patrick's. Coincidence, or not?
At my first such celebration, I met an "honest Finlander" who'd consumed his portion of pints and then some. He told me Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland after seeing Urho chase away the grasshoppers. "That's why Saint Urho's day comes first."
His friend, an Irishman, shook his head, "For starters, there is no such thing as an honest Finlander, okay, because they're called Finns – not Finlanders. They made that up too." The Irishman wasn't too steady on his feet but raised his glass and went on to state, "Now Saint Patrick, he was a real hero."
Whether the account of Saint Urho is accurate or not, I do not know. We raised our glasses to toast both saints.
I do know, lots of people gather every year to celebrate Saint Urho in a small town just up the road from me – Finland, Minnesota, population 179. On the Saturday following Saint Urho's Day, Finland will have a parade followed by festivities for all ages. This year, that Saturday was also the first day of spring.
It was a beautiful sun-shiny day; people were anxious to get out of their houses. A parade was just what we all needed. We were part of the masses that migrated in, causing the town's population to swell at least ten-fold for the day, maybe more.
The Lake County Sheriff lead the way, followed by the Finland Fire Department. The diesel motor rumbled smoothly; I could feel the power of the massive shiny red truck as it made its way slowly up Highway 1, right through the middle of the town. The lights flashed, and the siren blared; fire-fighters tossed showers of candy to people lining both sides of the road. Kids were gathering the treats as efficiently as a combine harvesting corn in the field. Autumn seemed so very long ago.
Seeing the firetrucks reminded me of a story I read last fall about the fire hazard created when lint builds up inside a clothes dryer. I had been meaning to check my dryer but hadn't got around to it yet. Being the vernal equinox, perhaps some spring cleaning would be in order – tomorrow. Nobody works on Saint Urho's Day.
After church and a good breakfast, I was ready to tackle the dryer. I almost forgot my wife telling me the washing machine took over two and a half hours to do a load. The water was running really slowly into the tub; it was probably the water inlet valve. I would look into it another time; the dryer was my project for today.
I questioned my thinking: what good is a dryer without wet clothes from the washer? "Maybe, I should look into that first - how difficult could it be?" I headed to the basement with a couple of hand-tools and a head full of knowledge.
Without a service manual, I used simple common sense and pulled the machine away from the wall. I disconnect the power cord, hot and cold-water lines, and the drain tube. On my knees, I examined the back panel on the unit. "Simple. Take these four screws out, and the back comes off." I removed the screws, but the back didn't come off. I found a fifth screw and took it out; still, the back remained in place. I didn't see any more screws.
A variety of plastic connectors were poking out through the panel. Using a pair of pliers, I squeezed each of them together and pushed the little white nubs back through. A couple of larger plastic connectors were giving me trouble; I finally got them back in as well – but still, the back panel didn't come off. After each pair of connectors was pushed through, I would hear something drop inside the cabinet. I was a little concerned.
There were two metal tabs toward the top that could have been holding it on. I tried without success to manipulate or bend them out. Frustrated, I stood up, scratching my head, "What the heck!" I took a ceremonial look around the room to make sure I was alone – to be sure there were no other men present to witness what I was about to do.
I took the walk of shame up the stairs to the living room. My wife was sitting in her chair. "Is everything going okay down there?" I assured her it was. "It seemed like there was a lot of banging and some cussing."
"Everything is fine. I thought I'd take a break and see what everyone is doing on Facebook." It's a genetic thing. Men were not designed to ask for directions or seek help with simple things we can figure out on our own. Who am I to break tradition?
I opened my iPad and started to type "Facebook" in the search bar. Instead, I accidentally typed, "How to remove the back panel on a Maytag washing machine model #8318015." I'm sure everyone has experienced the way Google tends to answer a question you did not ask.
My search results popped up: How to replace the water inlet valve on a Maytag washing machine. "Hmm. Smart-aleck computer!" I opened an instructional video. An appliance repair expert named Steve said I would need a putty knife, a ¼" nut driver, a pair of slip-joint pliers, and a flat-head screwdriver. He said, "The first thing you needed to do is disconnect the power cord and remove the water lines."
"Seriously? I came upstairs for this?" I said sarcastically, "At this point, I could be an expert making millions of dollars producing 'how-to' washer repair videos!"
Steve showed me how to use a putty knife to release two catch springs under the control panel's front. By release two more brass catch springs located under the board, I could remove the top of the washer and access the water inlet valve. "What? I don't go through the back panel?" Steve replaced his valve in a four-minute video. I was already ninety-minutes into my repair.
I returned to the basement with a headful of new knowledge. I would first have to support the back panel to keep the whole machine from falling apart by replacing some of the screws I'd removed. "Ha! Something I know that even Steve the expert didn't know."
Using Steve's method, I had the top of the machine off in less than two minutes. I always thought automatic washing machines were self-cleaning. I mean, every time you do a load of laundry, you wash the inside of the machine – right? When you open the lid, they always smell like clean clothes. I turned the top over to set it on the dry while I worked; I saw the underside for the first time. "Ick! I'll clean that before I put it back on."
Remember all those connectors I pushed into the machine? Well, parts and components were hanging everywhere. It was going to be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a box top to look at. I seriously questioned whether this machine would ever run again. I would remove the front cabinet from the device to reach them, which was easy because the top is basically what holds all the sheet metal on the front. "These things are built so cheaply – it's no wonder the new units only last five years."
With the cabinet removed, I began reattaching dangling things to the back wall. Once the puzzle was completed, I removed the only thing I didn't disconnect from the rear panel – the water inlet valve. I took it to the sink to examine it. The filter screens were plugged up with sediment. I pulled them out and cleaned them with a brush. After reinstalling the valve, connecting the water lines, and plugging in the electrical cord, I started a wash cycle.
"Wow!" Water was rushing into the washtub like water crossing a concrete spillway at the pond after a torrential summer's rain. I was pretty darn smitten with myself. I pushed the knob in to stop the water, then shook my head. "I could have cleaned those screens without taking the whole darn washing machine apart."
I stood looking at the exposed inside of the machine, mainly the washtub, "That's disgusting." I said, then committed to giving her a good spring cleaning as long as it was already disassembled. There was gunk in there one would never suspect!
When you lift the lid and look into your washer, what you're seeing, the thing with all the perforated holes, is the wash basket – not the tub. (Remember, I'm an expert now - I watched some videos.) The basket, which sits in the washtub, was clean and shiny - on the inside; the tub was not, nor was the back of the basket- the area we never see. I would scrub them while I had it apart.
I don't want to gross anyone out, but what I found beyond the clean parts we see through the lid would send a person with OCD screaming and running to their therapist! The washer always smells clean because of layers of built-up "fresh scent" laundry detergent that sticks to areas we cannot reach for regular cleaning.
Our machine has the fabric softener cup at the top of the agitator. I removed and cleaned the agitator assembly inside and out. I don't care how cute that little bear is; I will never put liquid fabric softener in my laundry machine again. What a sticky, gooey mess!
Deep cleaning our automatic washing machine caused me to consider alternate options. I could go down to Lake Superior to beat my laundry on a rock or take a bar of lye soap and a washboard – but the DNR would probably frown on that. I could always get an old Maytag wringer washer and use a clothesline in the yard. These seemed like good ideas, but the reality is, we'll keep using the automatic washing machine and dryer.
Oh yeah, the dryer. That was the project I was supposed to be on.
I managed to get the washer put back together with no spare parts, and everything worked, so I felt pretty confident. I put a load of sheets in the freshly cleaned machine. While they were in the washer, I would have time to take a look at the dyer.
I pulled the dryer away from the wall. I've done this before, so I felt like a seasoned pro; I needed no tutorial videos. With nine screws removed, the back panel came right off. Inside wasn't too bad at all. I vacuumed up any dust and lint. I also cleaned the heat and exhaust ducts inside and the vent tube outside the dryer. I wanted to open the cabinet to check around the drum.
Since I bought the washer and dryer together, I tried the same technique to remove the dryer's control panel and cabinet. It all worked as it should, "Ha! I am a pro." I boasted. When I was done cleaning, I put everything back together. I installed eight of the screws in the back panel before dropping the final screw. I looked around the floor but couldn't find it; it was lost forever. "It's just going to be missing a screw." I conceded, then replaced the vent tube, plugged in the big 220 cord, and slid the dryer back into place.
The wash cycle had just finished; I checked the time. "Thirty-eight minutes. BAM! I am the Northwoods master appliance repairman!"
I pulled the clean sheets from the washer, bending over to toss them through the front door of the dryer; something caught my eye. There was a single screw on top of my shoe, resting on the laces. I laughed and looked at the trash can. I considered pitching the loose screw, but I was on such a good roll.
After I pulled the appliance back out from the wall to insert the final screw, I then started the dryer and went upstairs. "Man, I am killin' it on this spring cleaning." I removed a towel laid over some clean dishes at the kitchen counter – pots, pans, utensils; the stuff we don't put in the dishwasher. I started putting items away.
I bobbled the plastic sleeve that protects the candy thermometer. It bounced off the counter, up onto the back of the range, then fell back down the wall and behind the range. I cursed. After seeing what I had just seen inside the washing machine, there was no way I wanted to pull the stove out right now. If I did that, I would start having ideas about pulling put the refrigerator too. "That sleeve can just stay there until I get around to it."
I'd had my share of spring cleaning. I cracked open an ice-cold Castle Danger IPA and prepared to do nothing for the rest of the day. I wondered if Saint Urho's chasing the grasshoppers out of Finland was part of a simple spring-cleaning project he started? I raised my glass, "Here's to you, Saint Urho, for a job well done. May there be lint in your belly-button, but never in your clothes dryer!"
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Unless I have a reason to go there, I prefer to avoid the Chicago metro. The heavy traffic and never-ending road construction create constant congestion on the highways. I’ve even tried driving through at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning and still ran into backed up and stopped traffic.
Chicago drivers have two hands for a reason. One to blast the horn and the other to wave their middle finger at drivers who fail to demonstrate courteous motoring skills. And, the toll booths? Well, that’s another story. Finding a different route is an excellent way to avoid the stress of “passing through” Chicago.
I was headed to the east coast, without a particular destination, I was just going, and in no hurry at all. I decided to take an alternate route I’ve traveled many times. I go around Lake Superior, through northern Wisconsin, and across the UP of Michigan. From there, I join I-75 south, cross the Mackinaw Bridge, and drive the length of the state.
At Flint, Michigan, I can go east, over the top of Lake Erie, cut through Canada, and into Buffalo, New York. Or, continue to Toledo, Ohio, passing south of the lake. Either way, I come out well east of Chicago’s traffic fiasco.
I like to journey with a free spirit – having an idea when I want to be where I’m going, but without rigid schedules. For this trip, I would drive well after dark, catch some sleep at a rest area, and cross the Mighty Mack in the morning. With frigid temperatures forecast and traveling on a road where you seldom see other cars at night, I laid out an itinerary that was well planned, including fuel stops. But, even the best of plans can often require improvisions.
The gas station where I was going to refuel was closed permanently. No problem. There’s another gas station twenty-five-miles down the road that’s open until midnight. We continued on.
When we arrived at the next station, the place was dark. Using the light from my cell phone, I read a handwritten sign on the front door. “New hours. Now closing at 8 pm. Open at 6 am daily.” Great. I glanced at the time on my phone; it wasn’t quite ten-o-clock. “Eight hours until they open.” I zipped my coat, raised the hood to block the cold wind, pushed my hands deep into my pockets, and walked back to the truck. I climbed inside the warm cab. A little more than concerned, I gave my dog June a rub on the head and said, “This isn’t good.”
I scrolled through the GPS. The next gas station was only fifteen miles farther away, but my truck was so low on gas I was afraid to attempt it, and who knew if they would even be open? I had a one-gallon can of gasoline in the back, but my truck only gets 12 mpg, so that wouldn’t take me far. “Hmm. What to do.”
There I was, nearly out of gas on a barren road in extreme northern Michigan, at a gas station that didn’t have card readers on their pumps. The weather was bitterly cold, and the camper didn’t have a heater. Adding to my situation, there is no cell phone service in this area.
I decided to stay in the gas station parking lot until morning; at least, I knew this place would open in eight hours - probably. And, If I froze to death, I’m sure someone would be curious enough to investigate this abandoned truck and camper, to find my body. It was really cold.
I had a zero-degree sleeping bag and a few blankets in the camper. I would save the gallon of gasoline to put in the truck and let it run if the camper was too cold. June and I crawled into the mummy-style bag but couldn’t close the zipper. The bag wasn’t designed for a border collie and a man. I laid the blankets over us and kept my coat on with the hood up. It was actually pretty warm when we snuggled together, but June didn’t much care for the feeling of being confined. She would wiggle out from under the covers and lay next to me until she got cold, then wanted back inside the bag again. This went on all night long, and neither of us slept well.
In the morning, I pumped 25.2 gallons of gasoline in my twenty-five-gallon tank. Inside, I poured a cup of coffee and went to the register to pay for my gas. “How cold is it out there?”
The cashier glanced at a digital thermometer, “Twenty-four below, before wind chill.”
She looked out on the driveway. My truck was the only vehicle at the pumps. “Did you stay in that camper last night?” I told her I did. She laid a credit card slip on the counter and handed me a pen. “Boy, you must have a real good heater in that thing.” I nodded
Had we tried to keep going in the night, I might have made it a mile or two down the road before I ran the tank dry. At that point, one gallon of gas from the spare can wouldn’t have done much good. In the morning, I also found the next station (15 miles down the road) had also gone out of business!
I was saved by a zero-degree bag, a warm dog, and the grace of God, who told me to stay put.
Given a chance to make that trip over, I would take the same route, and I’d still do it after dark - but I wouldn’t let the tank get below half - anything to avoid that Chicago traffic.
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A schoolmarm's role was pretty straightforward; hand out assignments, wear out a red pencil each day, discipline young Mr. Palen, and monitor the playground. "How sweet it would be to be a teacher." I thought. They work six hours a day, get every weekend and all major holidays off, a week of vacation at Christmastime and another in the spring, plus three months in the summer. Of course, back then, I also thought priests and ministers only worked one hour a week.
In time, I became friends with several school teachers. Two of my three daughters are now school teachers; Delaney in the Twin Cities and Annie in Sheffield, Iowa. Now that I think about it, I've never heard any of them say, "I became a teacher for the short hours and great pay." The ability to teach is a gift - they desire to do so is a passion.
I've recently had a few encounters with the everyday challenges of an educator. My granddaughter, Addison, had a homework assignment – how to count money. Easy-peasy. I could help her with this.
I went to the bank and withdrew $5; one-hundred pennies, twenty nickels, ten dimes, four quarters, and a crisp one-dollar bill. "As soon as you can count it, I'll let you keep all of this money," I told my young student. Eager to earn her pay, Addie and I went right to work.
With the coins in their respective piles, I asked, "Which pile has the most money?" She chose the pennies. "Which has the next biggest amount of money?" She picked the nickels, then the dimes, the quarters, and finally the dollar bill. "What if I told you each pile has the same amount of money?"
"That can't be, Papa, because all these pennies are more than one dollar," she explained.
Our lesson began, "Which would be easier to put in your pocket: this one dollar, or all these pennies?" We agreed the dollar would be more comfortable. "Everything is based on one-hundred pennies, but that many pennies would be hard to carry, so they made the dollar bill – which is the same as one hundred pennies." Next, we made twenty stacks of pennies with five coins in each. She totaled the piles by counting in fives.
"One hundred." She answered
I had her lay a nickel in front of each stack of coins, explaining that one nickel was the same amount as five pennies. Again, counting by five, she reached a total of one hundred. We did the same exercise with dimes but would save the quarters for the next lesson. "How old are you?" I asked Addison.
"Papa, you know I'm seven." She replied as if the answer was obvious.
"Okay, give me enough coins to make seven cents." She counted out seven pennies. "What's another way could you give me seven cents, using fewer coins?" She thought hard; I prompted her, "How many pennies are in a nickel?" As if a lightbulb lit up over her head, she gave me a nickel and two pennies.
We explored the age of other people. "How old is Evelyn?" She gave me three pennies. Asking, "How old is your mom," allowed us to find several combinations of coins totaling thirty-one cents - without using quarters yet. "How old is Papa?"
As innocent and sincere as a child can be, Addison asked, "Do we have enough money to do you, Papa?"
"I think our lesson has gone on long enough for today," I said and began gathering the coins.
In our next lesson, her teacher wanted us to convert cents to dollars and cents. I laughed as I recalled my mom telling me many times, "Son, you have more dollars than sense." I always appreciated that play on words, but I digress; homophones are fun, but that's English, and we were still working on math – counting money, to be specific.
Her teacher wanted us to convert 132 cents to dollars and cents. First, I had to explain the decimal point and the importance of its placement. I explained, "Numbers to the left of the decimal point are dollars, and the numbers to the right of the point are cents." I went on to tell her, "When you put the decimal point between the three and the two, made the amount thirteen dollars and twenty cents." She wasn't getting it – yet.
A teacher once told me, "If a student's struggling with a lesson, it doesn't mean they're not smart enough to get it; it could be I haven't explained it in a way they understand. It's about communication." I concluded: if I fail a subject, it's the teacher's fault, but I missed the point.
It was frustrating for both me and Addison. Something so simple as a decimal point, which I take for granted, was challenging to comprehend for someone who had never heard of one before today.
"So, I have to get the point right?" She asked. I drifted off for a moment, recalling first grade at Horace Mann Elementary School. I was in Mrs. Sales' class.
One year older than me, my brother Gerard was in Mrs. Sales' class the year before. He warned me, "When you go to her desk to get your paper checked, she'll ask you to go sharpen her red pencil. Then, if you have a wrong answer, she'll bonk you with it, and the point breaks off in your head."
I don't know if his story was true or not. But I do remember shaking at Mrs. Sales' desk one day when she handed me her red pencil, "Tommy, will you please go sharpen my pencil."
I returned with her the freshly sharpened marking device. She went over my assignment. The fine tip of the lead broke off when she firmly circled a math problem. "Eight plus two is not nine. Now you tell me the correct answer."
This was a critical life moment. I rolled my eyes rolled up, and to the right. My mouth puckered, my lips moving to one side and then the other. In my head, I saw eight fingers, then counted two more. Sheepishly and nearly scared to death, I replied, "Is it ten?"
"You know the answer is ten, but you get in a hurry and rush through your work." She began to shake the eraser end of her pencil at me. With each motion of the pencil, I flinched. "Slow down. Take your time. There is no rush." She drew a red checkmark through my answer. At the top of the paper, she wrote +9 B. I gave a big sigh of relief. I had escaped the wrath of the red pencil my brother had warned me about – this time.
Interrupting my daydreaming, Addison repeated her question. "Papa? So, I have to get the point right?"
Her question was worded a little awkwardly, but I understood. I was delighted she was catching on. "Yes. To have the correct answer, you must put the decimal point in the right place." I gave Addison a hug. I told her I was proud of her progress in math, then dismissed my class.
Our lesson gave me a small taste of what teachers do every day – I couldn't imagine trying to teach twenty kids simultaneously. I thought to myself, "Being a teacher would require a lot of patients – or is it patience? It doesn't matter; I've never had many or much of either."
My bit of spelling humor caused me to laugh and reminded me of another of Gerard's tales from first grade.
"Mrs. Sales got really mad about my spelling paper," Gerard told me, "I don't know why, but she said she was going to call Mom." My brother showed me his spelling assignment to see if I could figure it out.
The page featured several images: a ball, a cat, a flag, a car, a bus, etc. There was a line next to each to write the word that went with the picture. It looked like he spelled them correctly. I focused on the big red checkmark going through one image. Mrs. Sales drew several circles around the word Gerard wrote.
I was not a spelling whiz in kindergarten by any means, but I could spell some words. "Gerard, there's supposed to be an R in the word shirt." We would have shared a good laugh about that, but we didn't know what he wrote at our young ages - we didn't get the point. Oh, the challenges of being a teacher.
A couple of days later, I picked Addison up from school. "If we go home and finish your math homework right away, you'll have time to read your book. After that, we'll get Evelyn from her school, and I'll take you girls someplace fun!" Anxious to find out what was in-store, Addison was eager to do her assignment.
It was the first time I'd picked Evelyn up from school, and she was excited to see us. She handed me a heart she colored in class, "I made this for Mommy." I told her it was beautiful as we walked to her cubby to get her coat.
Apparently, her school was doing an animal theme for the day. Instead of a coat, Evelyn wore her grey corduroy mouse suit, complete with a long rigid tail and a mouse head hood with big ears. This would fit perfectly into my planned excursion. On the way to the car, Ev's big sister followed her. Addison held the mouse tail like a bridesmaid carrying the train of a wedding dress to keep it out of puddles on the sidewalk.
I drove across the high bridge from Duluth, Minnesota, into Superior, Wisconsin. A short way down Hammond Avenue, I turned left into the parking lot. Addison was impressed with the big brown "cow" on top of the sign; "Dan's Feed Bin," she read aloud. (Actually, it's a steer, but that's another day's lesson.)
Several bails of straw were sitting on the loading dock. Inside the big sliding doors, the girls saw large sacks of corn, sunflower seed, and animal feed stacked in big piles. Again, carrying the tail to keep it clean and dry, Addison said, "Papa, as soon as we get inside, you have to tell the people, Ev is a mouse, not a barn rat, so they don't try to catch her." The kid is smart.
At the front counter, I ordered a sack of sunflower seed, corn, and an apple-flavored mineral block for the deer. Addie and Ev ran off to explore the store. They were thrilled to find aquariums with pet mice, hamsters, and rats. Other cages had colorful birds. Addison looked at the top shelf and read the tag. "Crickets are gross," she said, wrinkling her face.
They were most fascinated by the mice. Addie was studying the tags on the glass front. "What does that say," I asked her.
She read, "Mice. Females, two dollars, ninety-five cents. Males, two dollars, ninety-five cents."
"How much are the crickets?"
She looked to the top shelf, "Crickets, ten cents each. They're gross. I would never touch a cricket."
"What does that say on the
bin with seeds and a scoop?"
"Hamster food. One dollar, thirty-nine cents." She continued around the aisle. "Finches. Five dollars, ninety-five cents. Parakeets…"
I asked about another. "How much is the cockatiel?"
We hadn't worked on anything with more than three numbers. She seemed stumped for a moment but didn't give up. She rolled her eyes up, and to the right, her mouth puckered, and she moved her lips from one side and then the other. "Fifty-six dollars, ninety-five cents?" I picked her up, gave her a big hug, and told her how proud I was of her. The other day during our lesson I wasn't sure if I was reaching her, but now, my heart was full.
Suddenly, I had a vision of a school teacher sitting at their kitchen table. The late show was on TV in the other room, but no one was watching it. A basket of clean laundry, waiting to be folded, sat on the far side, next to a few bills and a checkbook. With a sandwich in one hand and a red pencil in the other, they were grading papers from their class that day.
No one becomes a teacher for the short hours and great pay. But, watching Addison read the price tags at Dan's Feed Bin, I was clearly getting the point.
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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."