a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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It wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did. As a matter of fact, today, I would label it as one of the dumbest things I ever did.
I had recently graduated high school and got my first “real job” at Plywood Minnesota, in Ottumwa, Iowa. In junior high school, I had worked at my parent’s restaurant, the Runway Café. In high school I worked at the China Restaurant, then Mr. Munchee’s – a burger joint across the street from the movie theater. I thought I had hit it big time when, as a junior in high school, I got on with Pizza Hut. But, to get hired at Plywood Minnesota, my first job outside the world of food service? That was really something.
At all my restaurant jobs, I lectured any co-workers who smoked. I told them about the health dangers, the high cost of cigarettes and how smoking made them smell badly. But. Now that I was in the big league of employment, I didn’t want to come across as being a smart aleck; a know it all, or self-righteous. In reality, I was eager to fit in with my new colleagues and most of them smoked. So, even though it was one of the dumbest things I ever did, I started to smoke.
In less than a year, most of the guys quit smoking but I continued. They would tell me how bad smoking was. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t going to admit that, so I told them I enjoyed smoking; it was relaxing. I told them those health problems wouldn’t happen to me because I was different. Besides, I would quit before the smoking ever became a problem. The truth is, I have a very addictive personality. I was hooked and to keep smoking was easier than quitting. I eventually did quit smoking – thirty years later.
I’ve always believed anything worth doing is worth doing well. Smoking was no exception. I didn’t want to be one of those people who only smoked two or three cigarettes a day. Why smoke at all? So, I smoked a pack a day for the first ten years. Well, a pack a day until the Marlboro Man started putting those “Marlboro Miles” on the side of each package, then I kicked it up to about two packs a day. I had to have those miles – each one was worth five points! You could redeem the points for some pretty cool stuff. I was especially interested in the camping gear.
I liked camping in the mountains - and winter camping when it gets really cold. Marlboro offered a Zero Degree Sleeping bag. A similar item retailed for over $100. I saved enough miles to get one. It was a “mummy bag,” with bright red nylon on the top, black on the bottom and bright yellow inside. When it arrived, I took a motorcycle trip to the mountains to try it out. I was so impressed with the quality I wanted to get three more; one bag for each person in my family. But that would have required a lot of smoking. Two packs a day was already too much for me, so I solicitated the help of other smokers.
I tapered back to a pack and a half per day, and friends who weren’t going to use their miles, collected them for me. Pretty soon I had all the sleeping bags I wanted. Because it wasn’t cool for the kids to have a cigarette logo on their sleeping bags, I carefully remove the Marlboro patch with a seam ripper. I still had enough points to get the red duffle bag I wanted.
It was really cool and durable. Made of bright red canvas, it had a large space for clothes on top, a separate shoe compartment on the bottom and a pocket for toiletries on the front. The bag had handles on top and a large shoulder strap that made it super easy to carry. The duffle bag had a retail value over $100. It was a well-made piece of luggage – even the zippers were high quality. I’ve had the bag for many years. (decades) It’s traveled with me through all fifty states and Canada!
On one trip to Alaska, visiting my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks, the shoulder strap broke. The bag was heavy when fully loaded and frankly, it wasn’t easy to carry without that strap. Besides, it was over thirteen years old. I told my aunt Di about the damage and said I was going to throw the bag away.
“I can fix that for you.” She said. I explained it was very heavy canvas and I didn’t want her to damage her sewing machine trying to repair it. She laughed at me, “Give me the bag.” That’s when I learned Di had commercial sewing machines that could stich several layers of canvas together at one time. After she repaired it, the bag was better than ever and continued traveling with me for years.
It was on that trip to Alaska when Uncle John and I were way out in the wilderness staying at his cabin, that I ran out of cigarettes. I lasted three days without smoking and when we returned to Fairbanks, I decided to stay off the cigarettes. Just a few days after returning home from that trip, I started smoking again. Sigh. In all, I smoked for thirty years before quitting in 2009.
One day, about two and a half years after I quit, one of the girls at work came in from outside; she had been on a cigarette break. When she walked up to the front desk, I told her. “You really stink.” She returned the sentiment. “No, I mean it. You really stink like cigarettes.” She walked away a bit offended.
I asked another girl who was there (a non-smoker) if I smelled that bad when I was still smoking. She smiled, “Yes. You did.” It surprised me that it took so long after I quit before I became sensitive to the smell. It was awful, but years later I discovered something that smells even worse!
Just the other day, I was working in Ottumwa. I was cutting down trees with the chainsaw while my helpers hauled the branches to a trailer. When we were finished, I loaded my chainsaws, gas, oil and tools into the van and started to head out of town. I was going to my daughter’s house in Waterloo. Before I got out of town, I started to small gasoline – it was strong. Is there anything that smells worse than gasoline? I stopped the van to investigate.
It seems the cap on my gas can had split. The can tipped over and leaked gasoline all over the floor of my van. My red bag was back there. The gasoline soaked into the bag; mostly into the bottom compartment, but it didn’t seem to get to my clothes in the top section. I rushed into a grocery store to buy a package of paper towels and some Windex.
I removed my clothes from the duffle bag, placing them in plastic grocery sacks. The red bag itself was soaked with gasoline dripping from it. I put it inside a separate plastic sack, setting it outside, then began cleaning up the gas with paper towels. I cleaned the floor the best I could with Windex. It seemed to have removed the gas from the rubber floor mat – but, the smell was still strong!
Outside the van, I picked up my red bag. It was really a mess. It broke my heart to admit it, but after thirty years together - it was time. I threw my red bag away. It was a long drive back to Waterloo. I reminisced about all the places we had been together – me and that red bag. I kept the windows open, hoping to air out the van.
It was 10:30 p.m., when I arrived. Before going in the house, I smelled my clothes in the sacks. They didn’t smell like gas so I went inside. My daughter walked over toward the front door to greet me. About ten feet away, she wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the front door with a stiff arm. “Out! Now!” Apparently, I had become immune to the stench of gasoline.
I took my clothes to the laundromat. Before washing my clothes, I told a lady they were clean and asked if they smelled. “They smell like gasoline.” She said, “You better wash them in hot water.”
“You’re the first women who ever told me to wash colors in hot water.” I told her and we shared a good laugh about that.
When the washer was done, I put my clothes in a roller basket and started wheeling them to the dryer. The same lady approached me. Taking a damp T-shirt from my basket, she sniffed it. “Did you use hot water like I told you?” I assured her I did. “Did you use soap?” Again, I said I did. “You’re going to have to wash them again and make sure you set the machine for hot water.” I did as I was told.
As the lady was folding her clothes, a friend of hers walked in with a few baskets of clothing. The two started chatting. Before the first lady left, she brought her friend to me. “Brenda, this man got gasoline on his clothes and the smell was still there after he washed them, so I made him wash them again. Before he puts them in the dryer, will you make sure he got the smell out?”
Brenda assured her, “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Then she looked at me, asking, “Did you wash them in hot water?”
The first lady left and about ten minutes later my machine was done. I put my clothes in a basket and started wheeling them toward the dryer. Brenda walked up and took a damp shirt from my basket giving it the sniff test. “Did you use hot water?” I assured her I did. “And did you use soap?” Again, I assured her I did. “Honey, you’re going to have to wash them again.”
She led me to the soap vending machine, pointing to a particular box, “Use this Gain with bleach and a box of this Oxy Clean. That’ll take the smell away.” I bought the products she recommended and returned to the washing machine. She followed me, looking over my shoulder, “Now make sure you use hot water or you’ll never get that gas smell out of your clothes.”
When the load was done, she smelled another of my T-shirts. She smiled, extending the damp garment toward me, “Now doesn’t that smell clean and fresh?” I agreed it did and proceeded to the dryer. “Now you dry those on medium, not high heat. You don’t want to shrink your cotton shirts.”
I was grateful to both ladies for their help. Thirty-seven dollars and almost four hours later, I left the laundromat with clean clothes. It was just after 2 a.m. when I got to Sydney’s house.
The next day, after doing a little online research, I spent a couple hours cleaning the inside of the van with a solution of vinegar, baking soda and water. It worked. The gasoline smell is gone. Fortunately, the van came along many years after I quit smoking, so that’s a stench I didn’t have to deal with.
I smoked for thirty years and I had that red duffle bag for thirty years. I still have two of the sleeping bags, thirty years later. It almost seemed like a fair trade off until I considered, the four sleeping bags and the duffle bag would have cost me $500. I can’t even fathom the real cost of getting those items “FREE.”
I thought about the demise of my Marlboro duffle bag and chuckled out loud, “I guess cigarettes and gasoline never have mixed well.”
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I have always loved waterfalls with the adventure and serenity they offer. As a little kid, while visiting Grampy and Grammy in Mason City, Iowa, we would walk to East Park. My brother, sisters and I would fish and play in Willow Creek, which winds through the park and flows into the much bigger Winnebago River. We were to stay away from that river unless an adult was with us.
There were man-made concrete spillways along the creek, dropping about three feet. We called them waterfalls. On the bank, upstream from the falls, we would cast stones trying to make them skip across the water’s surface. If you were any good at all, you could make your stone jump the dam and continue into the water below.
Sometimes, when visiting our Minnesota cousins, we went to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. A much higher and far more impressive falls, but we weren’t allowed to play in them.
When my wife and I started coming to the North Shore of Lake Superior, abundant with waterfalls, I became spoiled: Gooseberry, the Beaver and Cross Rivers, Devil’s Kettle on the Brule River, Kakabeka Falls in Canada; they were all part of the lure for us to move north. Now we can hear the roar of High Falls, Illgen and Two Step Falls, along the Baptism River, from our house.
The High Falls on the Pigeon River, create a natural boundary line between the United States and Canada, as do the Niagara Falls in New York. Both are spectacular, although Niagara Falls is a bit too touristy for me. The lines you wait in to see them remind me of an amusement park. From the very large and powerful, to the small and tranquil falls, I love them all.
Just the other day, I was traveling along Highway 28 in northern Michigan, working my way toward home. It was getting late in the night and I was getting tired, when I came upon a lot of emergency vehicles at the scene of a bad accident.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it all the way home and the accident served as reminder to me of what can happen when driving while fatigued. I pulled into the next wayside park along Highway 28 to catch a few hours of sleep.
Tioga Wayside Park, is a place I often stop to rest. At night, with the windows open, I can hear the soothing sound of a waterfall somewhere off in the woods. When I awoke in the morning, I thought about walking into the woods to find the waterfall I often hear – but have never seen.
Not far from the parking lot is a small walk bridge where water rushed through large rocks on the little Tioga River below. I met a nice couple there and we enjoyed some conversation. They told me it was only a short walk into the woods to the Tioga Falls, so I started walking the trail.
The falls were small dropping only a few feet, but they certainly create a large, comforting sound. I stayed there for a few moments thinking about life and wondered how much more peaceful the world could be if more people were able to spend time near waterfalls? I took in the serenity for a few more minutes then went back to my van.
Traveling west on Michigan 28, nearing Bergland, by Lake Gogebic, I came upon an orange sign that read, “Road Work Ahead.” Another said, “One Lane Traffic” and a third had a picture indicating there would be a flagman. Great! Not only was I going to be delayed, but they were putting tar in the cracks on the road and then sand over the tar. You know, the stuff that gets on your car, shows really bad on white paint and is really hard to remove? I know they’re just preparing the road for winter, but come on – isn’t there another way?
Luckily, I was the first car in line at the stop sign. I pulled up to the man holding the sign and rolled down my window to tell him exactly what I thought of his tar business. He walked up to the passenger side. I pointed my finger right at him and said, “You guys are doing a great job!”
He smiled, “Thanks man!” He said, “I’m used to people yelling at me about the tar getting on their cars.” He pushed the button on the side of his little walkie-talkie and said, “Hey, I got a pedestrian stopped over here who just told me we’re doing a great job.” He said it with a lot of pride.
A voice came back over the radio, “Uh, a pedestrian would mean they’re walking.”
We shared a good laugh about that. The man blushed. He seemed flustered, then spoke into the radio. “He is a pedestrian, but he’s driving a van right now.”
The voice on the radio laughed, then said, “I’m sending three your way. The last one is a red Ford truck pulling a camper.” Once that truck cleared, the man turned his sign to read SLOW. He wished me a good day and waved me on.
On the other end of the work zone, I hollered out my window to two men with the stop sign, “You guys are doing a great job!”
They waved their hands high in the air and yelled back, “Thank you!” followed by a good ole “Woo Hoo!” Their reaction made me happy.
I could have been a Debbie Downer, complaining about the tar, but honestly, what good would that do? These guys are just doing their job, sealing the pavement; preparing Michigan Highway 28 for the winter months ahead. Instead of bringing them down, I felt like I lifted their spirits. I continued down the road feeling pretty good about that.
About twenty miles farther down the road, Michigan 28 takes a wide sweeping turn to the south coming into the town of Wakefield, then curves back to the west. It wraps around Sunday Lake, following the shoreline, then after one more, smaller curve to the south, 28 comes to an end, intersecting Highway 2 where I would turn right to go home.
Coming into town on the first curve brings me to the northeast corner of Sunday Lake. There is a small man-made dam with a triangular concrete spillway. As I rounded the curve, I spotted a Michigan State Trooper parked on the side of the road. Thinking he was running radar to catch people who didn’t slow down coming into town, I smiled. I was doing the correct speed so there could be no ticket for me today. Then I noticed a trooper climbing around the chain-link fence that surrounds the spillway.
He had a pole of sorts in his hand, with a loop on the end and a rope tied to the fence. He started to rappel down into the spillway. This was too much for an old radio news broadcaster to pass up. I had to stop and see what he was doing. Certainly, there was a news story here. I wondered if he was looking for evidence someone had tried to dispose of by throwing it in the lake, or maybe a body of someone who had an accident.
I parked the van and hurried over to see what he was doing. The pole in his hand turned out to be a fishing net, so that ruled out looking for a body. He wouldn’t be fishing in his uniform, and besides, fishing with a net is illegal. He must be trying to retrieve evidence.
The water spilling over the dam was only a couple inches deep; down in the spillway it was slightly above his feet. The trooper, in his perfectly pressed blue uniform and shiny boots, walked carefully across the slippery concrete to the far side of the dam. A long board, maybe twenty-feet-long, spanned from the dam to the floor of the spillway. It looked like a ramp or something from a construction site. There was a small board fastened perpendicular to the top that caused the plank to get caught on the dam. Maybe he was going in to remove it, but why would a state trooper be doing that instead of someone from public works? The trooper walked around the end of the board to the very far side.
I assumed there was a gate on that end that can be lowered to reduce the water level in the lake if needed. The water seemed to have a little more velocity coming over the gate. The trooper walked closer to the falling water; close enough that the water was splashing up, getting the bottom of his trousers wet. He began pushing the fishing net through the falling water. Whatever he was looking for must have been behind the falls.
I was quietly rooting for the cop. For all his effort to get into the spillway, I hoped he would be successful in finding whatever he was searching for. After the third or fourth attempt, he pulled the net back from the falling water. There was something dark in the net, but from my distance, I couldn’t tell what is was.
He walked with his net around the long board, then got closer to wall of the dam. He lifted the net above and over the wall. “What is he doing?” I asked myself. The trooper lowered the evidence into the water above the dam, then turned the net over and lifted it, releasing the evidence that he had worked so hard to find. The evidence floated on the surface of the water for a moment, then drifted against the current, away from the waterfall. The evidence was... I squinted my eyes. The evidence was a small duck? I started laughing.
The trooper walked carefully back to my side of the spillway. Using the rope, he pulled himself up and walked up the wall like Batman would scale a building. When he reached the top, I walked his way. I reached my arm up and he handed me the net over the top of the fence. While holding onto the fence, he shimmied along the top of the narrow concrete wall and around the end until he was back on dry ground. We had quite an interesting conversation.
He told me there were two ducks. “They got too close to the dam and the current pushed them over the wall, into the spillway.” He said, “They can’t fly for some reason and can’t get out, so they just swim circles in here.”
The trooper told me he came down on his own time and built the wooden ramps. “I put small slats across the top surface so they could get their footing and not slide backwards. They haven’t figured out how to use the ramps yet, so about once a day, I come in and set them free.”
I was impressed. Very impressed by his compassion; taking time daily as well as using his own time (and material) to help a couple of ducks in need. I introduced myself and found out a little more about him. He had only been a State Trooper for about a year and a half. Before that he served in the United States Marine Corps, then he was a police officer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before joining the Michigan Highway Patrol.
Michigan State Trooper Paul Maxinoski, you certainly have gone above and beyond your call of duty! I really felt like a better person for having met him. Seeing the example he set through his actions made me want to go out and do good things, too. We said our farewells. He got into his cruiser; I got into my van and we both pulled out onto Michigan Highway 28. He turned into the post headquarters and I continued on.
On the west side of Wakefield, there was a concession truck in a parking lot; “Taco Dan,” was the sign on the side. I was hungry and it was close to noon, so I pulled in for lunch.
A young couple was at the order window ahead of me. The man was handing his cash to the gal inside the window. Still being on a natural high from meeting Trooper Paul, I said, “His money is no good here today.” The lady was confused as was the man. I explained, “I want to get their lunch today.”
“Really. Are you serious?” They both asked. I told her I was serious and she handed his cash back to him. Confused, his girlfriend asked what was going on? “Honey, this man wants to buy our lunch for us.” They thanked me and said, “You really just made our day!”
I placed my order and started to dig in my pocket for my credit card when I noticed the sign on the truck, “CASH ONLY.” Oh my, this could be embarrassing. I never carry much cash with me. I pulled out the cash I had from my pocket. Eleven dollars wasn’t going to cover the bill. Then I remembered before I left town, I took my dog June to the pet wash in Two Harbors, Minnesota.
After a bath, I always drive to the credit union across the street to get a little cash. Actually, it’s just an excuse to take June through the drive up. “I’d like to withdraw twenty-five dollars,” I said to the teller, “and June wants to know if she has any bones in her account.”
The teller laughed, “She has a lot of bones in her account.” The drawer came out with a dog treat and twenty-five bucks in an envelope - plenty to pay for our burritos in Wakefield.
I paid the cashier at Taco Dan’s truck, then ate my meal with the young couple. “What’s the occasion for buying our lunch?” One of them asked.
I explained to them the story about the Michigan State Trooper saving a duck. “You know, it made me feel so good seeing what he did, it inspired me to do something nice for someone else, too. Just paying it forward as they say.” We enjoyed a nice conversation while we ate.
We finished eating and I was getting ready to leave when a State Trooper pulled into the parking lot. He got out of his cruiser and walked toward the Taco Dan truck. “Long time no see.” He said, waving to me. I smiled, noticing the legs of his trousers had time to dry out.
“I was just telling these guys about you and how cool it was that you rescued that little duck.” I said. I wanted to offer to buy the officer’s lunch, but I don’t know if they can accept gifts like that and I only had five dollars left after buying lunch and leaving a tip. We said our farewells and I got in the van to head out.
After thirty-five years in radio broadcasting, I’ve met and worked with a lot of law enforcement officers. People who know me, know I sometimes drive a little too fast, thus I tend to meet even more officers on the side of the road.
I looked at the clock. It was 12:40 – Forty-five minutes since I left Trooper Maxinoski at the spillway on the other side of town. I started laughing out loud. “Forty-five minutes, eh? That’s the longest it’s ever taken a State Trooper to catch up to me.” Still chuckling, I turned onto the highway, “But he’s pretty new on the force – I’ll bet he’s a lot faster next time.”
All in all, it was a real good day on Michigan 28.
…looking for evidence…maybe a body…
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The Dessert Tray
Melissa and I took our dog June, for a walk down the road. Passing our neighbor’s yard, I heard a voice call out to me. “Hey Tom, do you want some lettuce?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I replied to no one there. Then Gene stood up. He was bent over, working in one of his gardens. He has amazing gardens; some with fruits and vegetables and others with the most beautiful flowers.
Gene cut two heads from the garden and handed them to me. It doesn’t get any better than lettuce, right from the garden. After that, we walked around the yard. He was showing us different varieties of flowers they planted. His wife, Lois, joined us. One of the flowerbeds is her project and very beautiful.
Gene started picking and gathering flowers from around the yard. Yellow, deep orange, blue, white – there were even a couple beige flowers I had never seen before. He shuffled the bunch for a moment or two, and then handed them to Melissa. “Here, these are for you.”
Maybe it was because he and Lois grew all the flowers, or perhaps because they were fresh out of the garden, but without a doubt, it was one of the most beautiful flower bouquets I’d ever seen. Melissa absolutely loved them!
Lois invited us in for refreshments. Of course, she always includes June, and had some special treats for her too. We sat and talked until after dark. Melissa thanked Gene again for the flowers. She was so thrilled with them. Gene just blushed. He is rightfully proud of his gardens and was happy to share the spoils.
While Melissa admired the blossoms, I told Gene, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.” We shared a good laugh about that as Gene loves desserts.
I picked up my heads of lettuce from the picnic table and we started the short walk home in the pitch-black night. “We should have brought a headlamp.” Melissa said.
June confidently replied, “Follow me Mom, I know the way.”
It is true what I said about the flower delivery guy and the person with the dessert tray.
When I was cooking at the assisted living home, after a meal was served, I always went to the dining room with the dessert tray. It gave me an opportunity to ask the people about their meal. Most were happy, but sometimes I got an earful. “How was your meal?” I asked Will.
“Meal?” He scowled at me. “It was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had – if that’s what you can call it.”
I smiled as I set his dessert next to his plate. “I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” I told him. His wife, Ruth, was quick to let me have it as well.
One day the steamer in the kitchen quit working. It’s important to serve meals on time because many of the residents are on medications that have to be taken with food. As quickly as I could, I heated the frozen green beans in a pan on the stove and served dinner promptly at 5:00 pm.
Afterwards, I made my rounds through the dining room. “How was your dinner tonight?” Ruth gave me a cold stare.
“The beans weren’t done. They weren’t hot – not even warm. As a matter of fact, they were cold. Just terrible.” She shook her head.
“If I tell you a secret Ruth, can you keep it just between us?” Wanting to hear what I had to say, she agreed. Curious, her husband Will leaned in to listen. “You can eat the beans cold.” I said, “You can eat them raw if you want to. They won’t hurt you.” Will and Ruth both looked at me, appalled. I cracked a smile and said, “But I will try to do better tomorrow.”
We all have our off days, but I know I almost always serve a good meal. I viewed concerns as constructive criticism and never let the few who would complain no matter what I did, bring me down. As a matter of fact, I was now on a mission to win over Will and Ruth – and because I am not a flower delivery guy, I planned to do it with the dessert tray.
After serving a spaghetti dinner, I was making the rounds with the dessert tray. “How was your meal Will?”
“There was too much dressing on the salad and too much butter on the garlic toast.” He complained.
“Will, the dressing comes on the side in a cup.” I justified, “If there was too much dressing on the salad, that was your doing – not mine.”
Will didn’t have anything to say after that, but Ruth spoke up, “I thought the garlic toast was good.”
“Did you leave room for a piece of apple cobbler?” I asked. With each meal I served, Will and Ruth seemed to lighten up a bit.
One night I made a dessert I knew Will was fond of. “Did you leave room for a lemon bar?” I asked each of the four people at Will’s table. They all said they did. I intentionally gave both Will and John a smaller piece. Although he wasn’t going to say anything about it, I caught the expected look of disapproval. “Will, do you by chance have room for two lemon bars?”
“I can certainly make room.” He said pushing the first one over a bit with his fork. I gave him another smaller lemon bar. Then I asked John if he would also like a second piece. He too made room on his plate. I had cut the smaller pieces with exactly this in mind. The two smaller pieces combined gave each of them just a little more than a normal portion, but it sure made them feel special.
“There you go gentlemen.” I said in a secretive tone of voice as if we had just conducted a shady deal. “Now don’t tell anyone else about this or everybody will start asking for two pieces of dessert.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I went back to the kitchen.
From the serving window I watched the two men, both in their nineties, each cutting their additional lemon bar and sharing half of it with their wives. It was one of the sweetest things I’d ever seen and really warmed my heart.
A couple nights later, Will addressed me, “Say Tom, did you prepare the liver and onions yourself?” I told him I had. “Well let me say, that was the best liver I’ve ever had. I was having a hard time deciding if that was beef liver or a very good steak. And you served plenty of onions with it. I like that.”
From the lemon bars incident forward, Will and Ruth were absolutely golden to me.
Another night, Will spoke before I had a chance to ask how he liked his meal. “Say Tom, did you make the lasagna?”
“Indeed, I did.” I replied, “It’s my homemade recipe.”
“That was quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Was there any left over?” I told him there was. “If you could save a piece of that for my lunch tomorrow, I’d sure appreciate it.” I told him I would do that. Will added, “You know, I believe you may be the second best cook I’ve ever met.” He touched his wife’s hand, “Ruth of course being the finest. She’s magnificent in the kitchen.” His compliment made me smile and caused Ruth to blush. Will had a soft, loving side to him and was sure smooth with his diplomacy.
"You probably don't want one of these,” I said presenting a tray full of brownies, “so I'll eat yours for you."
"Oh no you won't. Just put it right here!" Ruth said. Will chimed in, "I left room for two!"
“Sorry, that was a onetime deal my friend - it's one per person tonight.” I said. We all shared a good laugh before I moved on to the next table.
The brownies were a big hit. Very moist and rich with dark chocolate -fudge frosting. Simply delicious. I wished I could say I made them, but I didn't. My boss Gretchen made them the day before, I just had the pleasure of serving them.
Before taking the dessert to the dining room, the head boss reminded me of a resident with a nut allergy, who couldn't have a brownie because of the walnuts. Poor Della looked so sad as I told her, “I brought a special dessert for you.” I had a cup of lime Jell-O cubes with a burst of whipped cream on top attempting to make it look a bit more appealing. Although it was pretty, it was no dark chocolate brownie. "There you go, Della. Cool, refreshing Jell-O with a little something extra on top!" I said as I placed the cup in front of her.
"Thank you." She replied, in a sheepishly polite, but heartbroken tone in her voice. Della watched with wanting eyes, her mouth nearly watering as I went to the next table with my tray full of chocolate goodies.
On the way to the kitchen, I glanced back her way. Della was poking at her Jell-O with a spoon, watching with envy as the others at her table enjoyed a brownie. She looked so left out and forgotten, it made me sad.
After dinner, when the dishes were being cleared, I noticed the cup of green Jell-O came back to the kitchen, nearly untouched. It made me feel awful for dissing her on the brownies, but I wouldn't want her to have an allergic reaction either. As I worked, I thought more about the emptiness in her eyes. Then, I remembered Gretchen telling me a while back, she didn't use nuts in any of her baked goods.
I sent Gretchen a text briefly explaining the situation. She responded, “There are chocolate chunks but no walnuts in the brownies. Della can have one.”
Thrilled with her confirmation, I stopped one of the resident assistants, told her about Gretchen’s text then handed her a plate, asking if she would take a brownie to Della.
The RA returned to the kitchen with a big smile on her face, "You just made her day! Della’s eyes lit up when I told her there were no nuts in the brownies and she could have one." The RA was happy. Della was happy. All this happiness made me happy. It was a great way to wrap up my shift.
I was back in the kitchen the next morning. One of the resident assistants came to the kitchen, telling me again how happy Della was to get the brownie the night before. “She’s still talking about it this morning.” She said. I smiled.
At lunchtime I served a homemade vegetable soup to everyone except Will and a few others who requested left over lasagna. After lunch, I took made my rounds with the dessert tray, stopping at Della’s table first. “Della, I have ginger crack cookies and just one brownie left over from last night. Which would you like?”
“Can I have the brownie?” She asked. While I put the brownie on her plate, she pointed to a small juice glass with a handful of wild yellow flowers (dandelions) setting in the center of the table. “Someone brought me daisies.” She cut the brownie with the edge of her fork, saying “I like daises.” Then taking a bite, she smiled a million-dollar smile. I moved on feeling pretty darn good.
“That lasagna seemed to be even better today. Thank you for saving me a piece.” Will said, “Say Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have any brownies left over from last night, would you?”
“Sorry, Will.” I said, “I just gave the last one to a gal who didn't get one at the dinner table last night. I baked ginger crack cookies this morning. Would you like one?”
“Are those molasses cookies?” Will asked, stretching his neck to peer over the top of the tray. I told him ginger cracks and molasses cookies were pretty much the same thing. “Well a rose by any other name is still a rose.” He said, chuckling. “Molasses cookies are my favorite.” He added, tapping the napkin next to his plate.
“Speaking of flowers,” Will said, “did you see all the dandelions in bloom this morning? They sure are pretty. I went out and gathered some for a couple of the folks who don’t get out much so they could enjoy them too.”
My heart was full. “Will,” I asked, “do you happen to have room for a second cookie?”
“I sure do.” He said, pushing the first cookie over to make room for another.
I gave Will and Ruth, and John and his wife, each a second cookie. Then announced to everyone in the room, “I have extras, would anyone like a second cookie?” Hands went up all around the room. As I handed out the extra cookies, I noticed almost all of the tables had a small juice glass with dandelions in water.
When I got back to the kitchen, I asked two of the resident assistants if they would like a cookie. “Sure!” They said, smiling as they took one from the tray.
“Take two if you’d like.” I said, adding “Come back after I get the kitchen cleaned up and I’ll give you a few in a baggie to take home to your kids.”
“What’s the special occasion?” They wondered.
“You know,” I explained, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.”
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The High A
A friend of mine posts a daily series on his Facebook page, he calls “From my heart and home.” Dan is a very accomplished pianist and composer. Last Friday, on day one hundred thirty, he offered his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. “…today, my heart is full.” Dan wrote, saying he finds great solace and inspiration in that song. I do as well, so I gave it a listen.
While listening, I watched the video with Dan’s fingers so gracefully dancing and floating over the keys. He makes it look so easy. I thought about an old episode of the television show MASH, titled Morale Victory. Major Charles Winchester, had operated on a patient whose leg was badly injured. Being the top-notch surgeon that his character was, Winchester boasted to Private Sheridan, that he had skillfully saved his leg.
Looking at his bandaged right hand, Sheridan asked what happened. The doctor explained there was nerve damage and the patient would have partial loss of dexterity in three of his fingers. The private wept. Winchester, expecting praise and gratuity, didn’t understand. “Your hand will look perfectly normal,” he said, “but I saved your leg!”
Private Sheridan cried, “I don’t care about my leg. My hands are my life. I’m a concert pianist.” That was a powerful scene.
Winchester tried to convince the younger man, who was feeling hopeless, not to abandon his talent. “There are other ways to share your gift.” Charles brought sheet music for the left hand only written for Paul Wittgenstein. (a real concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI and upon whom Sheridan’s character was inspired.) Winchester pleaded with the musician, “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “I can play the notes, but I cannot make music. The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” I thought about those words as I watched Dan’s video. Many people can play the notes, but… Responding to Dan’s touch, the piano became alive; together they made beautiful music.
I was in high school when I first came to know about Dan. Although he was several class years ahead of me, we had the same vocal music teacher; Merlin Schneider – a legend.
Mr. Schneider was teaching Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the sophomore choir. The tenors, of which I was one, were struggling with the line, “and He shall reign forever and ever.” The word He, hits a high A. That’s a pretty high note for a bunch of boys whose voices had recently changed.
The tenor section practiced the line over and over. Each time we sounded more like cars pulling into a service garage with bad brakes. Really screechy, bad brakes. Mr. Schneider stopped and went to his record player. One of those vintage players that looked like a suitcase when the top was closed.
He opened the lid, carefully removed a black vinyl album from the sleeve and placed it on the platter. He moved the tone arm over, setting the needle on the record. It was the Hallelujah Chorus. When it came to the part that we were having so much difficulty with, the tenors sang smoothly and with ease: “And HE shall reign for ever and ever.” Mr. Schneider moved the needle back and played the part several more times. “That is what it sounds like when you do it right. Now let’s do it again - this time with confidence, men.”
Mr. Schneider told us the album was recorded by the Ottumwa High School, Class of 1971. Dan Knight was one of the tenors in the choir. I was impressed. He hit that high A like it was a simple mid-range note.
After school, I went to the radio station and looked through the Christmas records. Sure enough, we had a copy of the album. I asked Dad if I could take the record home to practice. He said that would be fine, so long as I didn’t forget where it came from.
At home, I played the song over and over again, singing along, convincing myself, if that Dan Knight guy could hit that A – so can I. I remembered Mr. Schneider’s instructions: “Don’t pinch your throat. Push from the diaphragm. Let it roll out naturally.”
It was time for the last number in the Christmas concert. The juniors and seniors were still on the risers onstage. The sophomore choir was seated in the first few rows of the auditorium. We all stood up in perfect unison; Mr. Schneider would have it no other way. (We actually practiced standing and sitting.) The strings ensemble began playing the introduction. The entire audience stood up and together we all sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we came to the line, I hit it perfectly and with confidence: “and HE shall reign for ever and ever.” When the song ended, the audience applauded. While some of the tenors still had “brake trouble,” I smiled and silently thanked Dan for his hours of rehearsing with me until I was able to hit that note smoothly.
I restarted Dan’s video, listening again as he played his rendition of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Taken by the sense of emotion expressed through his music, I drifted off in thought, remembering the first time I had met Dan Knight in person. It was nearly thirty years after I had first learned of him through a common high school music teacher. Through generous donations, the new Bridgeview Center in Ottumwa was able to purchase a very beautiful, brand new Steinway & Sons Concert Grand Piano. Among an impressive list of other notable organizations, Dan is a performing artist and composer for Steinway & Sons. He was coming home to perform on the new piano for his hometown.
A man of distinguished appearance, Dan was easy to pick out in the crowd. I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with him. I’ll admit to being a bit starstruck, but was also taken by his humility; how easy it was to speak with him. It was like talking to any ordinary kid from a small town – but Dan went on to make it big.
I wanted to tell him of the positive influence he had on me and how he had helped me, an awkward high school sophomore, gain confidence in my singing and learn the Hallelujah Chorus. I wanted to tell him a lot of things, but we only had a few moments. This was a homecoming of sorts and other folks were waiting to talk to him as well. It was really good to finally meet him.
I had listened to several of Dan’s prior performances in his series. For some reason the Leonard Cohen piece really captivated me, reaching my soul. After listening for a third time, I wanted to hear more. I scrolled back through his wall to the previous post, but it wasn’t a musical performance - it was a story he had written. I read it, then read it again. It now made sense to me what Dan meant in this post, “…today, my heart is full.”
I won’t attempt to paraphrase his writing. A story of unfortunate happenings and circumstances I never knew of. So, with his blessing, here is Dan Knight’s story.
I was riding a motorcycle on the south side of Ottumwa, Iowa on that evening forty-nine years ago, when I was hit by a drunk driver. That accident changed the course of my life forever.
I had a full-ride scholarship to Drake University, as an applied voice/opera major.
I lost my voice. The voice that remained after two years of hospitalizations was not the voice I once had.
I lost my scholarship, and most of the ability to earn another one.
I nearly lost my life. I had blood clots in my lungs that were so large that they could be seen on x-rays. I had pericarditis, and pleural effusions, and sepsis that nearly killed me.
But I continued. And the piano, eventually, became my voice.
So July 24 is a date that marks my death, in a way -- it was the death of the person I was, and of the career I had hoped to have.
And it marked the rebirth of the new me: the person who pulled himself up off the street after his right leg had been smashed, and stood. The person who taught himself to walk again, after ten months in a cast. The person who lost his golden voice, but sang again anyway. The person who made the piano his career.
And so we continue, all of us. We are broken, all of us, and damaged, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But still we continue, with the understanding that on some days, just managing a smile is an achievement.
I cheer for us, all of us, who, in our own ways, somehow find the courage to continue, day after day, with love, and hope, and conviction, and courage, and purpose.” Dan Knight.
Wow. I had no idea. His words; his story, choked me up. I suddenly realized the man I thought I knew – well, there’s much more to know. Read again his last two paragraphs. There’s a message, which most of us – probably all of us, need to hear today.
I don’t know why listening to his performance of Hallelujah and the expression in his music, reminded me of that MASH episode. This was before reading the story he posted earlier that day. Dan’s accident happened almost nine years before the television show aired and that episode was inspired by a true story from more than sixty-five years prior. The similarities and happenstance were most uncanny.
Major Winchester told Private Sheridan: “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” Charles went on, “You can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.”
Dan found a new way; a new voice, “…the piano, eventually, became my voice.” When I heard his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah, I came to understand, Dan’s voice is as loud, clear and expressive as ever. May your gift of music, your voice, sing to us, my friend, for many years to come. Peace, always.
Here is a link to Dan’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” if you would like to listen.