There was no particular hurry driving home from northern Iowa to northern Minnesota. I decided to take some old routes; roads we used to take because they were more scenic, but haven’t driven for years because US 63 was faster and easier with less curves.
It was a really hot day. Temperatures were already in the high nineties when we left Waterloo around noon. When driving in an air-conditioned car, it’s easy to forget just how hot it is outside. I pointed out to my wife, the thermometer on the dash board just reached one hundred degrees.
Heading north on US 63, I looked at the fields of corn. The stalks were starting to turn brown. It wouldn’t be long until those fields were full of combines picking corn. With bright lights on the machinery the farmers continue their harvest late into the night.
To get to the smaller rural roads we wanted, I turned off Highway 63 onto Highway 9; headed east toward Cresco, Iowa, home of Featherlite Trailers. Just past town, we turned north. We don’t travel that road very long before Iowa Highway 139 becomes Minnesota 139.
Reaching upward from the far side of a large cornfield was a bright white church steeple, but we never saw a road leading to it. Somewhere along this route, still in Iowa, I passed a private, grass-strip runway between two fields of tall corn. The orange wind sock indicated a light breeze. Not far away was a weathered barn with worn, faded paint and an old windmill stand with vines growing up the legs, all the way to the top. The blades were missing, but I doubt they would have been turning anyway – the overgrowth of vines would have them bound.
For a moment I dreamed of an old yellow Stinson biplane with a blue tail, buzzing the small town of Cresco - a Barnstormer. The pilot, wearing a leather helmet and goggles, with a white scarf trailing in the wind, waved vigorously from the open cockpit at the people on the ground. He was trying to lure them to the tiny airstrip, in hopes of giving them a ride and making a few dollars for the day.
A little farther up the road I smiled, seeing the sign at the state line. It was much older and smaller than those you’ll see on Highway 63 or I-35. It was a stone sign with a warm message; “Welcome to Minnesota.” After traveling for several days and passing that sign, no matter what road I’m on, I instantly feel like I’m almost home – even though we were still 325 miles away. Speaking of warm messages, the thermometer now read one hundred and three. The dog days of summer were here.
Not far into Minnesota, we came around a curve in the road. On the southern end of a field was a small pond. There were a few cows gathered in a narrow line of shade from large trees on the other side of the fence. The smarter cows were standing in the pond to keep cool. These cows knew how to beat the heat. So did the people.
In the small town of Harmony, Minnesota, there was an older man wearing a John Deere cap, sitting in the shade of a covered front porch. A lady sat next to him; each were in an old-fashioned white metal lawn chair. A small round table between them had a pitcher and two glasses. It looked like ice tea. I could imagine the sweat trickling down the cool glasses in the hot air, making puddles of water on the table top. I waved at them, as I wasn’t sure if they were just watching traffic, or the house across the street.
A group of young kids were playing in the front yard. The girls had swimsuits and the boys wore cut off jean shorts. They all ran, laughing and screaming; chasing each other as they charged threw the arch of cool water going back and forth, coming from the lawn sprinkler.
Memories of my own youth came to mind and just the day before, when I took my granddaughters for a walk. A neighbor was watering their lawn. The path of the water was encroaching on the sidewalk. We didn’t mind at all; we ran through the water, turned around as if we had forgotten something and ran through again laughing ourselves silly. Kids (and the young at heart) enjoy the benefits of lawn watering devices – it’s just a natural thing on hot summer days.
Road construction detained us for a few minutes, but we were in no hurry. We passed a farm with a freshly painted red barn. The color contrasted with the shiny, new black asphalt road and the bright yellow and white painted lines. It was beautiful.
In a yard on the right side of the road, clotheslines were weighted down, sagging in the middle, with laundry. All the clothes looked homemade and were shades of blue. Maybe an Amish or Mennonite family lived there. Other lines had bed sheets. When I was a kid, we used to hang laundry out to dry. It saved electricity by not using the clothes dryer. Many times, we had to rush to get the laundry in because it looked like rain was coming. The sheets off the line were never as soft as they are coming out of the dryer, but I don’t think any fabric softener ever matched the fresh smell of linens hung out to dry in the country air.
We turned off on route 52, then 16 and 43. The scenery is amazing and the road is fun to drive as it turns and winds, going up and down hills until it brings us into the small town of Rushford, Minnesota – home of the Creamery Pizza and Ice Cream – quite possibly the best pizza in the state. It was no coincidence our path brought us here. After pizza, we shared a dish of maple nut ice cream, then got back on the road again.
We passed through Winona, driving by houses we used to live in, and talked about a lot of good memories. We saw a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the road. Watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and more – all a part of summer in the Midwest. Sweet corn seemed to be tapering off, and the strawberry stands were gone but soon it will be apple harvest and Minnesota grows some amazing apples!
We opted for another scenic excursion by going through Fountain City, then through the big hills and valleys into Arcadia, Wisconsin – home of Ashley Furniture. At one point, going up the bluff, the van thermometer peaked at one hundred and eight degrees outside. I questioned if it was really that hot. When I rolled my window down to put my hand out into the wind, it was hot! Hot, humid air gushed into the van. Ick! Some people like that real hot air, but not me. I quickly rolled the window up again.
Cattails were standing in wet ditches and at the edge of ponds. Their tall, thin brown heads were starting to show signs of late summer; looking weathered. Soon, they would burst, turning furry, then blow away. The teardrop shaped milkweed pods also looked close to opening. Light feathery seeds would emerge, floating through the air to plant next year’s crop. The further north we traveled, the milkweed became sparse, then there was none. Waves of delicate pampas grass swayed back and forth in the wind almost as if dancing to the music of the breeze.
As we followed Highway 93, then 53 into Superior, Wisconsin, the temperatures kept falling to the mid-seventies. By the time we turned onto Highway 61, the final stretch home, following the shoreline of Lake Superior, the temps dropped to 63 degrees. Ah…that’s more like it. With the AC shut off we opened the windows, taking advantage of the cool, fresh air coming in off the big lake. If my thermometer in the van is accurate, we went through a forty-five-degree temperature change in about six hours. That’s a lot.
When we got home, I was curious when the actual dog days of summer take place. According to what I read online, they ended about two weeks ago. Hmm. I guess when it comes down to it, Mother Nature has the final say over that Old Farmer’s Almanac.
I spent some time recalling the Labor Day weekend from a few years ago. I got to do some flying Friday night, which allowed me to see something I'd not seen before.
From the air, with the sun setting to the west over Duluth, I watched a large ship enter Superior Harbor. We've watched lots of ships come in through the canal and under the lift bridge at Duluth, but I had never seen one actually entering Superior. It was pretty neat.
Saturday, I spent a full day flying skydivers. I haven't done this for eight or nine years and it was really a blast. I stepped right back into it without missing a beat. My flying was good, the jump runs were into the wind and my altitudes were right where they were supposed to be. I felt very comfortable with the door opening at 10,000 feet above the ground, watching people climb out on the wheel and strut. The lead jumper nods his head, giving a three count, then they fall away from the airplane, tumbling through the air rapidly toward the ground below me. I love that sight!
Sunday, after mass, I went to the Superior airport again, to get checked out in a Cessna 172 at Superior Flying Service. This is an easy plane to fly. The checkout is a standard procedure flight required when a pilot, new to the area, wants to rent airplanes.
Three times round the patch, three landings, one with a simulated "engine out" and my instructor said, "You're good to go!" Cool. Now I have another place I can rent airplanes to take people for rides and maybe get Melissa up to do some aerial photography of the Northwoods.
After checking out in the 172, I drove all the way around the Twin Ports harbor, then out to Park Point where Sky Harbor airport is located. I got to meet John. He owns an impressive Dehaviland Beaver - the most classic icon of all float planes.
I had heard him making several radio-calls the day before when I was flying skydivers, so I came here to find and talk to him. He was having a dish of homemade ice cream a vendor was selling just outside the flying service.
I asked if he gave instruction, that I would like to get my seaplane rating. He said he didn't, but took me into an office area and gave me the name and phone number of a man who does.
We chatted for a few minutes, then he saw two of his passengers coming and he had to go. As a young couple approached, he extended his hand. "I'm John, the pilot and we'll be going up right after I finish my ice cream. You can go out, look, and take pictures, but please don't board the airplane until I am there."
A happy pilot is a good pilot and honestly, everyone is happy after finishing a dish of homemade ice cream. These young people were in for an extra good time - I could tell!
Outside, I stood at the water’s edge watching the plane tied off to the end of the dock. A couple was standing there, each eating a dish of ice cream while watching the Beaver with great interest. "Are you two going for a ride in the seaplane?" I asked.
They answered simultaneously, "I'd sure like to." She said, while he said, "No, not today."
The wife asked me, "Are you going for a ride in it?"
"I don't just want a ride in it, I want to fly it!" I answered. They both looked at me rather oddly. "Let's go stand over there, honey." The man said to his wife, but I think what he really meant was, "Come on wife. Let's take our ice cream and move away from the crazy man."
I stood in awe, watching John maneuver the plane in the water, so smooth and graceful, like...well, a beaver swimming in the water. He taxied to the takeoff area, then turning the nose into the wind, he began easing in the power. The sound of his big radial engine was chilling. More and more, the plane pushed through the water until the floats planed on top just like a boat. Within a few moments, he gently lifted the airplane into the air and away they went.
A seaplane license; that’s the next pilot rating I will work on!
After watching the Beaver disappear into the distant sky, I walked back to my car, daydreaming about flying that airplane. A man and woman were standing near the parking lot, each enjoying a dish of homemade ice cream.
He looked quite charming. Gray hair with a distinguished gray beard and glasses under a safari style hat, with the string connected by a single bead coming down under his chin.
I approached him, "Excuse me sir. I was wondering if I might have a bite of your ice cream?"
"Sure!" He said, without hesitation, extending a full spoon of the delicious treat toward me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm just kidding, I just wanted to see how you would react."
"Well you're welcome to try it, I have plenty to share." There was a sincerity in is voice that I really liked, and an accent too! He made me feel good.
"I'm happy to meet people who are friendly and willing to share with a stranger." I told him, then inquired, "May I ask where you're from."
"Chicago." His wife answered.
"Well," I commented, "You have a beautiful accent in your voice, but it doesn't sound like a that of a Midwesterner."
The man explained, "Originally, we are from Russia, now we live in Chicago. We are just visiting here.”
I welcomed them and asked how they liked Chicago. He assured me they like it very much. I wanted to ask if they root for the Cubs or the White Sox, but having just met, I thought prying into their politics would be a bit brash.
We chatted for a bit, then as we said our farewells he again asked, "Are you sure you don't want to try the ice cream? It's really good."
"No thank you. I'm good." I said, waving as I walked away. Then, looking over my shoulder, I called out, "You two enjoy the rest of your day...and that ice cream, too!" I could hear them laughing.
I sat in my car for a bit, watching the harbor where the Beaver had just taken off. I put the car in reverse, then looked over my shoulder to back up. While looking behind me, I saw the ice cream vendor with his big signs, "Homemade Ice Cream."
I put the car in first gear and started to pull away. I smiled, nodded and said, "After I get my seaplane rating, I'm gonna have a dish of that homemade ice cream.”
That fall, I did get my sea plane rating at Sky Harbor Airport and a dish of ice cream too – a double scoop.”
I always seem to have a project, or two, or three, going on someplace. Last week I undertook a new task: re-siding my Aunt Di’s garage. I went over Friday to remove all the old siding and loaded it into my dump truck. Saturday, I went to Duluth to pick up new windows and all the materials to complete the project.
Sunday after church, I started loading my tools into the van. I was pulling a trailer to carry my ladders. As I started stacking my ladders on the flat bed, I said, “Man, I sure have a lot of ladders.” While I was tying the ladders down, I wondered if I may have too many ladders?
I need the four-foot ladder for shorter areas, just out of my reach while standing on the ground. Melissa is helping me with the project, so I needed another four-foot ladder for her. The two six-foot ladders are for areas just beyond the reach for the four-footers. The ten-foot step ladder is necessary for reaching higher areas.
There are a lot of places where I need to work, that call for even taller ladders. So, I brought along my twenty-foot, and thirty-two-foot extension ladders. The ladders can’t be leaning on the building because they would be right in front of the place I’m trying to work. The extension ladders always seem to be too close, or too far from the building; plus, I have to have an open span between ladders, since I am working with twelve-foot long sections of siding. For that, I have ladder jacks.
A ladder jack is a triangular piece with two brackets that will latch onto the back side of a ladder’s rungs. By separating the sections of my thirty-two-foot extension, I end up with two sixteen-foot ladders. I lean them against the building, hang the ladder jacks on the back of each and lay a plank across the jacks. Now I have a nice platform with no obstructions between me and the face of building, upon which to work. Of course, to reach even higher areas, I have two, thirty-two-foot extension ladders and a forty-foot as well.
The ladder jack triangles are adjustable, so depending on the angle of the ladder against the building, I can change the triangles to assure a level working surface. That’s important when you’re working in the air. Still, all these angles and numbers can make your head swim.
I thought back to my days at Ottumwa High School. I sat in geometry class, gazing out the window at my motorcycle in the parking lot across the street. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day. The classroom windows were open and the breeze was blowing in. It felt good. I was thinking of all the things I could be doing outdoors; the places I could ride my bike – if I wasn’t trapped in this senseless math class.
Mr. Patrick called my name, snapping me out of my daydream, to ask me a question. I had no idea what he was talking about because I wasn’t paying attention. Thus, I answered him, “Why do we have to learn this stuff? I’m never going to use this in the real world.”
“When you get to that stage of life, Mr. Palen, you’ll figure out why you need to know this.” He explained, as he kept drawing lines and numbers on the chalkboard. He quickly caught me up to speed, then we worked out the problem together.
In my driveway, I tightened the last rachet strap across the load. I counted the ladders on the trailer. “Eight ladders, plus one I’m not taking and two that are still in Ottumwa. Do I seriously own eleven ladders? Do I need that many ladders? Does anyone need that many?” I guess I do use them all.
I thought about m(insert your web ay ladders and Mr. Patrick’s geometry class and how today, I actually DO use the things he was teaching me. I recited my high school class call: “The ladder of success we’ll climb, we’re the class of seventy-nine.” I started laughing, “I guess I made it.”
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!