a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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I drove a 1974 Chevy Nova in high school. It was burgundy with a black vinyl top; it had a 350 V-8 motor, and boy could that car go. One day I took it into my auto mechanic's class to tweak the engine timing – it didn't need it, but that's what high school boys did.
I set down the timing gun and took a moment to quiz Mr. Corbet, my auto mechanics teacher: "So, all GM products have teeth on one side of the key, and it goes in the ignition with the teeth down." He concurred, and I continued, "All Chrysler products have teeth on one side, which point up when you put the key in the ignition." Again, he agreed. "Do you know why Ford products have teeth on both sides of the key?"
"I spect that's just the way it is," he replied, then to assure I wasn't wasting valuable shop time, "Do you have a point to make?"
"Yeah, a Ford has teeth on both sides of the key because people who drive Fords aren't smart enough to know which way the key goes in." I laughed and waited for his response.
Mr. Corbet was all about Chevrolet. He laughed for a moment, then scowled, "Mr. Palen, if you don't have anything better to do, you can sweep the classroom and the shop."
I pointed to my Chevy, "I was just adjusting the timing on my car - but did you like the joke?"
"Then get to it, Palen. This is Vocational Auto Mechanic's class, not Comedy 101. But if you'd like to transfer, I can arrange it." I walked back to my Nova, feeling pretty smitten with myself. Even briefly, I made him laugh.
There were other acronyms for Fords: Fix Or Repair Daily, and Found On the Road Dead. Ironically, not long after high school, Ford products became my brand of choice – and still are today. But, speaking of found on the road, lately, I've been noticing more things along the roadways that cause me to wonder.
For example, on highway 53 heading into Superior, I saw five orange life jackets together in the ditch on the side of the road. I imagined someone heading for the north shore had a flat tire, set them aside while getting out the jack and spare tire, and then drove off without them. They would undoubtedly be frustrated when they arrived at their favorite lake to go fishing – and lost their life jackets.
I followed a utility service truck out of Two Harbors. The driver had groceries in the open space between the tool cabinets on each side. A twelve-pack of Pepsi was bouncing on top of his tools; I was worried that it would bounce out. I wanted to get alongside him to let the driver know, but we were in a construction zone on Highway 61 with single-lane traffic.
The blue cardboard carton took one final bounce, jumped over his short tailgate, and burst open on the new asphalt. Cans of soda skipped and scattered about the road. Pop, pop, fsh, fsh, pop. Five or six cans exploded as I crushed them with my tires. "Man, he's going to be bummed when he gets home, and his Pepsi is missing."
A large cushion with a vintage floral pattern was lying in the ditch on I-35 not far from Duluth. It must have blown out of someone's vehicle while moving their couch. I hoped it wasn't from an heirloom they'd inherited from grandma.
I saw a half-dozen eight-foot, 2X6' boards scattered on the right shoulder; with today's lumber prices, that's quite a loss. A few miles farther, a small red tabletop grill with a busted bag of black charcoal briquettes littered the shoulder. I always feel bad for people when I see things they've lost on the road – I genuinely feel their frustration and loss.
A couple of months ago, I found a classic 1977 Kawasaki KZ650 for sale in Wisconsin. It was love at first sight in very good, original condition; bright metallic blue with red and gold pin-stripping, bright white lettering on the gas tank and side covers, and shiny chrome tailpipes and fender. It was identical to the motorcycle I bought new when I was in high school. The seller and I agreed on a price. We loaded it into my van, and I took the motorcycle home.
The first time I took the bike out, I planned to ride to Grand Marais, Minnesota, and maybe to Grand Portage and the Canadian border. Right after turning north on Highway 61, I passed a group of southbound Harleys. They all gave me the two-fingers down sign as they passed, meaning be safe, keep both wheels on the ground - a friendly greeting between bikers. It felt good to share it again.
Riding this 650 was as big a thrill now as ever. With the wind was blowing through my hair, I was on a natural high, as high as one can be. I stopped at Buck's Hardware in Grand Marais to buy a pair of gloves. I walked out with my gloves, excited and ready to keep riding toward Canada. When I looked out to admire my beautiful machine, my heart sank. I felt like someone punched me in the gut when I noticed I had lost my right-side cover.
Literally feeling sick, I empathized with the people who lost their life jackets, a grill, or several boards. The person who lost the floral couch cushion can't just go to the store and buy a matching replacement. The same was true for my forty-four-year-old Kawasaki side cover. Feeling deflated, I decided to go home.
On the way home, I watched for my cover. Over the next several days, I walked or rode my bicycle, searching in vain; the cover fell off somewhere along a fifty-mile stretch of highway. Finally, I surrendered, "It would take a search party combing these ditches to find it." That gave me an idea.
I contacted the state of Minnesota to see if the Adopt-a-Highway groups might come across it while picking up litter from the highway. Hopefully, they would find it before a DOT mower came along and chopped the side cover to smithereens.
Several days later, I talked to the guy mowing for the state and asked if he'd keep an eye out for it. Certainly, sitting high up in his tractor cab, he would see my side cover. I even posted on several social media sites, offering a reward to anyone who found it.
The truth is, I was searching for a needle in a haystack, and it wasn't looking very promising. I knew it was lost forever and began looking online for a replacement. I couldn't help but think of all the strange things I saw on the side of the road while walking; I was disgusted by the amount of garbage people throw out their windows, but that's a whole story in itself.
Speaking of things on the side of the road, I was heading north to Duluth a couple of weeks ago. It was dusk when smoke began billowing out from around my engine. "What the heck?" I immediately thought the engine was overheating, but my engine temperature gauge was showing normal. So I pulled off the road, turned on my flashers, and popped the hood.
The smell was pungent but not like antifreeze or smoke from a fire. I dipped my fingers into the liquid on the ground. "Transmission fluid under the radiator? Oh, this is not good." I called Triple-A for a tow truck. Fortunately, my membership includes RV towing as I was pulling a Scamp at the time. Not knowing my exact location, I told the operator I was just a few miles north of Hinckley, Minnesota, northbound. After a brief hold, they told me it would be thirty-five minutes for the wrecker to arrive.
Not far ahead, a green mile marker sign reflected the headlights of passing cars. I walked until I could read the sign, then called Triple-A again. I gave the operator my service order number and told her I was at mile marker 186. She thanked me for the location update, "We haven't found anyone to tow your vehicle yet."
"What do you mean?" I was concerned, "The last operator I spoke with said the wrecker would be here in thirty-five minutes." The operator said that towing service declined the job; they didn't want to pull the camper; they would call me as soon as they found someone that would. Great. Hurry up and wait.
I started laughing, "Found On the Road Dead," I said aloud, "and this isn't even a Ford; it's a Dodge." About then, red and blue flashing lights were reflecting brightly in my side mirror. This is not something you want to see if you've been speeding, but man, was I happy to see them when I was stranded.
Trooper Sarah asked me what was going on. "I think I blew the transmission," I told her.
"Do you have a wrecker coming?" I explained the situation. "Let me see what I can do for you," she said, "Can I see your driver's license please?" She took my license and went back to her patrol car. I knew what she was doing.
Even though I hadn't done anything illegal, an officer will always report the vehicle plate number to the dispatcher. They'll also check to ensure no warrants for my arrest exist. Of course, some people get offended by this – but I'm thankful they do it; it's a big part of keeping the public safe.
The officer returned to my window about ten minutes later. "Keith's towing is on the way from Hinckley; it will be about thirty minutes," she said, "I would stay here with you, but I have to respond to another call." She handed me my license, told me to be safe, and rushed off with all her lights on.
The wrecker arrived. While the driver was e was working, I noticed headlights setting back away on the shoulder behind us. "That's the state trooper." He said, "She's got her lights on to mark us for oncoming traffic." He loaded my truck onto the roll-back, then connected the Scamp, and away we went back to Hinckley, where the driver dropped me off at the Days Inn motel.
"You can call in the morning if you'd like our service shop department to look at your transmission," the driver said. I took his card, thanked him, and went into the motel with my iPad, charging cord, and cell phone. I didn't plan on an overnight stay and had nothing else with me.
My room was clean and comfortable. A handwritten note from housekeeping welcomed me and thanked me for staying. "I would rather be staying here for better reasons," I said and went to sleep.
In the morning I called the repair shop. The mechanic had to order a new radiator, and it wouldn't be in until the next day. Dang. It would be three hours before my wife would arrive to get me. It was a fiasco, but in the end, everything worked out.
Two weeks later, we were in our van headed for Colorado. While driving through heavy rains on I-35 south, the motor started running roughly, and the check engine light came on. Great! I stopped at a gas station near Hinckley of all places, checked the oil and coolant levels. Both were good, and the engine resumed running smoothly, so we continued on.
I hoped we would make it to the twin cities; if not, I would call for another tow. I chuckled, thinking, "Found On the Road Dead – and this time it is my Ford." Finally, we made it to an auto parts store, letting me use their code reader.
"You're showing a recurring misfire on cylinder number five. You need a new coil pack," the parts guy said. It was after five; I asked him if he knew anyone who could change it for me. "Change it yourself. It's not hard," he said. He handed me the part and loaned me a wrench.
I raised the hood and thought back to my high school auto mechanic's class. I could imagine Mr. Corbet saying, "Change it yourself, Palen. It's not difficult." Then he leaned in to observe my work. First, I removed the old coil, but the new part had a different size connector. The clerk said it should be the right part, but they didn't have another one in stock, but a store a few miles away did. So I reinstalled the old coil and drove to the other store, where I installed the correct part.
Mr. Corbet said, "Very nice, now start the engine." So I did, and it ran smoothly as could be. "I told you, you could do it." We were on the road again, just a few hours late.
About seventy miles before Ridgeway State Park in Colorado, signs indicated Highway 550 would be closed ahead for construction until 6:30 the following morning. So we pulled off to sleep in the camper rather than taking a long detour through the mountains after dark. In the morning, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise over Blue Mesa Reservoir. We arrived at the campground, set up the Scamp, then drove into Montrose for supplies.
On the way to Montrose, my Ford van started to overheat. "You've got to be kidding me?" I recalled the acronym "Fix Or Repair Daily." We called several repair shops, each told me it would be anywhere from ten to thirty days before they could look at the van.
The man at Elk Creek Automotive said I could come by, and they would at least look at it to see what the problem was. We made it to the shop; the water pump was leaking. This was not something I would fix in an auto parts store parking lot with a borrowed wrench. The mechanics were able to put a temporary fix on it to drive back to the campground. The owner said they could order the part and squeeze me in on Monday morning to help us out. I was beyond grateful.
First a radiator, then a coil pack, and now a water pump. If bad things come in threes, I should be good to go for a while, auto repair-wise. Despite the car troubles, I was feeling pretty good.
When leaving home for Colorado, I told Melissa I needed to pick something up by the turn-off at Little Marais before we go. About an hour earlier, my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number but decided to answer the call. "This is Jason with M-DOT," I wondered; who do I know from the DOT, and why are they calling me?
"You stopped me a couple of weeks ago and told me about the cycle part you'd lost. This morning I came across your card and wondered if you ever found it?" I told him I had not.
"I was mowing along 61 today, getting ready to make my turn around, when I saw something blue laying way down in the tall grass. I found your side cover. I stopped just before it went through the mower." I was shocked! I had already given up on the idea of it being found.
"I can't believe it! You found the needle in a haystack." I anxiously told Jason I would come to get it before we left town. I tried not to get my hopes too high, and I didn't tell Melissa, "What if it's not my side cover? I'm sure other bikers have lost them too."
When Jason opened his toolbox, my eyes lit up. He took out a bright metallic blue side cover with red and gold pin-stripping and bright white letters, KZ650. I asked if I could give him something for finding it, "No sir, I'm just glad to help you get it back."
I thanked him again. Grinning from ear to ear, and carried my side cover back to the van.
I hope the other people can recover items they'd lost along the road. Especially the one who lost the vintage floral pattern cushion. Like my side cover, they won't find a replacement at the store – but maybe someone like Jason will come across it and go out of their way to help get it back to them.
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Through a combined series of misfortunes, distractions, and sheer stupidity on my part, I managed to burn two gallons of homemade chili in the pot on the stove. The putrid burnt flavor made its way through the whole pot, so I threw away the chili. I scraped an inch of burned beans, meat, and tomatoes from the bottom of the pan, exposing that really hard, burned black stuff. Charcoal had nothing on this pan. I put some soap and water in the pan and left it to soak overnight.
I went back the following day, looked into the pan assessing the damages, and decided to just throw it away. That's when it happened.
I heard my mother's voice saying, "Don't you dare! You get over to that sink and clean that pan right now."
I sassed back, "You can't tell me what to do. I am an adult now!"
I could feel Mom’s presence as I scrubbed on the charred bottom of the pan, I tried to reason with her, "Look at this mess – let's just throw the pan away and get another one."
It was an expensive pan, a nice stainless steel ten-quart pot with sturdy side handles, and a vented glass lid. My wife bought it for me as a gift. I was sure it was ruined. "Keep scrubbing." I heard the voice say.
"It's not coming out," was my plea of defense.
"Use Comet," she replied.
I argued, "but it's…"
I scrubbed and scrubbed that pan with Comet and a green scratchy pad, then rinsed the pan. Then, feeling it was good enough, I started to put it in the strainer when the voice clarified, "It’s not clean. There's still more in the pan." Admittedly, there were still a few black spots.
Again, considering throwing the pot away, I looked over both shoulders. I couldn’t see her, but still I was sure Mom was watching from somewhere around the corner to see that this didn't happen.
After the final scrubbing, I rinsed the pan. Finally, I looked into the bottom of a once again shiny stainless-steel pan. I felt a warm pat on my shoulder, and heard a softer voice asking, "Now, aren't you glad you didn't throw away that perfectly good pan?"
I took another glance over my shoulder. No one was there. I examined my fingertips; they were pink and tender from scrubbing with the abrasives. My wrist ached a bit from the odd angle used reaching into the deep pot. I quipped to myself, "People should not be able to talk from the grave."
The voice replied, "I heard that too."
As I dried the pan, I thought about how much I miss those days in the kitchen with my mom and the lessons she taught me. They were lessons about cooking and cleaning, right from wrong, living, loving, and believing. Lessons about not wasting anything – food, or pans.
It's been over 20 years now since she passed away. From time to time, Mom still stops into my kitchen, offering me some remedial training. You know, people like mom, who've passed before us, don't talk from the grave – they continue to speak through the heart.
Melissa walked into the kitchen. I smiled, showing her the pan, and proudly said, "Look, I got it clean."
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I tried something different a couple of weeks ago, leaving home about ten minutes earlier to go to mass. Doing so allowed me to hear something which I'd not heard for a while.
The morning air was mild, with freshness coming in off Lake Superior. I arrived in Two Harbors at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in time to hear the church bells ringing before mass.
The bell tower stood tall against the sky; a few white clouds accented the beautiful shade of morning blue. I paused on my way and watched as the bells in the open tower rang out their call for the morning gathering. It was spiritually moving.
A younger girl wearing a pretty blue dress was kneeling on the sidewalk several feet in front of the large wooden front doors of the historic brick church. I wasn't sure what she was doing. Finally, she stood up, revealing a cat at her left side, which she had been petting.
The cat was a lovely grey tortoiseshell, speckled with yellow and orange on her soft fur coat. She seemed to be clean and well cared for.
The cat wore a red collar and was well-mannered and friendly. When the little girl stood up, then it moved on, looking for someone else who would give her some attention; a simple rub on the head would do.
Although it was the first time I had ever seen this cat, I heard someone say it was a neighbor's cat who often showed up on Sunday mornings. Like a mass greeter, the feline welcomed parishioners as they arrived.
I walked in through the front doors and climbed the flight of stairs. On this occasion of being early for mass, I met Father Steve standing in the vestibule. Usually, when I arrive, he is already on the altar.
"Good morning," I said to him, "There's a cat outside the front doors greeting the people." Father Steve looked down the steps and out the open doors. He didn't seem surprised by the cat's presence, but unlike me, Father Steve is always there before mass starts, so he's probably seen the cat before.
I couldn't restrain myself, "He must be Catholic, wouldn't you think?"
Like the response one would expect after telling a corny 'Dad Jake,' Father Steve gave a soft, groaning chuckle. "That's a good one," he said. With a few more minutes until the opening hymn, I went into the church and found a seat.
I appreciate a priest who can draw the attention of his parishioners by talking about something in current times. And then ties it together with biblical events that happened two thousand years ago. Father Steve got the congregation's attention when he talked about an early scene in Saving Private Ryan, the movie. He then related what happened in that scene to the Gospel, when Jesus restored a deaf man's hearing and removed his speech impediment.
Jesus and Private Miller, from the movie scene Father Steve spoke of, both distanced themselves from the crowd and the noise. They each sought some time alone or one-on-one time with another person. We all need that sometimes. But, there was much more to his sermon.
It was an excellent sermon, straightforward and easy enough for anyone to relate to. I wished everyone could have heard it. Father Steve's message would be beneficial in helping people deal with the crazy events of the world today - even that cat that hung out in front of the church, seeking attention.
The following week, I had intended to get to church a little early again. But, for all my good intentions, it didn't happen. I was late – again.
Many cars were parked on the street; I had to park a couple of blocks away from the church. Walking down the sidewalk alone, I reflected on last Sunday morning; how peaceful it was on that beautiful day even with people all around, and how good it was to be a little early.
On this day, the sky was just as blue when I looked up to the bell tower, but the bells were done ringing; still, I could hear them in my mind.
No people were gathered visiting on the front walk, and the little girl in the blue dress wasn't there. So I said to myself, "I wonder where everyone is?" I suppose they were already inside.
I could hear the pipe organ playing and the people singing the opening hymn through the open front doors as I got closer to the church building. Although I was alone on the walk, I felt the presence of another. "Is that you Lord," I asked softly.
It was about then that I noticed the grey cat with the yellow and orange speckles, wearing a red collar. She was walking on the sidewalk, coming toward me. "No, it's me," she said, "and you're late, sir."
The cat and I shared a good laugh about that. I took a moment, reaching down to give her a rub on the head. She paused to accept my attention and pushed her face into my hand for a good scratch on the cheek. "All the other people went inside already," she told me, "You better get going."
I enjoyed arriving early for mass the week before, but being a few minutes late gave me a little quiet time alone. I also had a moment alone with the church cat on the sidewalk. I recalled Father Steve's sermon from the week before; sometimes, we all need a little alone time or one-on-one time with another. Today, I got both.
Next week, I think I'll arrive a little early for mass. Maybe there will be time to tell Father Steve another corny little joke before mass. But, in case I don't make it early, I think I'll take one of our cats, Edgar Allan's, treats with me – on the chance I might meet the church cat on the sidewalk again.
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About ten years ago, or so, my brother Danny planted a variety of fruit trees. The peach trees seemed to fair well with the climate at his southern Iowa home. Occasionally, we get to reap the benefits of his harvest.
Dan brought a large bag of fresh peaches with him when he came up to Minnesota. He arrived at our house around ten-thirty at night, and I ate two peaches before bed.
A couple of days later, I took a road trip to southern Minnesota with my granddaughters. We packed a lunch and some snacks for the ride. Dan prepared a peach for each girl, putting the pieces in two small plastic containers. When we stopped to eat, the girls were thrilled with the surprise. Addison ate about half her fruit. Evelyn ate all her's, then asked Addie if she could have the rest of her peaches; Addison gave them to her. Good, ripe peaches are magical; they put people in a happy, loving mood, and these were good peaches.
A short time later, four-year-old Evelyn struck up a conversation in the car, "Hey Papa, guess what."
Sensing a possibility of being pranked, I answered cautiously, "What."
Evelyn said, "Your daughter Sydney (her mom), Aunt Delaney, and Aunt Annie are pretty."
I smiled while looking at her in the rearview mirror, "What about Nana Mac?"
Ev quickly responded, "Oh yes, she is very pretty, and June Bug is very pretty too."
Addison piped in, "And Edgar is cute."
I quizzed Addie, "Edgar's not pretty?"
"No, he's a boy," Addison answered as if I should already know this. "Boys aren't pretty; they're cute. Edgar is a cute cat." I agreed.
"Wait a minute," I muttered under my breath, "they addressed everyone in the family except me, even the dog and cat. What am I, chopped liver?" Maybe it was the sweetness of the peaches, and extra peaches at that, which inspired Evelyn's nice compliments. We finished our travels, then headed home.
I thought more about Danny and his peach trees; I don't know their variety, but I wouldn't mind having a couple of peach trees in my yard. Although I'm not sure they would survive the harsh winters of northern Minnesota, it couldn't hurt to try growing them indoors to start.
A few weeks earlier, I had purchased some Colorado peaches at a fundraiser for the Encounter Youth Center in downtown Duluth. After eating the peaches, which were terrific, I dried the pits, cracked them open, and retrieved the seeds from the center; I was surprised how small they were compared to the pit. But that wasn't the first time a small seed baffled me.
A few years ago, I met my friend Tony when I delivered a trailer to him on the west coast of northern California. Tony gave me a tour around his yard. Living in the Redwood Forest, he had sequoias in his yard, over one hundred feet tall! I was amazed at how tiny the pinecones were lying on the ground beneath the trees. I mean, these came from trees that are of the largest in the world. So I asked Tony if I could take a couple of pinecones for the seeds.
Tony said the seeds in those cones had already been eaten by squirrels and birds and such, but when the new pinecones fell, he would harvest some seeds for me. He did and sent them to me, but I failed to plant them and doubted they would germinate after two years in an envelope. I thought about trying to grow them anyway.
Planting new trees from seeds would be a good idea right now, especially with the wildfires that continue to burn through Minnesota's north woods. Fire is nature's way of cleaning the forest, making way for new growth; I understand that - still, it's scary! Some of those fires are only about twenty-five miles north of our house. We've been in a drought all summer, and the winds have been brisk, so we've been monitoring the fire's movement daily.
It's very cool, almost poetic, that amid all these trees burning near us, I got an envelope/postcard from Tony in the mail. Inside were more sequoia seeds; on the outside of the package were directions on how to plant them. And, so the process begins.
I'm planting sequoias to start my career as a tree farmer. I know these trees will not withstand Minnesota winters. And peach trees that most likely will not either. With this in mind, it would seem futile to even try, but…
If the seeds germinate, I will transplant the redwood trees into pots, and when they grow a foot or so tall, I'll give most of them away as gifts, keeping a couple of them in the house for myself. Maybe when they get big enough, I'll decorate them with colorful lights, ornaments, and shiny tinsel every year around Christmas time. Then, when they get as tall as the ceiling, I'll have to give them to someone in a suitable climate that could plant them outdoors.
I had a funny vision that I was away from home for a while, and when I returned, the sequoias had grown, pushing their way through the ceiling and rooftop. Like in the story, Jack and the Beanstalk. They were growing taller than the pine trees in our yard. Maybe one day I could climb them through the clouds, all the way to the sky where I'd find a hen that laid golden eggs.
The peach trees could present a problem. Protected from the outside elements, I could imagine them growing in pots and producing fruit in our three-seasons room. June would be in paradise. Thinking she had her own grove of tennis ball trees, she'd jump up and pull soft fuzzy peaches from the branches, then look for someone to throw them for her. Well, I'm getting way ahead of myself here. First, I'll have to see if the seeds will germinate.
I decided to keep some pits from Danny's peaches to plant along with the Colorado peaches. I'll keep you posted on how this all turns out.
I don't know anyone who doesn't like peaches. They make people happy and happy people are more friendly. That's why they call a nice person "a real peach."
My granddaughter is a peach. It was fun to hear Evelyn's compliments after eating a peach. I'll bet Tony likes peaches too.