Fall is a wonderful time of year. A season of change and preparation for change. Colors burst in bright, magical shades of red and gold against a backdrop of dark green pines. Leaves flutter; floating to the ground as the trees make room for new growth to come.
Squirrels are busy hiding nuts; stocking up on seeds and other things to eat in the cold days ahead. Bears are on the final stretch of their feeding frenzy before settling in for a long winter’s nap. Deer, moose and other large animals make this a season of love. Courting and mating to bring the wonder of new life that will arrive in the spring.
The animals aren’t the only busy ones. People hurry to finish painting or outdoor projects before the weather turns cold. Lawn mowers get tucked away and snowblowers brought forth. Boats and campers are winterized for storage, while snowmobiles, ice houses and winter toys are brought out, tuned up and made ready for winter fun.
The days continue to get shorter and temperatures cooler. Mornings now greet me with frost on the grass. Just a little sunshine melts it away for now, but thicker, heavier frost is on the way. The last of this year’s days, nice enough to sit outside and have morning coffee on the deck, are upon us. I decided this would be a good day to put most of the patio furniture into storage, leaving one table and two chairs, just in case the weather holds out longer than I predicted.
Melissa was just finishing her coffee on the deck when I came out, still in my pajamas, to join her. As soon as I stepped outside I was warned, “There’s a red squirrel on the deck by the bird feeder. Don’t scare him. I don’t want him to jump off the edge.” she said. “What’s the big deal?” I questioned, “That squirrel is perfectly capable of jumping off a four-foot high deck and he’s not going to get hurt doing it.”
It seems the squirrel had gotten himself into a predicament. Our deck sits in a corner of the house with the kitchen wall on one side and the three-seasons room on another; the other two sides are open. The squirrel, I call him Rocky, was so focused on filling his cheeks with sunflower seeds from the bird feeder, he failed to notice our dog, June, positioned herself in the yard below waiting for him to jump down. June loves to chase squirrels and she is fast enough to catch them.
Rocky could run toward the other open side of the deck, except our cat, Edgar, was on the deck with his leash fastened to the leg of a chair. Edgar, crouched down like a sniper in a tactical position. He was guarding his side of the deck with all the intensity of a goalie in front of the net, waiting to pounce on the squirrel if he dared to come that way. There is no doubt in my mind, Edgar would easily catch Rocky even if he had to drag the chair with him to do so.
Melissa said, “He’s been running back and forth, from the feeder to the gas grill, hiding under the skirting of the grill cover.” She went on, “He knows June is in the yard, and Edgar has him pinned down from the other side.” I stood there next to the grill taking in the excitement as it played out.
The scene reminded me of a baseball player who tried to steal a run. He was trapped.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
The lottery jackpot is getting so high, it’s crazy! The other day we decided to go for a drive, maybe buy a lottery ticket along the way. We took fast trip to Grand Marais and just like that - we were at Sven and Ole’s. A 12” thick crust, half Uffda Zah and half Havaiian Zah, had both our pallets covered.
While we were waiting for the pizza, I ran down the block and around the corner to buy a little surprise for my wife.
Back at the restaurant, I walked by a big table that already had their food. I tapped the good man on the shoulder, presented my fork and asked, “Could I have a few bites of your pizza while I’m waiting for ours to arrive?” Not even thinking about it he said, “Sure. Help yourself.” We shared a good laugh about that.
When we were done eating our pizza, I went to the counter for a to-go box, passing their table on the way back. “We saved a couple slices for you.” the man said. We shared another good laugh.
“Do you need a to-go box?” I asked, offering him mine. “No, we’re not taking it. It’s yours, he said.” I respectfully declined, but when he told me it had sauerkraut, he had my undivided attention. “It’s the Oktoberfest special,” he said, adding, “It’s got German sausage, sauerkraut and mustard.” How could I say no?
I went back to our table with the small box and large round pizza board with two extra slices of pizza. “Um, what are you doing?” Melissa asked. I explained the story and she said, “You’re going to need another box. You’re not putting sauerkraut in with my pizza.”
Then, I presented her with a surprise, wrapped in an advertisement sheet from the Cook County Herald News. “Maple nut fudge! Where did you get this?” She was excited. “Around the corner at Gunflint Mercantile.” She opened it and cut a couple pieces. Mmm. It was the perfect dessert following a perfect meal.
Afterward, we drove up the shore so Melissa could shoot some wave photos, then out the Arrowhead trail. Everything was beautiful.
On the way home we stopped at the Holiday station in Tofte, to top the tank. I ran inside and purchased a Mega-Millions ticket. On the way back to the car, I jumped up high, kicked my feet off to the left and clicked my heels, while mid-air.
Partially because I was so excited over the prospect of winning hundreds of millions of dollars - but more so, to impress my wife who was sitting in the car. Yes honey, I can still do it.
My wife was reading a text and missed my athletic performance - an amazing courting move, all for naught. The lottery ticket turned out to be a dud, so I’ll not be featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Today, I said, “Honey, watch this.” I jumped up in the kitchen, kicked my feet off to the left and clicked my heels together while mid-air. We shared a good laugh about that.
In reality, I don’t need all that wealth. I live on the North Shore with a woman who thinks I’m pretty special. We have lots of good places to eat, and constantly flow of nice people. That’s already a lifestyle of the rich and famous. I don’t know how much better it could get.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
I baked about nine dozen ginger crack cookies to take with me on my trip to San Juan Capistrano. I planned to hand them out to people along the way. I titled this trip, “Cookies to California, or bust.” Each time I stopped for gas, I would take the big bag of cookies into the store with me, offering them to the clerk and maybe customers who were in line with me. I enjoy the smiles I get from doing so.
It was going well. I would hold the bag open toward folks, “Would you like a cookie? I made them myself.” Most people would smile, take a cookie or two and thank me. Some were skeptical; they had to be wondering, “Why is a stranger offering cookies?” “No thank you.” they would say, respectfully declining.
One lady at a gas station in Nebraska, was a little grouchy. “You can’t have those in here!” she said, speaking of my cookies. “We’re only allowed to sell food that was made in a licensed, commercial kitchen.” I justified, “But I’m not selling them, I’m just giving them to people.” That seemed to agitate her more. “I sell cookies and snacks and you can’t have those in here. Now take your cookies and go.” she insisted, motioning toward the door. I had more to say to argue my case, but felt it would be best to just move along. Once stirred, its better to move away from a hornets nest before you get stung.
I didn’t mean to upset anybody, I was just making a kind gesture. Walking to my car, feeling rejected, I heard somebody call, “Hey brother!” I didn’t think they were talking to me. “Hey buddy.” They called again. I turned around. A man and woman, in their thirties I would guess, followed me out of the store. “Could we have a couple cookies?” he asked. With a big smile I gave them a proper Minnesota reply, “Ya, sure. You betcha.” I said, holding the bag open, “Take a few.” They really lifted my spirits, and I kept handing out cookies as I made my way down the road.
In the middle of nowhere, west of Grand Junction, Colorado, my temperature light flickered a few times on the dashboard. “That’s weird.” I thought. Then the light came on solid. I immediately pulled over on the shoulder. Turning on my flashers, I stopped the car and turned off the engine. Thick steam began pushing out from under my hood, through the grill, from the cracks between the hood and the fender and near the windshield. The distinct smell of antifreeze was strong. I got out of the car, raised the hood and stood back waiting for the billows of steam to clear. “This isn’t good. Isn’t good at all.” I said, shaking my head.
When life presents me with a situation where I don’t know if I should laugh, or cry, I try to remember, crying isn’t going to help anything. “California or Bust, eh?” I started laughing, “I guess sometimes you bust.”
When the steam cleared I saw the lid to the reservoir was off. I waited for the engine to cool so I could remove the radiator cap to look inside. As I suspected, it was low. Fortunately when I travel I always carry a couple gallons of well water for drinking. I started the engine and slowly topped off the radiator, then filled the reservoir. The temperature light stayed off, so I continued down the road until I reached Green River, Utah - a town with history that always causes me to smile.
In the early nineties, my buddy Stuart and I were taking two of my younger brothers, Steve and Richard, out west. We were going camping and fishing in the Colorado Rockies. Four grown men driving almost a thousand miles in an extended cab, Ford Ranger. It was tight to say the least. We towed a small trailer to carry our gear.
The first night camping, it poured rain. In the morning the water in the stream was cloudy. The fish weren’t biting, the skies were overcast and it was cold. Stu and I talked. We decided a road trip from here would be good. “Where would we go?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know. L.A. I guess. We can surprise my brother Dan with a visit.” We packed up and hit the road, I-70 west bound.
Along this route you’ll come to this small town of Green River, Utah - just under 1,000 residents and just over one hundred miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado. There was a sign on the side of the road by the exit, about two feet wide by three feet tall with hand painted white letters, “Next Gas 110 Miles.”
Even if my tank was over half full, I always stopped to top it off with gas in Green River before heading into that long stretch of road I called, “No Man’s Land.” At the bottom of the exit ramp were two gas stations. Both were rather primitive with gravel driveways; there wasn’t even concrete around the pump islands. Each had a convenience store in an old mobile home. People didn’t mind the conditions, they were just glad to have gasoline way out there. We chose the fancier of the two stations - the one with a doublewide trailer.
Inside there was a line for the restroom, which was the original mobile home bathroom (pink bath tub and all) that served both men and women. While waiting his turn, Stu picked up a water bottle with a big red heart on the side. He held the bottle in the air and read the message out loud - very loud, “I love Utah? What’s to love? The Rocks?” he questioned, then started laughing. Everyone in the room turned to stare at us, with scowling faces of disapproval.
Now Stu is a pretty big guy at five-feet, fifteen inches tall. But he looked kind of small compared to the herd of cowboys who seemed like they wanted to tan our hides. They all looked eight feet tall in their pointed toe cowboy boots, slim jeans with huge silver belt buckles, plaid western shirts with pearly snaps and ten gallon hats. A couple of them we’re even wearing spurs on their heels.
My voice had to be a little shakey when I quivered a nervous laugh, “He’s Just kidding, right Stu?” Stu said, “No I’m not. There’s nothing here but rocks!” I don’t know how we got out of there unscathed, but we did. My brothers and I laughed about that for hundreds of miles, and then for years to come. We still mimick Stu, “What’s to love? The rocks?”
I laughed recalling that day as I pulled off the interstate at exit 160. The old sign has long since been replaced by a modern yellow warning sign with slightly different wording, “Next Services on I-70 110 Miles.” The two old stations have been raised and a big Pilot Truck Stop, now sits on the lot. Times change, I guess.
The radiator was on my mind as I pulled up to the pumps. I needed to make a decision whether to head into No Man’s Land, knowing the next services were 110 miles away, or to come up with another plan.
The car wasn’t overheating anymore, so I decided I’d buy some antifreeze to carry with me just in case, and go for it. I set two, one gallon jugs on the counter, and paid my bill. I asked the cashier, “Would you like a cookie? I made them myself.” “No thank you.” she said. The guy at the register next to her said, “I’ll take one.” “Take two.” I insisted. The lady who waited on me changed her mind, “Well maybe I will try one.” I smiled and held the bag open for her.
I wasn’t far down I-70 when I came upon a semi with its hood open, stalled on the side of the road. The driver was walking a distance up the shoulder, holding his cell phone. I glanced at my phone; no signal, so I pulled over. He was a little bit older, well groomed with gray hair and glasses, wearing black polyester slacks. The collar of his blue dress shirt folded neatly over the neck of his yellow pull-over sweater. “Are you getting a signal?” I asked him. He spoke with a gentle voice and a Portuguese accent. “No. No signal. My truck broke down. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” There was worry in his voice.
He told me he was going to walk to Salina, to see if he could get someone to tow his truck. “Salina is 85 miles from here.” I told him, showing him my GPS. He didn’t realize it was that far. “I can give you a ride back to Green River, if you’d like.” “Do they have a tow truck there?” he asked. “I don’t know, but there’s a Pilot truck stop. I’ll bet they’ll know who to call” I told him, “It’s about 16 miles behind us and a lot closer than Salina.”
The driver explained that another tucker had stopped earlier. “The man said he would call my dispatcher when he got a signal to let them know where I am stalled.” He considered my offer then decided, “I better wait here with my truck.”
“No problem,” I said. I wished him good luck and started to pull away. I stopped again and the man walked up to my window to see what I needed. I held up the bag, “Would you like some cookies? I made them myself.” He was very appreciative and took two cookies. “Take a few more my friend, you can enjoy them while you’re waiting.” He grabbed another hand full, thanked me, and began walking back toward his truck. I pulled out onto the highway.
Still about 40 miles from Salina, my temperature light started to flicker again. I pulled over to add a little more coolant. As I was finishing a Chevy pickup stopped. The driver got out and walked toward me. “Do you need any help?” he asked. “Nope, I’m good” I replied. “Are you sure? You’re still at least 40 miles from the next gas station.” he said. “She just needed a little antifreeze.” I told him. I closed the hood and pulled out my bag. “Would you like a cookie? I made them myself.” I told him. “Hey, molasses cookies! Those are my favorite.” He took a cookie, biting into it right away. “This is good.” he said to me, asking, “Would you mind if I took another one for my wife? She’s in the truck.” “Take a few.” I said, then I thanked him for his concern and stopping to check on me.
Not too much farther down the road I stopped to see if I could help an elderly couple with a flat tire. “We’re okay.” The man said, “we’ve got help on the way.” “Were you able to get a cell phone signal out here?” I questioned. “I called with my OnStar service.” He said. I offered the couple cookies. “No thank you,” the man said, “We can’t eat cookies anymore, but they sure look good. Are those ginger cookies?” “They are.” I said. “I love ginger cookies. My wife used to make the best.” He said, still looking at the bag of goodies. He shook his head, “I better not.” I wished them luck, and moved on down the road.
In California, I stopped for gas. The card reader at the pump didn’t seem to be working. While I fidgeted with the machine, a young man walked up to me. “Excuse me sir. Would you happen to have have any spare change I could have to get a gallon of gas? I need to run my wife to work.” Having heard that a million times, I told him, “I don’t have any change, just a card, but if you pull your car over here, I’d gladly give you a couple gallons of fuel.” He thanked me and said he would go get his car.
I honestly didn’t think he would come back. Often when people ask for gas money, they don’t want gas - just the money. The reader still wouldn’t accept my card so I went inside to pre-pay. Estimating how much my car would take to top the tank I had the cashier put $60 on the pump. I was surprised when I came back outside and the man who asked for gas money, was waiting in his car along with his wife and child, near mine. By that time a SUV had pulled up to the other side of my pump.
I filled my tank; my car didn’t hold as much fuel as I thought it would. I was ready to give him some gas but the hose wouldn’t reach his filler and I couldn’t hang up the nozzle as it would close out the sale. His wife got out of the car to hold the hose while I moved my car clearing the way for her husband to pull into my spot. As she took the hose she said, “We really appreciate this. I hate having to ask people for help, but we’ve just run onto some really hard times lately and we don’t get paid until Friday.”
There was such a humble gratitude and sincerity in her voice, it really touched me. I told her, “There’s around $20 left on the pump, go ahead and put it all in your car.” “Are you sure?” She asked. “I’m sure. Keep your chin up kid, things will get better for your family.” She thanked me again. I just smiled, then got in my car to pull it forward.
I stopped a few feet away, and walked back to their car. The man was pumping gas. I handed him the bag with the last of the cookies in it. I suppose there were eight or ten left. “Here. These are for you my friend. I made them myself.” He looked at the cookies and smiled big. “Thank you, sir.” he said, “my little girl loves molasses cookies.” He was a little choked up when he said, “You must be an angel to help us out like this.” I smiled at him, “I’m not an angel, but I do work for Him whenever I can.” I wished them a good day and returned to my car.
I sure got a lot of good from those nine dozen cookies.
I finished my business in California and headed east to Las Vegas. My friend Schuyler was getting married Saturday evening. Attending his wedding was part of the plan on this trip.
Saturday morning I was at a shop in Las Vegas to have my car looked at. In their waiting room they had a lot of tables and chairs and a big refreshment counter for their customers. There was coffee, tea, water, a big modern Coca-Cola dispenser with all kinds of flavors, hot chocolate, cappuccino; fresh fruit, snacks and more. It was really nice.
A young mom with two babies in a double stroller was fixing a beverage. A little kid in a green soccer outfit, sporting the name “Noa,” across the shoulders and the number 21, was trying to get a glass of pop behind her. He couldn’t have been but four years old and cute as could be. In his tall green matching socks, he jumped up two or three times, until he was able to tap the “Coke” button, then he jumped repeatedly trying to select the Fanta Orange.
The mom with the stroller turned to help him. She took the cup he was holding. “That’s a coffee cup,” she said returning it to the coffee area, then handing him a Coke cup. “This is a pop glass,” she said and continued to help him get an orange soda. Watching all of this from my seat at the snack bar counter, I asked, “Is that your son?” I was going to compliment her on how cute he was. “No, I don’t know who’s kid he is. He just looked like he needed help.” “That was sure nice of you to help him.” I said. She said thank you and went about her way. I wished I had some cookies to offer her.
I started thinking about all the good things I’d seen and good people I had run into over the past couple days. People helping other people. It made my heart warm. Isn’t that what we’re really here for, to help and serve one another?
I reflected on the gas station and the sign on the highway at Green River, Utah. The old sign read “Next Gas 110 Miles.” The new sign reads, “Next Services...110 Miles.” I don’t mind having to drive 110 miles for gas, but there is always someone much closer to serve - to lend a hand, or offer our services to. How ironic I was having these thoughts in the “service” department of a Subaru dealership. I said to myself, “I liked the old sign better.”
Sunday morning came. After church, I would have breakfast with my friends before I started the long journey home. Schuyler text me asking, “Are you going through Des Moines on your way home?” I replied, “I can. What’s up?”
Schuyler explained, “Taylor’s brother left for home and forgot to take her wedding dress with him, and the flight were on won’t allow us to check a bag. I was wondering...” “Sure, Schuyler. It’s no problem, I’ll be right there...”
Despite my car giving me trouble in the desert, this has been a great trip, but I still like the old sign better.
At the end of a trip, we came home to a dead refrigerator. Ugh! With just two thumps on the side it would start running and worked well...until it died again a few hours later. I insisted, “We don’t need a new refrigerator, I can fix this one.” She was skeptical, but I assured her, “I just need to take the back panel off and find the obvious loose connection.”
A week or so went by. I never did find time to make the repairs and a lot of food was being wasted. Meanwhile, my wife fired up the little refrigerator in the camper. That worked well for me. She, however, wasn’t going to settle for crossing the driveway in house slippers during the upcoming Minnesota winter weather to fetch milk for breakfast. She got online to start looking at new appliances. I helped by grumbling from the sidelines.
I wasn’t going to spend three or four grand on a refrigerator. “All I want is an ice and water dispenser in the door!” I said, resistant to buying a new fridge. “I don’t want a TV monitor, internet access or any of that fancy-pants stuff and I won’t have some high-falutin appliance telling me when I’m low on milk!” We decided on a very basic, side-by-side and it was only $827.
I went to Duluth the next day to pick it up and bring it home. Using an appliance dolly I brought it up on the back deck and unwrapped it. This baby was so cheap it didn’t even come in a box - just protective styrofoam corner pieces, shrink wrapped in plastic. “Refrigerators should come in boxes.” I grumbled to myself, feeling slighted.
As I pulled the plastic and removed the sticks of styrofoam, I thought about days long ago, when the girls were little. They loved refrigerator boxes. Every summer I would call Mike’s TV and Appliance: “Hey Mike, can I come get a big box?” He would laugh, “For the girls?” “Yeah,” I said, “School’s out.” Mike had a daughter. He understood where I was coming from. “Sure, come on over. If I don’t have a box, we’ll unpack a fridge for the display floor.”
The girls were always excited when I came home with a big box. I would put it in the backyard and grab my utility knife. Only Dad was allowed to use the razor sharp tool, so they would tell me where they wanted things and I would do the cutting.
We always started with the door. Sometimes the door had a window and sometimes not, but it always had a hole cut for a handle. Windows were made by cutting a capital I shape on the sides of the box. The girls could bend each piece back, leaving the sides attached, so they could be closed again like shutters.
O’Hara Hardware always had a quart or two of paint that was mixed a wrong color and I could pick them up for a buck or two each. I would give the girls a couple of old brushes and they would go to town painting their box anyway they wanted. When the paint dried, they would use fat sticks of bright, colorful sidewalk chalk to put the finishing touches on their house, club or fort.
They moved their small Playskool table and chairs into the cardboard building and would have neighborhood friends and cousins come over for secret meetings. Of course no boys were allowed - boys had germs! Sometimes the girls pulled the windows closed for privacy. I had no idea what plots they conjured up in there. Maybe they were planning to take over the world, or at least a Skittles candy plant. It was not for me to know; this was their special place where imaginations were allowed to run wild.
Eventually the rains would pour down on the box. It would settle, shrink and start leaning to one side then the other, slowly making its way to the ground. The deteriorating windows and doors no longer worked. The process reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West, when Dorothy, splashed water on the witch while trying to save Scarecrow from fire. “I’m melting!” The box seemed to cry as it was reduced to rubble.
The girls protested when I started to cut the box into pieces for disposal. They stood by crying, “But Dad, this was the best fort we ever made.” “We’ll get another box and you can build a better fort.” I promised them. Every box was their best ever.
I smiled, thinking about those days. It was getting late. Rain started to fall on the deck and the new refrigerator. I laughed, “Go ahead and fall, rain, you’re not going to melt this plastic and styrofoam.”
I had to remove the three-seasons room door from its hinges to get the big appliance inside the house. The doorway going into the kitchen is smaller, so the dining table and chairs had to be moved, clearing a path to the living room, leading to the kitchen door 5hat was wider. Pulling the fridge on the dolly through the dining room, I banged my head into the hanging light fixture that is normally over the table. After giving the light a good piece of my mind, I got the new ice box to the kitchen, setting it in place.
I strapped the old Maytag fridge onto the dolly and took it out to the the deck. Again, banging my head on the hanging light fixture in the dining room, which resulted in more cussing. I loaded the old appliance into the truck, then put the house back together.
In the kitchen, I connected the waterline and installed the new fridge. When I plugged it in and turned it on, my initial thought was, “This thing is loud!” The more I worked with the new unit, the more I noticed it was very cheaply built. Oh well. “It is what it is; you get what you pay for.” I said, then cleaned up and went to bed.
Shortly after midnight, I awoke to a loud noise in the kitchen. Being from Iowa, I immediately recognized the sound as a 1960’s John Deere tractor with a bad motor and a rusted out muffler. I ran to the kitchen to investigate. “Oh, it’s just the new refrigerator; it kicked on.” I returned to bed.
Around two a.m., there was a loud crashing noise. I assumed a large bird busted through the picture window in the living room; or, a bear broke down the back door. I jumped out of bed to investigate. “Oh, it’s just the new fridge dropping a load of ice cubes into the bin.” I went back to bed.
Through the night, I learned the fridge cycles on about once an hour, and drops a new load of ice about every ninety minutes. At 9 a.m., dead tired, I called the appliance store to let the salesman know I was bringing this refrigerator back! I told him we would upgrade to a different model. “Not a problem.” He said, “I’ll see you when you get here.”
I took our old Maytag refrigerator to the recycling place. I had to take the house apart again to get the new fridge out, across the deck and to the truck. I put the house back together again so wild creatures would stay out in the wild while we made another trip to Duluth. I banged my head on the hanging light fixture while pulling the big appliance through the dining room. “Ouch!” There was more cursing.
At the appliance store we found the model we wanted. A Maytag, side by side with water and ice in the door and nothing else. At $1,349, it was more than I wanted to spend, but well under the four grand price tag I feared. “We’ll take this one.” I said, “we’ll need it in black.” As luck would have it, they only had it available in stainless steel.
Melissa looked online. There was only one unit in black remaining, in the Baxter, Minnesota store; two and a half hours farther west, away from home. It was a discontinued model. That’s why it was so cheap and they couldn’t order another, or ship it between stores.
The next morning we drove to Baxter to pick up our new refrigerator. I backed up to the loading door. A man brought the appliance on a forklift to raise it up into my truck. The fridge came with protective styrofoam corners, shrink wrapped. “Are you kidding me? Not even a Maytag comes in a box anymore?”
Back at home I banged my head on the hanging light when I pulled the new/final Maytag through the dining room and into the kitchen. Being a slow learner, I cursed again! I connected the waterline and installed the new unit. I plugged it in, turned it on and she hummed along very quietly. “You get what you pay for.” I said, pleased with my decision to upgrade. I tossed the styrofoam pieces and plastic into a pile. “I still think refrigerators should come in a box.” I muttered.
Well, the kids are grown and out on their own, so I don’t know what I would do with that big box anyway. I’d probably ask June, “Do you want to go out in the yard with me and make the coolest dog house ever?” June would be excited, “Yes, it can be our club house; no cats allowed.”
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
It was nearly noon on Saturday. Heading home, I noticed the leaves along the four-lane highway between Duluth and Two Harbors were starting to change. Turning yellowish green; some trees were already bright red and gold. With the first sign of fall colors, comes a steady stream of traffic, heading north on Highway 61.
I don’t know how people know the colors are turning. It’s like birds at a feeder. Our feathered friends just seem to know when more seed has been put out. Hungry for the wonder of fall, people flock in from near and far to take in the beautiful colors of Minnesota’s north woods. And who can blame them? Fall is a big part of the north shore magic that drew us to move here.
About a half mile outside of town, traffic was already backed up on 61 coming in from the west. Road work in Two Harbors had cars, trucks and RV’s passing through narrow channels of orange barrels, posts and cones, changing and contorting the lanes as we knew them.
Hustling to beat winter, workers in neon green vests, machines and equipment moved about busily. Intersections were closed, adding more disruption to the flow. It’s going to be very nice when it’s done, but for now the road construction has really slowed the heavy traffic through Two Harbors. I was caught in that line of traffic.
Finally making it about midway through town, I decided to pull into Mc Donald’s. I would get lunch and try to write a story. The restaurant was busier than I have ever seen it. I ordered my meal, poured my drink, and set them on a table.
An elderly gentleman with a cup of hot tea and a chocolate chip cookie in a small paper sleeve was looking around the restaurant for a place to sit. I looked around as well. I felt bad; I had just taken the last available table. It had four chairs and I only needed one.
Just as I was about to offer the man a seat at my table, he asked me, “Have you got more people coming?” “Nope,” I answered, “I’m alone.” He asked, “Would you mind if I sat on this side?” “Well, it depends,” I said to him, inquiring, “you’re not going to try to sneak any of my french fries, are you?” We had a good laugh over that. He assured me he wouldn’t bother my fries. “I would love to have you join me.” I said, inviting him to sit down. He took a seat and I went to get some ketchup for my fries.
When I returned, he had the lid off his cup of hot water and began gently steeping a tea bag. We shared some conversation about the weather, the traffic and how the town was buzzing with tourists today. “Do you live here in town?” I asked him. “Yes, just up the way.” he said, then asked,”How about you?” “No, but I’m not far. I live in Silver Bay.”
“Silver Bay? Do you work at the mine?” He queried. “No,” I told him, “I was a broadcaster for thirty-five years. I sold my radio stations in Iowa and we moved up here.” He told me, “I worked for the Erie Mine Company. It was hard work but I didn’t mind. It was a good job and it paid good. But they went to swing shifts, so I quit. That just wasn’t for me.”
The man wore a plaid wool shirt with brown and grey checks and a green, worn cap that had a Minnesota logo of sorts. I think it was a forestry hat. He reminded me of my uncle, John. I knew he had stories to tell.
“I lived in Chicago for awhile, but it was too big. I like it up here in the woods. I’ve always liked the woods.” He said, “I wanted to work with the forest service, so I looked at schools for training. There was one in Alaska that really had my interest, so I went to Alaska. When I got there, the school was closed and I ended up a 75 MM gunner in the army.” He paused for a moment, then said, “That’s a big gun; and it’s loud. Those shells went off right next to my ear. That’s why I’m hard of hearing now.”
I asked him, “Did you like Alaska? There are a lot of woods up there.” “I didn’t like Alaska much.” He recalled, “It was cold. Too cold, and too dark. In the winter it’s dark all the time. That wasn’t for me, so I left there.” He seemed to be thinking about those army days, then changed the subject.
“I got out of the army and went to school on a GI bill. I studied forestry and went to work for the forest service. I started in St Louis County and I’ve worked all up and down the north shore. I like Lake County the best.” He broke off a piece of his cookie, ate it and sipped his tea.
“I married a Swede.” He boasted. A smile came over his face as he fondly remembered a day long ago, “She brought me a sandwich and a cup of coffee one day when I was working in Dinky Town, way out west by the ocean. I thought, ‘I really like that girl.’ So I kept an eye on her. I’ve been married to her 50 years or so. We’re still married. She’s a good lady. We had a few arguments along the way, but we just got through the rough parts and it’s been pretty good.” His smile was beautiful as he talked about her; his love and respect for her was clear.
I needed to get going, but was so drawn in by his stories, I stayed longer. “I’m surprised I never got killed out in the woods.” He said, “Oh yeah?” I replied, encouraging him to tell me more. “One day I was walking in the woods and my gun went off. It really stunned me, and I dropped to my knees. But when I looked at my rifle, the safety was on and my gun hadn’t fired. About that time a man came running toward me and screaming. He was shooting at a deer and didn’t see me. That bullet went right past my ear!” He said. Holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart next to his head, he showed me how close it was. “The man thought he shot me and started throwing up.” My new friend laughed, “I almost got killed, but I made it out okay.”
“That’s the way it was back then. Some people didn’t have any money and they depended on deer to feed their family.” He recounted, “I was out calling on a man one day, talking to him in his yard when his dog walked up. The dog was carrying a good size bone from the hind leg of a deer in his mouth. It was fresh.” A compassionate look came over his face as he shook his head and said, “I didn’t say anything about the deer being taken out of season. The man was doing his best to feed his family. That’s how it was back then, but I’ll bet the next time he took his deer a little deeper into the woods to clean it.” We shared a good laugh about that.
He told me a few more stories and spoke fondly of his property. “I’ve still got forty acres.” He said. There was a pride in his voice as he spoke about his land, “But I stay pretty close to town now days.” “Is your forty acres around here?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s not too far out.” He said with a vagueness in his voice. A skeptical look came over his face. “Why?” I chuckled, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hunt, I was just curious if you still go out there sometimes.” He laughed about my answer.
I began to gather my things, then stood up, offering him my hand, “It’s been a real pleasure being able to spend this time with you my friend, but I need to start for home.” I shook his hand, “I’ve really enjoyed listening, and I thank you for sharing your stories with me.” I told him.
I am so bad about asking for names when I talk to folks, I was really happy when he asked, “What was your name?” “Tom Palen” I answered, he shook my hand again and said, “Tom, I’m Marvin. Marvin Maki, from Two Harbors.” I told him I was going to write a story about our meeting and would send him a copy. I exchanged contact information with him, and said, “Marvin, I hope I run into you here again! I’ve really enjoyed our time together.” He said, “Well I was sure glad you let me sit here. I liked having company; someone to talk with.”
I was feeling pretty blessed abut spending time with Marvin. I got in my car and pulled to the edge of the street, feeling hopeless as I looked at the solid line of traffic as far to my left as I could see. A car on the road stopped. The driver motioned to me, waving her hand, letting me into the traffic. I waved back to thank her.
I noticed more trees changing. The colors of the trees and bushes along the north shore are beautiful, as are the people who live here, and those who come to visit.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!