Driving south on US Highway 191 through the scenic Gallatin River Valley, I was pondering life - thinking about New Year’s resolutions for 2020. What bad habit should I give up this year to make myself a better person? I’ve never done very well with New Year’s resolutions. The only one I ever made that stuck through the year, was to stop making New Year’s resolutions! I chuckled and drove on.
Coming out of the valley, I decided to stop for coffee in West Yellowstone, Montana. In the café, a man and his wife sat on one side of the booth; another man sat across the table from them. The second man complained, “I don’t see why one man can’t give another man a friendly hug without people making assumptions – trying to make it something more than it is. I don’t even care if it’s a complete stranger, I should be able to give him a hug without anyone leveling judgement.”
I turned to look at the man. He was probably ten years my senior. Even sitting down, I could tell he was tall. He wore jeans and a blue plaid flannel shirt under a sleeveless down-filled vest. His silvery hair was wavy and just a little longer than shoulder length. His strong hands showed he was a not afraid of work. From his soft brown eyes and demeanor, I could tell he was not only a man with opinions and strong values, he was a man of peace.
I walked over to their table with my arms stretched. He looked at me with a puzzled expression as if to ask what I wanted. “I came to give you a hug.” I announced.
His friend on the other side laughed, “Well there you go, Jim. Here’s the hug from a stranger you asked for.” Jim sat in his booth as I stood with my arms still open. “Well, don’t just sit there,” his friend encouraged him, “Are you going to give him a hug?”
Jim stood up saying, “You bet I will. I’ll give him a hug alright.” Jim was a lot taller than I thought he would be. I wondered what I got myself into. He reached for me, wrapping his arms around my shoulders, pulling me in. At five feet-nine inches tall, the top of my head barely reached his shoulders. I returned his hug.
This wasn’t a beauty queen hug either; the kind where the two women lean toward one another with arms reaching but not actually touching, while dainty taps on the back, using just fingertips, are exchanged. No, this was a full-on embrace, with meaningful thumps on the back, firm enough to dislodge a chicken bone caught in one’s throat. A sincere expression of love for our fellow man was evident.
After the hug, I took my coffee and joined them at their table for conversation. The couple told me they bought an RV and were traveling about the county. He was retired from the DNR, although I’m not sure I caught from what state. Noting the license plates on my van, he said, “We recently spent about four months exploring the arrowhead of Minnesota, especially the north shore of Lake Superior, all the way to Canada.” When I told him that I lived on the North Shore, our conversation became even more connected. It was a wonderful experience!
I continued my journey on US 20, near Island Park, Idaho, and on south. I was taking in the amazing scenery; the brilliant white snow weighed heavily, contrasting the deep green branches of the pine trees and the mountains. Fluffy clouds floating in the bright blue skies made a perfect backdrop for ravens dancing and making a playground in the air. Absolutely breathtaking!
Just that quick, I was out of the mountains and driving the high plains. Open meadows lined both sides of the road. Beyond the jackleg fences, prairie grass poked through the top of the deep snow.
In the Midwest, farmers work with tractors, combines and four-wheelers. Out west, ranchers still use horses for a lot of their work, especially when working with their livestock. Horses are great helpers for the ranch hands driving cattle. (Not to mention the companionship you get with a horse. You just can’t bond like that with a four-wheeler.)
In a field, I saw a herd of cattle with several horses mixed into the crowd. They were all sharing the large round bales of hay inside the rings. Others joined at the water trough, like cowboys who gather as friends at the bar in a saloon for a cool drink and fellowship after a long day of chores.
It was a beautiful scene that brought two things to mind:
1) Horses and cows certainly have their differences, and yet they gather together in peace to share their food and water. Why can’t people learn from the animals and get along just as well?
2) As a special note to the horses. If you see the rancher pull up, driving a large semi-truck with a vented trailer, get the heck away from those cows - and fast! Trust me, you don’t want to go where the cattle are going.
I smiled with an idea. This year I will make New Year’s Resolutions:
Happy New Year to my family and all my friends, the ones I know and the friends I haven’t met just yet.
I love this tree. It shines alone in the night bringing comfort and joy to weary travelers. As brilliant as the stars in the sky, she draws the attention of all. Some, such as myself, on their way home, other’s going places; maybe to join family and friends, or to, work.
In solitude, she stands strong, no matter the weather. The tree offers, peace, contentment and hope; warmth on a bitterly cold night. She encourages me.
Her gentle light dances on the soft bed of clean, white snow beneath her. Along the busy interstate, she sings softly: Silent night, Holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
I drive on into the cold, dark night; I will be home for Christmas.
I-35 near Faribault, Mn.
Someday I’d like to visit the Aleutian Islands, a chain of Islands running from Alaska to Russia. The islands divide the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. It’s also where east meets west – or is it where west meets east. I digress, but I ‘m sure you get the point. I’m not sure what there is to do on the islands; maybe there isn’t anything to see – but I love to travel and I still want to go.
Speaking of not much to see, the other day I posted on Facebook that I was turning on to I-80 eastbound in Nebraska. I asked people to wish me luck as it is a long, long, uneventful drive to the Iowa state line. Anyone who has traveled this road understands.
A friend of mine, Dave Peterson, who is now an over-the-road truck driver, (or drives truck – depending on where you live in the USA) commented that he too would be traveling I-80 across Nebraska, headed westbound. “Maybe we’ll pass each other.” He joked. I suggested we should meet for dinner. Dave said I would be long gone by the time he got there. As usual, things that distracted me, slowing me down.
Later, I messaged Dave to ask his twenty. (twenty, that’s short for 10-20. Truck driver terminology; CB lingo
for where are you?) He said he was about ninety minutes east of York, Nebraska, his stopping point for the night. I told him, “I’m about two hours west of York. Do you want to meet for supper?” And just like that, I had a dinner date on a Friday night out on the prairie in the middle of Nowhere, USA.
We met at the Huddle House. A nice restaurant just off the interstate with home style cooking and plenty of overnight parking for semi-trucks. I hadn’t seen Dave for several years. He had a few more grey hairs, but other than that he looked the same.
Dave and I go back a long way – over thirty years! We worked together at the radio station. I don’t think I hired him – maybe it was Bill. Whoever hired him, he was a good disc-jockey and turned out to be the best music director we ever had. We talked about the old days in radio. We caught up on what we were each doing now and what our kids are doing. I couldn’t believe how grown up his kids are – he was surprised how my kids grew up so fast, too. We laughed about how the kids got older – and we didn’t!
We met for dinner around seven and we didn’t leave the restaurant until ten. We had such a good time it surely didn’t seem like we were there for three hours. I’ve been blessed with many people in my life whom I may not see for years, but when we do get together, we click like it’s only been a few weeks. Dave is definitely one of them.
We said our farewells, “See ya later, Timmy.” He said, I smiled with a warm heart. When I first met Dave, he nicknamed me Timmy, while others called me Tommy. Some things will never change.
Dave went back to his truck for the night; I went to my van, but not before grabbing a couple of toothpicks to hold my eyelids open for the rest of the drive across Nebraska.
Heading down the road toward Iowa, I chuckled and gave my dog a rub on the head. “I didn’t even have to pay for my dinner, June Bug – Dave picked up the tab. That’s another thing I like about that guy.” June and I shared a good laugh about that.
I started thinking about the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska. Someday I’ll get there to see where east meets west, but Friday night, I was perfectly content being eastbound and meeting an old westbound friend on the same road, in York Nebraska.
It had been a difficult day to say the very least. Dealing with a challenging person (who I’m sure thought it was me who is challenging) had me about worn out. I was into the 24th hour of what should’ve been a two-hour project; and I wasn’t done yet. I was still waiting...
My patience was wearing thin, as was theirs, I’m sure.
I went to the mall to kill time while waiting. A mall security cop smiled at me. I asked him, “Has anyone wished you a Merry Christmas, yet?” He said no, so I said “Well then, let me be the first. Merry Christmas, my friend.” He reached his hand toward me. When I shook his hand, he pulled me close, embracing me with a big hug, pats on the back and also wished me a Merry Christmas.
He introduced himself, but I didn’t hear what name he said. “My friends call me Casey.” Then he introduced me to a man in a kiosk, who also wished me a Merry Christmas. Yes, this was the second nice cop I‘ve met recently, named Casey
I felt very good about the encounter. I went to Starbucks, inside Target and ordered my decaf-coffee. The cashier asked, “Will that be all?”
There was a teenage girl behind me and a boy behind her on the other side of the roped off line. “Are you two together.” I asked; she said they were. I told the cashier, “I’d like to buy theirs, too.” The girl smiled and ordered a chocolate latte fluff-o-rama foo-foo something or another with extra cream. (I was at Starbucks...) The young man thanked me for my offer but said he was fine with his energy drink, holding up a clear bottle with a fluorescent blue liquid inside.
I handed the girl her drink. She thanked me again, “Merry Christmas, sir, that was so kind of you.” I smiled and wished them both a Merry Christmas, also. They each held up their fingers, giving me the peace sign. That warmed my heart.
The cashier said, “Your total is $7.91.“
I swiped my card and got my receipt. “Where’s the line for a tip?” I asked her. She explained they are not allowed to accept tips. “Well if I could, I would give you a million-dollar tip.” She blushed and I said, “You have a Merry Christmas.”
She smiled a big smile and said, “Thank you. That is a million-dollar tip; Merry Christmas.”
Christmas day is coming soon but the Christmas Spirit is already here. Other’s showing love and kindness reminded me, Mr. Scrooge, cannot bring me down. I can however, share with him the same kindness shown to me and perhaps lift him to know the peace and joy that comes with this season.
Melissa said, “You have so much cooking to do for Thanksgiving, maybe we could get a pumpkin pie from the Rustic Inn…I mean, to save you some time.” I glared at her. She justified, “You’ve always said the Rustic Inn has the best pie on the North Shore.”
I reminded her, “I said they have the best pie of any restaurants on the North Shore. I’ll make my own pumpkin pie, thank you very much, ma’am!”
She tried to reason, “You could make an apple pie, and we could buy the pumpkin pie to save time.” I would hear no more of her nonsense and walked away.
I love baking all kinds of pie and I’m pretty good at it, but one pie has been giving me fits for as long as I can remember – the pumpkin pie. Not just any pumpkin pie, but specifically, Mom's - the recipe she gave me when I was putting together my first cookbook.
Mom had written across the top of the page, “Best Pumpkin Pie of All Time - It came from a friend in Glendive.” (The town I was born in so it has to be good.) Below was the recipe. I have tried for years to make this recipe and it never turns out. Melissa’s suggestion to purchase a pie this year, inspired me to try again. I knew I could get it right, before the kids came for Thanksgiving. Besides, Melissa might still be a little traumatized by my most recent attempt at making a pumpkin pie.
The last time I recall making a pumpkin pie was at our daughter’s house in North Carolina, six years ago. I was pleased with the pie. It looked and smelled good and the texture was okay. But when I tasted it? Well, I now call it “The Sugar Free Pumpkin Pie Incident.”
Without sugar, pumpkin pie is not delicious. As a matter of fact, it’s barely edible if you pinch your nose, swallow fast and chase it down with cold milk.
Still, I didn’t want to waste two pies, so to salvage them I scraped the baked filling from the crusts into a mixing bowl. I stirred in the forgotten sugar, mounded the recovered filling from both pies into one crust and tossed it back into the oven. The end result was a pumpkin pie flavored dessert with a texture similar to twice baked potatoes. Pumpkin pies have always given me trouble – especially Mom’s recipe.
With about ten days to Turkey Day, I had plenty of time. I made a couple pies using the recipe on the side of Libby's Pumpkin can. I made six different variations of this pie and begged people to take them. The pies were decent, but certainly not as good as I remember Mom’s being. I was ready to try her recipe again.
I took my old cookbook down from the cabinet over the stove. The blue three ring binder has a quilt pattern with lemons, garlic cloves, spices and tea kettles on the cover. The binding was tattered; nearly worn through. Over the years, my book has become frail.
I pulled out the recipe. The paper, discolored with age, has marks where it got splashed during previous attempts to make this pie.
I measured, mixed, stirred, blended and did everything just as the recipe called for. After baking for an hour, I poked a knife into the custard to see if it was done. Not even close. After two hours I checked again. Pulling the knife out, it was covered with sticky batter! “Why won’t this pie bake?” The resulting disaster was only worthy of the trash can.
“Why? Why can’t I make this stupid recipe work?” I compared the Libby’s recipe to Mom’s. The biggest difference was the milk. Libby’s called for condensed milk, where Mom used scalded milk. Researching online, I found a suggestion. I started over, this time adding cornstarch to the scalded milk. I produced yet another complete flop.
Defeated, I let the whole pie slide from the pan to the can. I think I heard Oscar the Grouch complain, “Come on buddy. I’m getting pretty full in here…how about a little variety? Something other than pumpkin?”
I looked at the recipe and came up with a thought. Was it possible Mom made an error? Maybe she wrote scalded milk, but meant condensed milk. I don’t mean to imply Mom would mislead me, but this was the same recipe where Mom wrote, in her own handwriting, “Buy 1 package Pillsbury Pie Crust in the dairy case – makes 2 pies.” My own mother, using a store-bought pie crust. The very thought makes me quiver!
I had an idea. I would use Mom’s recipe, replacing the scalded milk with condensed milk. There was no more time for experimenting. I would have to make and serve this pie no matter how it came out. I crossed my fingers and prayed for the best.
Opening the oven door, heat blasted my face. The metal rack quickly warmed the mitts on my hands as I pulled the rack forward; it felt good on a cold day. The pie looked good and smelled good. The moment of truth was at hand. I poked a table knife into the center of the pie and pulled it out. Perfectly clean! I might have nailed this, but would have to wait until the next day for the taste test. Hoping I remembered the sugar, I prayed, “Dear Lord, please let this pie turn out.”
Full of turkey, dressing, yams, potatoes and gravy, cranberry relish, green bean casserole and homemade dinner rolls, we waited a couple hours after our big dinner to cut into the pies.
Melissa cut into the pumpkin pie, putting a slice on her plate. She topped the wedge with Cool-Whip, cut another for Addison, then sat at the table. She cut a piece with her fork and tasted it. Her face lit up! “This is good.” She said, smiling, taking another bite. “Really good, Tom.” I felt relieved. After decades of failure with this recipe, I finally got it right.
Without much expression on her face, I could tell our granddaughter liked it by the way she devoured that pie. I took a slice for myself, cut it with the side of my fork and ate it. I thought to myself, this is good! The flavor, the texture; it was just like Mom’s pumpkin pie.
Looking at my old blue cookbook, still sitting on the counter to the right of the stove, I felt Mom’s presence. I could see her cutting a bite from the pie in the pan and tasting it. I could hear her saying, “You’ve done well, son.” Her round little body shook as she started laughing, “I can’t believe it took you all these years to figure out the milk.”
I leaned back against the kitchen counter holding my plate. As she took another bite, I said, “Oh yeah? Well I’m not the one who was using store-bought pie crust.” Mom and I would have shared a good laugh about that.
For a moment I felt removed, like I was standing outside in the snow with Mom, looking through the window at my family gathered around the kitchen table inside the warm house. They were content, eating my pumpkin pie, except Annie, she was having apple pie. Feeling Mom ever so present in my kitchen that day, brought me total peace. I was as carefree as the young boy to whom she handed a recipe to put in his first cookbook. I took another bite and looked toward the other counter. The pie and the cookbook were there. I couldn’t see her, but I could very much feel her spirit.
Missing her, a tear rolled down my cheek. I whispered, “Mom, this truly is the Best Pumpkin Pie of All Time.”
In 1988 the Chief of Police, in Ottumwa, Iowa, wanted his officers and the news media to work more closely together. He thought the media could help law enforcement when they needed information distributed to the public. In turn, news reporters (with proper training) would be allowed to get closer to crime scenes. Most reporters agreed it was a good idea, while the officers were leery. As a member of the media, I wanted to participate.
Presentations were given to teach what each side is trying to learn at a crime scene. One presenter said research shows the reason cops become cops is very similar to why reporters become reporters. Both want to know what’s going on; they want to be in the loop and both want to have an impact - they want to make a difference.
Detectives taught members of the media to be aware at a crime scene; watch where you walk. Stepping on a bullet casing can push it down into soft soil; a footprint or tire track may be distorted if stepped on. Important evidence can easily be lost or destroyed. The training was good. After completing the course, each media member was given an ID card that would allow them behind police lines at crime scenes.
To this day I feel I have a better understanding of what a police officer’s job requires, in part because of that training. During my thirty-five-year career in radio broadcasting, I worked closely with city police, sheriff deputies and state troopers. I even got to work with detectives from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation a few times and in a couple of instances, with FBI agents. I got along well with most of the cops and would help them out whenever I could.
One time the city cops were looking for a suspect they thought might have jumped a coal train headed west, out of town. I happened to be at the airport and called the police department. “If you can send an officer out here, I’ll take them up in the airplane and fly over the train.” If the suspect was there, they’d see him. A cop came and we went up to fly over the train. The suspect wasn’t there; officers on the ground had caught him. But I’m glad we went up. I’ve always liked working with the police - even though I had my own little crime spree going on the side. Traffic violations!
In those days it wasn’t uncommon for me to tell my co-host on the morning show, “I met the nicest State Trooper on the road the other day.”
They’d reply, “Did you get pulled over again?”
“Yeah, I did. Let me tell you what happened…”
Although not nearly as often, it still happens once in a while. Now I get more warnings than citations; apparently, I’m not as adventurous as I once was. I find myself less impressed with a low ‘zero-to-sixty’ number and more impressed with high MPG digits. Once in a while my needle doesn’t drop as quick as the numbers posted in reduced speed zones. Whenever I see a squad car, I still look at my speedometer, instinctively moving my foot toward the brake pedal.
Just the other night, I was nearing Billings, Montana on I-90 from the west. I saw the patrol car sitting on the median. No problem, my cruise was set at 74. As I passed, the car pulled onto the highway. Not seeing a speed limit sign, I glanced at my GPS. Crap! I was already in the 65mph zone. His lights came on and I pulled over.
I pulled off pretty far to the right in case the officer was going to come to the driver’s window. I don’t like to see a cop standing outside my left window with their backside to traffic, so I give them as much room as possible…actually, I don’t particularly like seeing a cop standing outside the passenger window either, but in consideration of my speed, it was inevitable he was going to come to one or the other. I saw him approaching in my right rearview mirror, and lowered the window before he got there.
My dog, June, started barking, causing the officer to understandably stand back a couple extra feet until he was sure she was no danger to him. Because I was so far to the right, the cop was actually standing on the down slope to the ditch. Add to these factors, me driving a full-size Ford Van that sits fairly high. When I looked out the window all I saw was a head and a flashlight. I almost lost it and started to laugh. I told myself, “Stifle that laughter! Let him speak first to assess his demeanor. “
I assured him June did not bite. “She’s just happy to meet someone new.” The officer introduced himself and told me why he stopped me. He was very polite when he asked for my information. This is where I got nervous.
We just bought this van and I haven’t got any of the documents yet; no insurance card, no registration, just a dog that would narc me out in a minute and threaten to tell the cop I stole the van, if I didn’t give her some dog treats.
I handed him my license and explained, “We had just bought the van and I don’t have the registration or insurance card yet. I do have this expired insurance card from my truck and the van is on the same policy – uh, but it’s not an expired policy, it’s good through September of 2020.”
The officer laughed, “I think I can get everything I need from what you’ve given me.”
When he came back to the van, he gave me a written warning for the speed. “I’m also giving you a written warning for the insurance card – you have to have that in the vehicle with you.” Again, he was very polite.
Now one could conclude I’m saying he was nice because he gave me a warning – not a citation. That’s not the case. He was one of those cops who could give you a ticket and make you feel good about getting it.
We chatted for a few minutes. He looked pretty young and I asked him how long he’d been a cop. He said a little over a year. I asked him, “Why would you want to be a cop in this day and age? People are getting crazier – they don’t respect authority like they used to.” He didn’t answer me, just brushed off the question.
He looked distracted, like someone was talking to him; maybe in his ear bud. “I have to get going. I have another call to respond to. Slow it down a little, okay?”
“I will.” I said and gave him my card. “If you get bored, look me up on Facebook. You might like some of the stories I post.” He walked back to his car, talking into his shoulder. Ear pieces, mics on their shoulders – all modern gadgetry. When I was his age, cops had to go to their car to talk on the radio.
As he walked away, I recalled a time when I was his age. All the cops I knew were older than me. Then, they were about the same age – and now, they’re all younger than me. A lot younger. This guy couldn’t have been any older than my youngest daughter.
I pulled off the shoulder onto the highway, using my turn signal of course, since there was a cop right behind me. I set the cruise at 65 in the 65 zone. (there was still a cop right behind me.) As soon as the squad car passed me, I kicked it up to 69 miles-per-hour. June and I continued east on I-94, about one hundred-fifty miles farther down the road, until we got to Miles City, Montana, where we stopped for the night.
The next morning, I went to get coffee. I thought I would check Facebook, then write for a bit. I had been working on a story about pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I had a message request from Casey Graff. I had no idea who this person was, but I opened the message and started reading it. His message read:
“Mr. Palen, I stopped you tonight and was rushed due to the busy life of being a Trooper. I had another call pending but did not want to be rude. I felt I gave you a shorter than normal answer when you asked why I would ever want to be a cop. I wrote this a few months back and wanted to share. Sorry it’s so late.” He attached his story:
I constantly get asked, “Do you like your job?” That question can mean so many things, especially in my chosen career. Usually the question is genuine. I give a vague but genuine answer. “There are good days and there are bad days, but yes - I love my job.”
Occasionally the question is asked with disgust and hatred. My answer remains vague but genuine. “There are good days and there are bad days, but yes - I love my job.” How do you answer a question like that with a job like mine?
I might follow with the fact that I was in the military and I’ve seen a couple other countries, therefore I’m grateful for our constitution and I believe in protecting it. I’d follow with the fact that I love helping people, if I can put a smile on someone’s face, I’ve had a good day.
I’ve got multiple opportunities to make people smile in this career.
Some examples: Changing a tire for an elderly man, woman, or someone with a child. Giving someone a ride, whose vehicle just broke down on the way to an important family function. Giving someone a warning and explaining the infraction and the reason it’s been made a law or how it’s unsafe. Locating stolen vehicles, school bus inspections, giving someone directions, giving someone spare change, the list is endless.
I love this job because I have multiple opportunities to share kindness, respect, love and compassion with everyday people. One small act of kindness can go a long way. I know first-hand. If it weren’t for the individuals who showed me kindness through my life I would not be where I am today.
If we were all kind to one another, it would build and build like the kindness I’ve been treated with. It’s given me hope and I believe it would bring hope to others. Therefore, I chose a career that I could reach out to people on their worst days and try to show them kindness in hope they might pass the action along to someone else. – Casey
Wow. I didn’t expect such a response. He is young – one year older than my youngest daughter. He served in the U.S. Navy, then went on to become a Montana State Trooper. He has a beautiful family - a wife and children. Still, every day Casey goes out on the road to serve and protect; to help people; to make a difference. He never knows what danger may be in store that day – but he goes out anyway.
I thought back to 1988, when the Ottumwa Police Chief wanted his officers and media to work more closely together. Specifically, the speaker who said the reasons cops become cops is very similar to why reporters become reporters. Both want to know what’s going on; they want to be in the loop and both want to have an impact - they want to make a difference. All these years later, those are pretty much the same reasons this young guy gave me, as to why he wanted to be a cop.
My pumpkin pie story can wait. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for Casey Graff and all the police, troopers and deputies. While we’re sitting down to eat this year, let’s remember the officers who will wait to celebrate with their families, because on Thanksgiving Day, they will be out chasing the bad guys; patrolling the city streets, county roads and highways, keeping us safe; looking for people who need help and making a difference.
Thank you, officer. Wishing each of you peace. Be safe.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our new Guest Columnist!