"Evelyn's preschool is closed on Good Friday. How would you feel about spending the day in Duluth?" Let me think about that; hang around the house watching the snowmelt on the edge of the woods, or go hang out with my granddaughter for the day? I went to Duluth Thursday and spent the night.
Friday morning, we were up early. Ev and I dropped Addison off at school, then took her mom to work. Coming down the steep hill of Lake Avenue, we could see a ship in the Duluth Harbor. We drove behind the DECC center to watch the big boat maneuver in the port. Standing on the sidewalk by the railing made of steel posts and chains, I took notice of how clean and pretty the city was in the soft morning light. The air was fresh and chilly - the water in the harbor was smooth as glass. They are so graceful; the big vessel barely made a ripple in the water's surface.
Leaving Canal Park, a homeless man was sitting on the concrete boulevard, leaning against a signpost. He had a plastic bag of his belongings by his side. With his hood pulled over his head, partially covering his face, he looked cold and hungry.
Ev and I went through a drive-up to get breakfast, then back to Canal Park. I stopped at the red traffic light and rolled down my window. "Have you had breakfast?" He didn't look up but shook his head no. I offered the bag, "We bought an extra meal for you." He got up to his knees to take the sack. I reached toward him with a large cup, "Do you like coffee?"
"Coffee is really good; I like it a lot." He set the sack down, stood up, and took the coffee. Wrapping both hands around the warm cup, he started a brief conversation, "I've been on the streets for a long time, mostly in the south during the winter, but I'm 57 now, and I just can't do it anymore." His eyes looked empty and lonely as if he just wanted someone to listen to him.
"I haven't seen my kids for over seven years. A couple of months ago, I found out they're living up in Hibbing, so when the weather got warmer, I started making my way north."
I inquired, "Do they know you're coming?"
"My girl said If I could find a way there, I could stay with them." He looked exhausted, "It's just taking so long to get there. I've been trying to save some money for a bus ticket, but that's hard too." He seemed beaten down, losing hope.
I offered him a twenty-dollar bill, "You can use this toward a ticket?"
"Are you sure," he asked as if I was unaware how much I gave him, "The ticket is only ten bucks."
I smiled, "You might need a sandwich or a bottle of water to take on the bus." He thanked me and expressed his appreciation. "Tell your daughter we said hi and give her a hug from us."
We said our farewells, and I pulled away. "Who was that man, Papa," Evelyn asked from the back seat.
"Just a friend who needed a few minutes of my time," I replied and smiled at her in the rearview mirror.
Ev and I went back to the house. She turned on a DVD (The Princess Bride) and watched as intently as if it was the first time she'd seen the movie, not her 500th viewing. The character Vizzini would say, "500 times? Inconceivable!" But, whatever he declared to be inconceivable – turned out to be true.
After the show, we got Addison from school; it was a mild, sunny afternoon, and I had an adventure in mind. "We're going for a hike," I told the girls, "you should each bring a coat."
They insisted, "Papa, it's too nice to wear coats – we'll get hot." Fair enough. I let them make the call but told them they had to wear long-sleeve sweatshirts. We put on our boots and walked to a trail not far away.
Stopping at the trailhead, we looked at a map of the trail. "It's a half-mile loop, so we should end up right back here after our hike. Addie, you'll be the leader." She welcomed the responsibility and set out with an enthusiastic stride. "Addie, you might need to slow down a little. A good trail leader makes sure their group stays together."
Not far in, we came to a fork in the trail. We discussed which way to go. Addie opted to veer left. After a couple more splits in the path, we came out of the woods into a parking lot.
"Papa, this isn't where we started." Our leader declared we were lost. I suggested we go back to the last fork. "Should we go right?" I was proud of her for knowing that was the direction we came from; however, I suggested a turn the other way would probably take us where we wanted to go, and so we went left. "Watch your shoes," Addison would announce whenever we came to a muddy patch, a steep incline, or descent.
Once the sun begins setting in the Northwoods, it gets chilly quickly. "Papa, I'm cold," Evelyn said. We kept walking, and I helped Addie with navigation. I wanted them to experience the cold – it led to a good conversation about hiking.
We talked about bringing a backpack on our next hike and what to carry. The girls agreed coats, hats and mittens would be a good idea. Addison thought we should pack some snacks just in case we got hungry. Ev suggested water too. I prompted them for other items to bring along. "What if we were still in the woods and it started to get dark?"
"We should bring a flashlight," Evelyn added. Excellent thinking for a three-year-old. I asked Evelyn if she wanted to ride on my shoulders. "No, I want to walk." Then asked, "Papa, are we lost?"
"No. I know where we are. We'll be out of the woods in just a few minutes."
Our leader spoke up, "I knew you would know the way." I appreciated her trust in me.
We arrived back at the house right at six-o-clock. "Everyone, take your muddy shoes off at the front door." I instructed, "I'll clean them off after we eat."
Their mom made dinner the night before, so all I had to do was heat and serve. Both girls ate well, especially Evelyn. She was hungry, and she looked exhausted. The half-mile walk was nothing for me, but when one's legs are only fifteen inches long, she took many more steps than I did.
After supper, Ev got out a container of colorful plastic discs. Each had a hole in the center and slots around the edges. They snap together to build things. For this story, I did a little research and found they were Lego Brain Flakes. I was humored by the name as I have met people with flakey brains but had never seen an actual brain flake. But I digress...
Intending to play, Evelyn scattered the Brain Flakes on the table, the couch, the chairs, and all over the hallway, living, and dining room floors – then disappeared. The blue, red, yellow, green, orange, and white pieces looked like wildflowers in a meadow. I found Evelyn lying in her bed, reading a book. "You need to pick up your toys before you go to bed."
She looked over the top of the book, "But Papa, I'm tired."
"You need to clean up after yourself, Ev," I said, walking out of the room, "Come on. I'll help you."
She cried, "I'm tired."
I returned to the bedroom a moment later and found her sound asleep. The book she was hold laid open on her chest. I thought for a moment about waking her but recalled my uncle John telling me, "Choose your battles wisely." If she put herself to bed and was asleep by 7:25, she must have been tired. I figured I'd best let her be. I took the book and her glasses, then pulled her covers up. After kissing her on the forehead, I turned off the light and quietly pulled the door closed.
In the living room, Addison had gathered the colorful discs into one pile on the coffee table. Nobody can set Lego products in front of me and expect me not to start building.
I snapped pieces together until I formed a body with four legs. I added a neck, head, and tail. I envisioned the iconic green dinosaur at the Sinclair station on the expressway between Duluth and Two Harbors – but mine was multi-colored.
"What is that supposed to be," Addison asked.
"It's a Sagulla," I replied with a tone as if everyone knew what a Sagulla is.
"It's a what?"
"A Sagulla. It rhymes with koala; like a koala bear – but it's not a bear." I explained. "What are you building?"
"A fence to keep our Sagullas together." She explained.
I corrected her, "Sugullas is plural. We only have one."
Addison was excited and began building something on her own, "Make a smaller one be the mommy Sagulla." I wasn't sure I could make one much smaller, so I made one larger – like a full-size adult Brontosaurs. I told her it was a daddy Sagulla, then asked her what she was making. "The mommy is pregnant; this is a baby."
I laughed, "The baby is taller than the mom?"
"It's a teenager; it's supposed to be taller than the mom." Addison worked diligently to build two smaller, twin baby Sagullas while I finished the corral fencing.
I quizzed my granddaughter, "Where do you think Sagullas come from?" She shrugged her shoulder, saying she had no idea. I suggested, "Maybe they live in the woods – in the mud. They probably came into the house on our shoes and our clothes. I think that's where they came from, don't you?"
Addison looked at me as serious as could be and said, "I think Sagullas came from your brain and your heart." That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Addie was writing on a Post-It note, "Now you have to write a story about Sagullas, Papa. That's your homework. Let me know when you're done, and I'll check your work." (touche) I smiled. She knows her Papa well. She pulled the note from the pad and stuck it to the tabletop next to me.
At the top, she wrote the title, "Sagullas" (that's where I learned how to spell the word). On the bottom; "By Tom." I raised my eyebrows with uncertainty. "Mom told me your real name." That made me laugh, but what had me smiling the first time were the four lines she drew on the small paper – the amount of space she allowed me to write my story.
"I only get four lines."
"You can do it. You have to use your words carefully," the teacher instructed.
Although you don't often see them physically, you will always feel their presence. Sagullas are the contentment felt when holding a child's hand in the morning, the serenity of watching a ship together as it moves slowly on calm water. They are the feeling of equal worth that comes when you feed a homeless man and take a moment to listen to his story. Sagullas share a child's joy watching a favorite movie with the same intrigue as the first time she saw it. Sagullas come from taking little ones on a walk through the woods, helping them learn and understand. Sagullas are lifting a book, taking the glasses off a sleeping child, and tucking her in bed. They come when letting your imagination run alongside that of a creative seven-year-old. A Sagullas is a child recognizing something that came from your heart. How could I possibly write all of this on only four lines? I pondered it overnight.
A Sagulla is a meaningful time spent with another person. Sagullas are love.
By: Tom - with help.
A few years ago, my brother Dan, the plumber, came up to Minnesota to help with my home remodeling project. I went to Duluth to pick up an order he had called in for supplies. I decided to take my car as it gets substantially better fuel mileage than the pickup. Besides, I still had the big trailer hitched to the truck and saw no need to disconnect when the car would do just fine. My dog June wanted to ride along but told her she had to stay home this time.
When Mike, the cashier, was totaling the order, he struck up a conversation, "So your brother Dan is a plumber?"
"Yep." I answered, "The funny thing is, I can get him to help plumb the house, but I can't get him to pay for my materials." We laughed about that, then I asked Mike, "Do you have a brother like that?"
"Nope," he said, "I'm an only child."
"I can't even imagine that," I said.
"Can't imagine what?" Mike asked.
"I can't imagine being an only child."
"Is Dan your only brother?" He asked.
"No," I chuckled, "I grew up in a family with sixteen children. I have seven brothers and eight sisters."
"Wow! I can't imagine." He said, "Did you ever have your own bedroom?"
"Are you kidding?" I replied. "I didn't even have my own bed until I started paying rent at my first apartment." We had a good laugh over that.
"That must have been tough," Mike said.
"Not really, it's just the way it was – the way I thought it was for everyone." I explained, "You see, you and I grew up on the opposite ends of the sibling spectrum. As I see it, the problem with being an only child is that your parents already knew who did it whenever something got broken. My parents, on the other hand, had to figure it out. I had a pretty good chance of dodging the blame."
"I never looked at it like that," Mike said, "You're right; they always knew I did it - you can't blame the dog for everything." We shared another good laugh over that. I paid for my order, thanked him for his help, then headed out to put my purchase in the car.
One significant error I make repeatedly is tending to forget my car is just that, a car - not a truck. My order was mainly ten-feet long pieces of PVC pipes and bags of fittings for the drains. To reduce the pipes' bulk, I slid the inch and a half pipes inside the two-inch lines, then slid the two-inch pipes inside the three-inch pipes. There were a lot more pieces than I anticipated.
Out in the parking lot, I discovered the pipes were not going to fit inside the car. "I don't understand; I've had boards that were ten feet long in the car before." Admittedly, they go from the tailgate, almost to the windshield, but they do fit. I failed to consider that the pipes are over three inches, where the lumber was only one and five-eighths thick. I also didn't t take into account how many pipe sections I would be hauling and that they would have to be stacked a few rows high.
With the back seat down and the front passenger seat fully reclined, I managed to get all the three inches pieces in by running them diagonally from the left rear corner to the front right. I closed the tailgate carefully. No problem. Looking through the back window, I had well over an inch to spare. It appeared the next row would go in just fine as well. I smiled, thinking I was pretty clever. "I've got this under control."
I reopened the back hatch and loaded another row of two-inches pipes that had smaller tubes inside. I again closed the gate slowly. It was pretty tight; the pipes barely touched the back of the end gate, keeping it from latching, but it looked like it would close, so I gave it a little extra push. Nope. The tailgate and the windshield both curved inward toward the top of the car, shortening the clearance. The pipes were not going to fit.
"Not a problem," I thought to myself. I would have to put the passenger window down and let the pipes hang out a few inches. It seemed like a redneck way to do it, but it would work. I'd turn the heat up to high for the 65-mile trip home with an open window.
When I went to the front of the car to put the passenger window down, I noticed two new star-shaped cracks in the windshield. You know the kind; they start at a single point, then sprawl out like a spider web. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as I looked at my windshield. "Aw crap! That's going to raise the cost of this project." It's a sickening feeling when you do something so stupid.
I immediately began trying to figure out how this could have happened. I know glass will fracture more quickly when it is sweltering hot or bitterly cold, but today it was neither. "There is no way I could have pushed the end gate hard enough to crack the windshield. There's just no way!" It was impossible. What could have caused this?
Well, maybe it was not impossible. Maybe I did push too hard. Maybe I should have tied the pipes to the rack on top of the car. Maybe I should have unhitched the trailer and driven the truck to Duluth rather than using the car as a truck. Maybe I should have...
Maybe, maybe, maybe. None of these maybes mattered now. The fact is the windshield cracked, and I did it. I must have done it - I was the only one there. Not being one to cry (too long) over spilled milk, I started laughing over a silly idea, "Maybe I should have let June ride along."
Then I heard a voice in my head. It was Mike reminding me, "You can't blame the dog for everything."
Once upon a time, grasshoppers threatened to devour all of Finland's grapes in a land far away. Legend has it; Urho chased the hordes of insects away, saving the vineyards in ancient Finland. His noble deeds resulted in canonization and earned Saint Urho a day on the calendar: March 16th - the day before Saint Patrick's. Coincidence, or not?
At my first such celebration, I met an "honest Finlander" who'd consumed his portion of pints and then some. He told me Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland after seeing Urho chase away the grasshoppers. "That's why Saint Urho's day comes first."
His friend, an Irishman, shook his head, "For starters, there is no such thing as an honest Finlander, okay, because they're called Finns – not Finlanders. They made that up too." The Irishman wasn't too steady on his feet but raised his glass and went on to state, "Now Saint Patrick, he was a real hero."
Whether the account of Saint Urho is accurate or not, I do not know. We raised our glasses to toast both saints.
I do know, lots of people gather every year to celebrate Saint Urho in a small town just up the road from me – Finland, Minnesota, population 179. On the Saturday following Saint Urho's Day, Finland will have a parade followed by festivities for all ages. This year, that Saturday was also the first day of spring.
It was a beautiful sun-shiny day; people were anxious to get out of their houses. A parade was just what we all needed. We were part of the masses that migrated in, causing the town's population to swell at least ten-fold for the day, maybe more.
The Lake County Sheriff lead the way, followed by the Finland Fire Department. The diesel motor rumbled smoothly; I could feel the power of the massive shiny red truck as it made its way slowly up Highway 1, right through the middle of the town. The lights flashed, and the siren blared; fire-fighters tossed showers of candy to people lining both sides of the road. Kids were gathering the treats as efficiently as a combine harvesting corn in the field. Autumn seemed so very long ago.
Seeing the firetrucks reminded me of a story I read last fall about the fire hazard created when lint builds up inside a clothes dryer. I had been meaning to check my dryer but hadn't got around to it yet. Being the vernal equinox, perhaps some spring cleaning would be in order – tomorrow. Nobody works on Saint Urho's Day.
After church and a good breakfast, I was ready to tackle the dryer. I almost forgot my wife telling me the washing machine took over two and a half hours to do a load. The water was running really slowly into the tub; it was probably the water inlet valve. I would look into it another time; the dryer was my project for today.
I questioned my thinking: what good is a dryer without wet clothes from the washer? "Maybe, I should look into that first - how difficult could it be?" I headed to the basement with a couple of hand-tools and a head full of knowledge.
Without a service manual, I used simple common sense and pulled the machine away from the wall. I disconnect the power cord, hot and cold-water lines, and the drain tube. On my knees, I examined the back panel on the unit. "Simple. Take these four screws out, and the back comes off." I removed the screws, but the back didn't come off. I found a fifth screw and took it out; still, the back remained in place. I didn't see any more screws.
A variety of plastic connectors were poking out through the panel. Using a pair of pliers, I squeezed each of them together and pushed the little white nubs back through. A couple of larger plastic connectors were giving me trouble; I finally got them back in as well – but still, the back panel didn't come off. After each pair of connectors was pushed through, I would hear something drop inside the cabinet. I was a little concerned.
There were two metal tabs toward the top that could have been holding it on. I tried without success to manipulate or bend them out. Frustrated, I stood up, scratching my head, "What the heck!" I took a ceremonial look around the room to make sure I was alone – to be sure there were no other men present to witness what I was about to do.
I took the walk of shame up the stairs to the living room. My wife was sitting in her chair. "Is everything going okay down there?" I assured her it was. "It seemed like there was a lot of banging and some cussing."
"Everything is fine. I thought I'd take a break and see what everyone is doing on Facebook." It's a genetic thing. Men were not designed to ask for directions or seek help with simple things we can figure out on our own. Who am I to break tradition?
I opened my iPad and started to type "Facebook" in the search bar. Instead, I accidentally typed, "How to remove the back panel on a Maytag washing machine model #8318015." I'm sure everyone has experienced the way Google tends to answer a question you did not ask.
My search results popped up: How to replace the water inlet valve on a Maytag washing machine. "Hmm. Smart-aleck computer!" I opened an instructional video. An appliance repair expert named Steve said I would need a putty knife, a ¼" nut driver, a pair of slip-joint pliers, and a flat-head screwdriver. He said, "The first thing you needed to do is disconnect the power cord and remove the water lines."
"Seriously? I came upstairs for this?" I said sarcastically, "At this point, I could be an expert making millions of dollars producing 'how-to' washer repair videos!"
Steve showed me how to use a putty knife to release two catch springs under the control panel's front. By release two more brass catch springs located under the board, I could remove the top of the washer and access the water inlet valve. "What? I don't go through the back panel?" Steve replaced his valve in a four-minute video. I was already ninety-minutes into my repair.
I returned to the basement with a headful of new knowledge. I would first have to support the back panel to keep the whole machine from falling apart by replacing some of the screws I'd removed. "Ha! Something I know that even Steve the expert didn't know."
Using Steve's method, I had the top of the machine off in less than two minutes. I always thought automatic washing machines were self-cleaning. I mean, every time you do a load of laundry, you wash the inside of the machine – right? When you open the lid, they always smell like clean clothes. I turned the top over to set it on the dry while I worked; I saw the underside for the first time. "Ick! I'll clean that before I put it back on."
Remember all those connectors I pushed into the machine? Well, parts and components were hanging everywhere. It was going to be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a box top to look at. I seriously questioned whether this machine would ever run again. I would remove the front cabinet from the device to reach them, which was easy because the top is basically what holds all the sheet metal on the front. "These things are built so cheaply – it's no wonder the new units only last five years."
With the cabinet removed, I began reattaching dangling things to the back wall. Once the puzzle was completed, I removed the only thing I didn't disconnect from the rear panel – the water inlet valve. I took it to the sink to examine it. The filter screens were plugged up with sediment. I pulled them out and cleaned them with a brush. After reinstalling the valve, connecting the water lines, and plugging in the electrical cord, I started a wash cycle.
"Wow!" Water was rushing into the washtub like water crossing a concrete spillway at the pond after a torrential summer's rain. I was pretty darn smitten with myself. I pushed the knob in to stop the water, then shook my head. "I could have cleaned those screens without taking the whole darn washing machine apart."
I stood looking at the exposed inside of the machine, mainly the washtub, "That's disgusting." I said, then committed to giving her a good spring cleaning as long as it was already disassembled. There was gunk in there one would never suspect!
When you lift the lid and look into your washer, what you're seeing, the thing with all the perforated holes, is the wash basket – not the tub. (Remember, I'm an expert now - I watched some videos.) The basket, which sits in the washtub, was clean and shiny - on the inside; the tub was not, nor was the back of the basket- the area we never see. I would scrub them while I had it apart.
I don't want to gross anyone out, but what I found beyond the clean parts we see through the lid would send a person with OCD screaming and running to their therapist! The washer always smells clean because of layers of built-up "fresh scent" laundry detergent that sticks to areas we cannot reach for regular cleaning.
Our machine has the fabric softener cup at the top of the agitator. I removed and cleaned the agitator assembly inside and out. I don't care how cute that little bear is; I will never put liquid fabric softener in my laundry machine again. What a sticky, gooey mess!
Deep cleaning our automatic washing machine caused me to consider alternate options. I could go down to Lake Superior to beat my laundry on a rock or take a bar of lye soap and a washboard – but the DNR would probably frown on that. I could always get an old Maytag wringer washer and use a clothesline in the yard. These seemed like good ideas, but the reality is, we'll keep using the automatic washing machine and dryer.
Oh yeah, the dryer. That was the project I was supposed to be on.
I managed to get the washer put back together with no spare parts, and everything worked, so I felt pretty confident. I put a load of sheets in the freshly cleaned machine. While they were in the washer, I would have time to take a look at the dyer.
I pulled the dryer away from the wall. I've done this before, so I felt like a seasoned pro; I needed no tutorial videos. With nine screws removed, the back panel came right off. Inside wasn't too bad at all. I vacuumed up any dust and lint. I also cleaned the heat and exhaust ducts inside and the vent tube outside the dryer. I wanted to open the cabinet to check around the drum.
Since I bought the washer and dryer together, I tried the same technique to remove the dryer's control panel and cabinet. It all worked as it should, "Ha! I am a pro." I boasted. When I was done cleaning, I put everything back together. I installed eight of the screws in the back panel before dropping the final screw. I looked around the floor but couldn't find it; it was lost forever. "It's just going to be missing a screw." I conceded, then replaced the vent tube, plugged in the big 220 cord, and slid the dryer back into place.
The wash cycle had just finished; I checked the time. "Thirty-eight minutes. BAM! I am the Northwoods master appliance repairman!"
I pulled the clean sheets from the washer, bending over to toss them through the front door of the dryer; something caught my eye. There was a single screw on top of my shoe, resting on the laces. I laughed and looked at the trash can. I considered pitching the loose screw, but I was on such a good roll.
After I pulled the appliance back out from the wall to insert the final screw, I then started the dryer and went upstairs. "Man, I am killin' it on this spring cleaning." I removed a towel laid over some clean dishes at the kitchen counter – pots, pans, utensils; the stuff we don't put in the dishwasher. I started putting items away.
I bobbled the plastic sleeve that protects the candy thermometer. It bounced off the counter, up onto the back of the range, then fell back down the wall and behind the range. I cursed. After seeing what I had just seen inside the washing machine, there was no way I wanted to pull the stove out right now. If I did that, I would start having ideas about pulling put the refrigerator too. "That sleeve can just stay there until I get around to it."
I'd had my share of spring cleaning. I cracked open an ice-cold Castle Danger IPA and prepared to do nothing for the rest of the day. I wondered if Saint Urho's chasing the grasshoppers out of Finland was part of a simple spring-cleaning project he started? I raised my glass, "Here's to you, Saint Urho, for a job well done. May there be lint in your belly-button, but never in your clothes dryer!"
Unless I have a reason to go there, I prefer to avoid the Chicago metro. The heavy traffic and never-ending road construction create constant congestion on the highways. I’ve even tried driving through at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning and still ran into backed up and stopped traffic.
Chicago drivers have two hands for a reason. One to blast the horn and the other to wave their middle finger at drivers who fail to demonstrate courteous motoring skills. And, the toll booths? Well, that’s another story. Finding a different route is an excellent way to avoid the stress of “passing through” Chicago.
I was headed to the east coast, without a particular destination, I was just going, and in no hurry at all. I decided to take an alternate route I’ve traveled many times. I go around Lake Superior, through northern Wisconsin, and across the UP of Michigan. From there, I join I-75 south, cross the Mackinaw Bridge, and drive the length of the state.
At Flint, Michigan, I can go east, over the top of Lake Erie, cut through Canada, and into Buffalo, New York. Or, continue to Toledo, Ohio, passing south of the lake. Either way, I come out well east of Chicago’s traffic fiasco.
I like to journey with a free spirit – having an idea when I want to be where I’m going, but without rigid schedules. For this trip, I would drive well after dark, catch some sleep at a rest area, and cross the Mighty Mack in the morning. With frigid temperatures forecast and traveling on a road where you seldom see other cars at night, I laid out an itinerary that was well planned, including fuel stops. But, even the best of plans can often require improvisions.
The gas station where I was going to refuel was closed permanently. No problem. There’s another gas station twenty-five-miles down the road that’s open until midnight. We continued on.
When we arrived at the next station, the place was dark. Using the light from my cell phone, I read a handwritten sign on the front door. “New hours. Now closing at 8 pm. Open at 6 am daily.” Great. I glanced at the time on my phone; it wasn’t quite ten-o-clock. “Eight hours until they open.” I zipped my coat, raised the hood to block the cold wind, pushed my hands deep into my pockets, and walked back to the truck. I climbed inside the warm cab. A little more than concerned, I gave my dog June a rub on the head and said, “This isn’t good.”
I scrolled through the GPS. The next gas station was only fifteen miles farther away, but my truck was so low on gas I was afraid to attempt it, and who knew if they would even be open? I had a one-gallon can of gasoline in the back, but my truck only gets 12 mpg, so that wouldn’t take me far. “Hmm. What to do.”
There I was, nearly out of gas on a barren road in extreme northern Michigan, at a gas station that didn’t have card readers on their pumps. The weather was bitterly cold, and the camper didn’t have a heater. Adding to my situation, there is no cell phone service in this area.
I decided to stay in the gas station parking lot until morning; at least, I knew this place would open in eight hours - probably. And, If I froze to death, I’m sure someone would be curious enough to investigate this abandoned truck and camper, to find my body. It was really cold.
I had a zero-degree sleeping bag and a few blankets in the camper. I would save the gallon of gasoline to put in the truck and let it run if the camper was too cold. June and I crawled into the mummy-style bag but couldn’t close the zipper. The bag wasn’t designed for a border collie and a man. I laid the blankets over us and kept my coat on with the hood up. It was actually pretty warm when we snuggled together, but June didn’t much care for the feeling of being confined. She would wiggle out from under the covers and lay next to me until she got cold, then wanted back inside the bag again. This went on all night long, and neither of us slept well.
In the morning, I pumped 25.2 gallons of gasoline in my twenty-five-gallon tank. Inside, I poured a cup of coffee and went to the register to pay for my gas. “How cold is it out there?”
The cashier glanced at a digital thermometer, “Twenty-four below, before wind chill.”
She looked out on the driveway. My truck was the only vehicle at the pumps. “Did you stay in that camper last night?” I told her I did. She laid a credit card slip on the counter and handed me a pen. “Boy, you must have a real good heater in that thing.” I nodded
Had we tried to keep going in the night, I might have made it a mile or two down the road before I ran the tank dry. At that point, one gallon of gas from the spare can wouldn’t have done much good. In the morning, I also found the next station (15 miles down the road) had also gone out of business!
I was saved by a zero-degree bag, a warm dog, and the grace of God, who told me to stay put.
Given a chance to make that trip over, I would take the same route, and I’d still do it after dark - but I wouldn’t let the tank get below half - anything to avoid that Chicago traffic.
A schoolmarm's role was pretty straightforward; hand out assignments, wear out a red pencil each day, discipline young Mr. Palen, and monitor the playground. "How sweet it would be to be a teacher." I thought. They work six hours a day, get every weekend and all major holidays off, a week of vacation at Christmastime and another in the spring, plus three months in the summer. Of course, back then, I also thought priests and ministers only worked one hour a week.
In time, I became friends with several school teachers. Two of my three daughters are now school teachers; Delaney in the Twin Cities and Annie in Sheffield, Iowa. Now that I think about it, I've never heard any of them say, "I became a teacher for the short hours and great pay." The ability to teach is a gift - they desire to do so is a passion.
I've recently had a few encounters with the everyday challenges of an educator. My granddaughter, Addison, had a homework assignment – how to count money. Easy-peasy. I could help her with this.
I went to the bank and withdrew $5; one-hundred pennies, twenty nickels, ten dimes, four quarters, and a crisp one-dollar bill. "As soon as you can count it, I'll let you keep all of this money," I told my young student. Eager to earn her pay, Addie and I went right to work.
With the coins in their respective piles, I asked, "Which pile has the most money?" She chose the pennies. "Which has the next biggest amount of money?" She picked the nickels, then the dimes, the quarters, and finally the dollar bill. "What if I told you each pile has the same amount of money?"
"That can't be, Papa, because all these pennies are more than one dollar," she explained.
Our lesson began, "Which would be easier to put in your pocket: this one dollar, or all these pennies?" We agreed the dollar would be more comfortable. "Everything is based on one-hundred pennies, but that many pennies would be hard to carry, so they made the dollar bill – which is the same as one hundred pennies." Next, we made twenty stacks of pennies with five coins in each. She totaled the piles by counting in fives.
"One hundred." She answered
I had her lay a nickel in front of each stack of coins, explaining that one nickel was the same amount as five pennies. Again, counting by five, she reached a total of one hundred. We did the same exercise with dimes but would save the quarters for the next lesson. "How old are you?" I asked Addison.
"Papa, you know I'm seven." She replied as if the answer was obvious.
"Okay, give me enough coins to make seven cents." She counted out seven pennies. "What's another way could you give me seven cents, using fewer coins?" She thought hard; I prompted her, "How many pennies are in a nickel?" As if a lightbulb lit up over her head, she gave me a nickel and two pennies.
We explored the age of other people. "How old is Evelyn?" She gave me three pennies. Asking, "How old is your mom," allowed us to find several combinations of coins totaling thirty-one cents - without using quarters yet. "How old is Papa?"
As innocent and sincere as a child can be, Addison asked, "Do we have enough money to do you, Papa?"
"I think our lesson has gone on long enough for today," I said and began gathering the coins.
In our next lesson, her teacher wanted us to convert cents to dollars and cents. I laughed as I recalled my mom telling me many times, "Son, you have more dollars than sense." I always appreciated that play on words, but I digress; homophones are fun, but that's English, and we were still working on math – counting money, to be specific.
Her teacher wanted us to convert 132 cents to dollars and cents. First, I had to explain the decimal point and the importance of its placement. I explained, "Numbers to the left of the decimal point are dollars, and the numbers to the right of the point are cents." I went on to tell her, "When you put the decimal point between the three and the two, made the amount thirteen dollars and twenty cents." She wasn't getting it – yet.
A teacher once told me, "If a student's struggling with a lesson, it doesn't mean they're not smart enough to get it; it could be I haven't explained it in a way they understand. It's about communication." I concluded: if I fail a subject, it's the teacher's fault, but I missed the point.
It was frustrating for both me and Addison. Something so simple as a decimal point, which I take for granted, was challenging to comprehend for someone who had never heard of one before today.
"So, I have to get the point right?" She asked. I drifted off for a moment, recalling first grade at Horace Mann Elementary School. I was in Mrs. Sales' class.
One year older than me, my brother Gerard was in Mrs. Sales' class the year before. He warned me, "When you go to her desk to get your paper checked, she'll ask you to go sharpen her red pencil. Then, if you have a wrong answer, she'll bonk you with it, and the point breaks off in your head."
I don't know if his story was true or not. But I do remember shaking at Mrs. Sales' desk one day when she handed me her red pencil, "Tommy, will you please go sharpen my pencil."
I returned with her the freshly sharpened marking device. She went over my assignment. The fine tip of the lead broke off when she firmly circled a math problem. "Eight plus two is not nine. Now you tell me the correct answer."
This was a critical life moment. I rolled my eyes rolled up, and to the right. My mouth puckered, my lips moving to one side and then the other. In my head, I saw eight fingers, then counted two more. Sheepishly and nearly scared to death, I replied, "Is it ten?"
"You know the answer is ten, but you get in a hurry and rush through your work." She began to shake the eraser end of her pencil at me. With each motion of the pencil, I flinched. "Slow down. Take your time. There is no rush." She drew a red checkmark through my answer. At the top of the paper, she wrote +9 B. I gave a big sigh of relief. I had escaped the wrath of the red pencil my brother had warned me about – this time.
Interrupting my daydreaming, Addison repeated her question. "Papa? So, I have to get the point right?"
Her question was worded a little awkwardly, but I understood. I was delighted she was catching on. "Yes. To have the correct answer, you must put the decimal point in the right place." I gave Addison a hug. I told her I was proud of her progress in math, then dismissed my class.
Our lesson gave me a small taste of what teachers do every day – I couldn't imagine trying to teach twenty kids simultaneously. I thought to myself, "Being a teacher would require a lot of patients – or is it patience? It doesn't matter; I've never had many or much of either."
My bit of spelling humor caused me to laugh and reminded me of another of Gerard's tales from first grade.
"Mrs. Sales got really mad about my spelling paper," Gerard told me, "I don't know why, but she said she was going to call Mom." My brother showed me his spelling assignment to see if I could figure it out.
The page featured several images: a ball, a cat, a flag, a car, a bus, etc. There was a line next to each to write the word that went with the picture. It looked like he spelled them correctly. I focused on the big red checkmark going through one image. Mrs. Sales drew several circles around the word Gerard wrote.
I was not a spelling whiz in kindergarten by any means, but I could spell some words. "Gerard, there's supposed to be an R in the word shirt." We would have shared a good laugh about that, but we didn't know what he wrote at our young ages - we didn't get the point. Oh, the challenges of being a teacher.
A couple of days later, I picked Addison up from school. "If we go home and finish your math homework right away, you'll have time to read your book. After that, we'll get Evelyn from her school, and I'll take you girls someplace fun!" Anxious to find out what was in-store, Addison was eager to do her assignment.
It was the first time I'd picked Evelyn up from school, and she was excited to see us. She handed me a heart she colored in class, "I made this for Mommy." I told her it was beautiful as we walked to her cubby to get her coat.
Apparently, her school was doing an animal theme for the day. Instead of a coat, Evelyn wore her grey corduroy mouse suit, complete with a long rigid tail and a mouse head hood with big ears. This would fit perfectly into my planned excursion. On the way to the car, Ev's big sister followed her. Addison held the mouse tail like a bridesmaid carrying the train of a wedding dress to keep it out of puddles on the sidewalk.
I drove across the high bridge from Duluth, Minnesota, into Superior, Wisconsin. A short way down Hammond Avenue, I turned left into the parking lot. Addison was impressed with the big brown "cow" on top of the sign; "Dan's Feed Bin," she read aloud. (Actually, it's a steer, but that's another day's lesson.)
Several bails of straw were sitting on the loading dock. Inside the big sliding doors, the girls saw large sacks of corn, sunflower seed, and animal feed stacked in big piles. Again, carrying the tail to keep it clean and dry, Addison said, "Papa, as soon as we get inside, you have to tell the people, Ev is a mouse, not a barn rat, so they don't try to catch her." The kid is smart.
At the front counter, I ordered a sack of sunflower seed, corn, and an apple-flavored mineral block for the deer. Addie and Ev ran off to explore the store. They were thrilled to find aquariums with pet mice, hamsters, and rats. Other cages had colorful birds. Addison looked at the top shelf and read the tag. "Crickets are gross," she said, wrinkling her face.
They were most fascinated by the mice. Addie was studying the tags on the glass front. "What does that say," I asked her.
She read, "Mice. Females, two dollars, ninety-five cents. Males, two dollars, ninety-five cents."
"How much are the crickets?"
She looked to the top shelf, "Crickets, ten cents each. They're gross. I would never touch a cricket."
"What does that say on the
bin with seeds and a scoop?"
"Hamster food. One dollar, thirty-nine cents." She continued around the aisle. "Finches. Five dollars, ninety-five cents. Parakeets…"
I asked about another. "How much is the cockatiel?"
We hadn't worked on anything with more than three numbers. She seemed stumped for a moment but didn't give up. She rolled her eyes up, and to the right, her mouth puckered, and she moved her lips from one side and then the other. "Fifty-six dollars, ninety-five cents?" I picked her up, gave her a big hug, and told her how proud I was of her. The other day during our lesson I wasn't sure if I was reaching her, but now, my heart was full.
Suddenly, I had a vision of a school teacher sitting at their kitchen table. The late show was on TV in the other room, but no one was watching it. A basket of clean laundry, waiting to be folded, sat on the far side, next to a few bills and a checkbook. With a sandwich in one hand and a red pencil in the other, they were grading papers from their class that day.
No one becomes a teacher for the short hours and great pay. But, watching Addison read the price tags at Dan's Feed Bin, I was clearly getting the point.
It was late in the afternoon, actually early evening. I pulled the airplane onto the end of the runway. I made my radio call, "Ottumwa traffic, twin Cessna seven-six kilo tango, is holding for departure, runway 2-2 Ottumwa."
I did a check of the instruments and gages on the panel. I double-checked the fuel selector levers; both were on the main tanks. I placed my hand on propeller levers, feeling the smooth contour of the knobs. I did the same with the fuel mixture levers. Then I moved my hands to the throttles and began advancing them while holding the brakes. The turbochargers whined as they spooled up; the engines were at twenty-five inches of manifold pressure.
I made another radio call while simultaneously releasing the brakes and easing the throttles full forward. "Ottumwa traffic, seven-six-kilo-tango (7-6KT) is rolling runway 2-2 Ottumwa. Will be departing to the north."
The airplane picked up speed, rolling down the runway. Looking out the side window, the wings were bouncing with rhythm as the wheels crossed any bumps in the pavement. Each tip tank holds fifty gallons of AV-gas; that's three-hundred pounds each. It's always amazed me the wings can carry that much weight - just hanging there on the very end.
At 90 knots, I pulled back gently on the yoke, raising the nose wheel, and held it steady until the airplane lifted off the runway on her own. While climbing, I tapped the brake pedals to stop my wheels from turning, then raised the lever to retract the landing gear.
I banked the airplane to the left, climbed to 1,500 feet, circling around back to the runway I just took departed. "Ottumwa traffic, 7-6KT is on final for 2-2 Ottumwa - will be a low pass only." Lowering the nose and applying full power, I was picking up speed. Dropping down to about fifteen feet above the runway and I buzzed the entire length of the field, at over 170 miles per hour, then pulled the nose up and turned right toward the sun. I adjusted the engine settings and climbed to 2,500 feet.
The air was cool and smooth; the airplane was running very well. It felt good to be flying again. I switched the radio to 118.15, "Good evening, Chicago Center, 7-6 KT is with you off Ottumwa, climbing through two-five-hundred for three-five-hundred feet."
The traffic controller answered, "7-6 KT, are you looking for flight following?"
"Yes, sir. 7-6KT," I replied.
He instructed, "7-6KT, squawk six one zero five and ident. What is your destination?"
"Just going up to Oskaloosa tonight," I told him.
A few seconds later, the controller called back over the radio, "Twin Cessna, 7-6 Kilo Tango, radar contact, three miles west of the Ottumwa airport at three thousand one hundred feet." I replied, "Altitude checks, 7-6KT."
The controller gave an airliner an altitude change, then the frequency was quiet. I called "Chicago Center, 7-6KT. Do you have time for a comment?"
He answered, "Go ahead, 76KT."
"Chicago Center, I've been a pilot for 33 years. For the last 32 years, I've been flying with Ottumwa Flying Service. The city decided to pursue a different fixed-based operator and terminate their business relationship with Ottumwa Flying Service. I think they've made a big mistake, but only time will tell. This is the last time I'll ever fly the charter plane for OFS.
"Over the years, the men and women of Chicago Center have tracked my flights' hundreds of times under blue skies. You've stayed with me all the way to the airport in some nasty weather, too.
"I just want you to know you've been a good friend and a darn good co-pilot for the past 33 years. It's important to me that you know how much we've appreciated you and all that you do for us!"
There was a pause, then the controller replied, "7-6 Kilo Tango, thank you. I appreciate that very much." He sounded a little choked up.
I reported, "7-6KT has the Oskaloosa airport in sight. I didn't really need flight following today; I just wanted to hear you release me one last time."
"No problem, sir." Then, with respect, he paused and said what I've always loved hearing them say, "7-6 Kilo Tango, I see no traffic between you and the field. Radar service is terminated, squawk VFR, one two-zero-zero. Change to advisory frequency is approved."
I repeated, "7-6 Kilo Tango, squawking VFR and changing to advisory frequency" Typically, this would have been the end of our conversation. In the old days, pilots and air-traffic controllers exchanged a salutation unique to aviation. We never said goodbye.
Affectionately, I said, "G'day Chicago Center, thanks again for all your help."
"G'day, Seven-Six Kilo Tango, I wish you well, sir." I must admit, that got me, and my eyes welled up. I couldn't land yet.
I wanted to keep flying forever. I banked the airplane in a steep 60-degree turn, away from the airport, and descended to 1,800 feet. Flying over Ottumwa's northside, I could see my parent's headstone not far from the bell tower in the cemetery.
Turning a full circle, I looked down the wing toward the ground. "Come on, Dad. Get in, go for a ride with me. After all, you're the one who got me into this flying business in the first place."
Feeling my father's presence, we flew together over our radio station building, then out over the radio tower site. I could hear Dad giving me instructions: "Keep your wings level, watch your altitude, stay on your heading. You may need to crab into the wind." I smiled. Oh, how I miss those days, flying with him. Dad would have been so proud of me for being a charter pilot. Together we flew back north of town and circled over our old farmhouse on Angle Road.
I reminisced days long ago, how much Dad loved living there, watching the airplanes flying low, coming into land – our house was on the approach to runway 3-1. Every time Dad heard a plane coming, he'd look up.
Blocking the sun by holding his open hand like a visor toward the sky and squinting, Dad would announce the make and model of the aircraft passing overhead. Most of the time, he could name the pilot, too. Sometimes, he was inspired to say, "I think I'll go out to the airport. Do you want to ride along?" I never turned down that offer - it meant we were going flying.
As long as I was in the area, I decided to make a final pass over Ottumwa's runway, then climbing out, I turned the airplane toward Osky.
The setting sun before me was bright and warmed my face as I descended to the runway. The tires squeaked softly as they settled gently onto the pavement. It was a perfect landing. How appropriate, landing into the sunset on this, the final flight I would make for Ottumwa Flying Service.
I taxied to the ramp, then pulled back both fuel mixture levers. The engines shut down simultaneously. As the propellers came to a rest, I said, "G'Day OFS. So long, Seven-Six Kilo Tango. You've all treated me very well."
Recently a person in their early twenties looked and me, wrinkled their nose, and declared something smelled funny. I immediately sniffed my shirt sleeves, starting at the armpits. It wasn't that. I also sensed the foul aroma near my cuffs. I washed my hands after the incident, but apparently, I should have scrubbed my arms too. I began to explain, "Do you know what a corn bag is?"
"Yeah, you use them to play Bags, you know? You throw the corn bag to a deck about twenty feet away, trying to put it through the hole for points." They explained, "You also try to knock your opponent's bags off the deck to keep them from scoring."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the game," I said, "but I thought those bags were filled with beans." We both looked doubtful, second-guessing our knowledge. I researched it later. The bags can be filled with various materials: field corn, popcorn, beans, rice, wood pellets, plastic beads, aquarium gravel, or anything else you want to fill them with – but not kitty litter.
One article specified cat litter would break down inside until it became a bag of dust - unless it got wet, in which case, the filling would clump. Another article said the game of Bags is also called: Cornhole, Bag Toss, Sack Toss, "or whatever y'all call it in your part of the country."
This younger person sincerely thought the game was one their generation created. "It's been around for centuries in various forms but is most commonly called Shuffleboard." They acknowledged seeing such game tables in some of the pubs. "Bags is sort of a cross between that and throwing Horseshoes," I said.
Having no idea what that was, I suggested to them, "Lawn Darts?" They looked at me as if I was really old and possibly crazy. "Anyway, when I was a kid, we called the game Bean Bags." They seemed interested, so I continued.
"We didn't have fancy, high-gloss finished decks with painted lines for scoring; we drew circles on the driveway with chalk. When we didn't have chalk, we etched lines with a piece of lime-stone gravel. It was like scratching circles in the dirt with a stick to play marbles."
They were baffled, "Marbles was an actual game?" Their reaction caused me to feel old, giving me aches and pains that weren't there when this little chat session started. Suddenly I needed the kind of corn bag I had initially been talking about!
"Never mind the games; we're getting way off the subject." I continued, "A corn bag is a cloth bag, with dried field corn in it. You put it in the microwave for a minute or so, then place it on whatever part of your body hurts. The corn holds its heat for a long time, so it works like a heating pad without an electrical cord."
The younger person grinned with enlightenment, as did I. We were finally on the same page. "Okay, I know what you're talking about! My Grandma makes those for Grandpa, but I thought she filled them with rice." My smile went awry. Part of me wanted to walk away from this conversation – but I stayed to explain.
It all started in the kitchen earlier that day. I had some writing to do, but first, I seasoned a pork roast. Adding a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a cup of water, I put it in the crockpot and turned it on high. I was wearing socks but no slippers; my feet were cold from standing on the ceramic floor tile. I put a corn bag in the microwave oven, setting the timer for ninety seconds.
My cousin, Robin, made this corn bag for me with a tie-dye patterned cloth. A little larger than most, it was the perfect size for my intended use. When the timer beeped, I set the warm, colorful bag on the floor under the kitchen table. It was comforting to rest my cold feet upon when I sat down to write.
The words were coming to me quickly; I was on a roll. I didn't want to break my stride, but the hard floor soon drew the heat from the kernels. The corn bag was cold, and so were my toes. Working for nearly an hour, a quick break was in order.
We have a plastic lid in the microwave oven that we set corn bags on when heating them. I put the corn bag inside and set the timer for ninety seconds. I lifted the lid on the crockpot and checked my pork roast. "Oh my!" The seasonings were coming alive, and the aroma was amazing.
Smells are a powerful memory trigger. The scent of that roast reminded me of something I wanted to include in my story. I quickly went back to my laptop to write a couple of lines before I forgot them. Then a couple more lines, and just like that, the momentum I had going came right back to me. I kept pecking away at the keyboard.
Melissa called out from the living room, "Are you cooking something." Apparently, the fragrant seasonings were making their way to the other room.
"I have a pork roast in the crockpot," I boasted. "It smells awesome, doesn't it?"
"It really stinks," she complained, "can you turn on the exhaust fan." Wow! I've never had anyone tell me a roast in the crockpot stinks.
Trying to remember the line I was working on, I got up to turn on the fan, but it was already running. "Strange, I don't remember turning that on." I glanced at the microwave oven door – the light inside seemed a funny color. I'd check it in a minute, but first, I wanted to see why she said my roast smelled terrible. When I tipped the glass lid, the steam rose, smelling just as good as it should. I set the cover down and glanced at the timer on the microwave panel.
"How can that still have seventy-four seconds left?" It felt like time stopped for a moment. The digits, seven and four, weren't changing, but the two numbers to the right of the colon continued to count down. "Oh my God! That's seventy-four minutes left."
"What did you do?" was all I heard from the living room.
I quickly opened the door to stop the possessed appliance. Plumes of black smoke belched from the opening; the exhaust vent tried to capture them, but it was too much, and the smell was absolutely putrid! I slammed the door shut. "What is that? What did you do?" She was standing right behind me, so I couldn't hide it.
"I must have accidentally set the timer to ninety minutes instead of seconds." I was trying to answer her and figure out what I was going to do simultaneously.
"How could you possibly…? How long has that been in there?" She was not a happy woman.
"It hasn't been that long, and you can't get on me for entering the wrong amount of time." I defended myself by recalling where I had experienced this nasty, awful stench before. "Remember that time in Winona, when you burned popcorn, and it stunk so bad we had to throw away the popcorn bowl and the microwave?" (Smells are a powerful memory trigger.)
"That was thirteen years ago! You can't bring that up now!" The unhappy woman was getting unhappier.
"Oh, all of a sudden, there's a statute of limitations on bringing up what you did?" My reply was only making matters worse. "Besides, it's not my fault – the smoke detectors didn't even go off to warn me of the problem."
"That's because the microwave was so hot, it automatically turned on the exhaust fan." She snapped back.
I muttered under my breath, "…is that how the fan got turned on?" My attempts to minimize my error were working about as well as trying to put a fire out with gasoline. "Look, we can hash this out later. Right now, I have to figure out how I'm going to get that burning pile of grain and rags out of the house."
Wearing a pair of oven mittens with the non-slip finish, I used a knife to raise the edge of the glass turntable. I lifted it out of the microwave oven and set it in a large glass baking dish I had placed on the stovetop below. Melissa opened the back door, and I rushed the smoking mess outside to the deck. I returned with a quart bottle of water to extinguish whatever was burning.
I examined the charred pile of rubble and wondered, "Where did that plastic lid go?" I poked at the mass with a chopstick, "Oh, there it is." The three-inch tall cover had been reduced to a melted flat crescent; some sections of the plastic piece were just gone.
The corn bag itself, which used to be about an inch-and-a-half thick, was bloated to four or five inches. Amidst this disaster, I was able to find some humor, "I guess field corn will pop like popcorn – if it gets hot enough. Maybe I should save this and ask Melissa if she wants to have a movie night tonight." I quickly looked around to be sure she didn't catch me laughing.
About twenty minutes later, Melissa pointed out the window, "Your corn bag is smoking again." This time I saturated the smoldering mess. The once-mighty nuclear inferno was fighting to survive, but the full gallon of water was too much. The beast released two final puffs of smoke, then surrendered to its demise.
I went inside to wash my hands and face. I brushed my teeth, fixed my hair, and put on a clean shirt. I would be singing at 7:00 that evening at Saint Mary's Church in Silver Bay. I wanted to go over the music one more time before then, so I drove to Holy Spirit, in Two Harbors, where the cantor would be singing the same songs at the 5:00 mass. I could follow along.
The conversation with the younger person occurred on my way from one church to the other. "And so," I concluded, "I'll probably have to replace the microwave oven - that smell never goes away." I sniffed my sleeves again, near the cuffs, "I washed my hands well enough, but I guess I needed to wash a little further up my arms." They nodded in agreement, and we said our farewells.
I hummed through my songs while driving to Silver Bay. Turning into the church parking lot, I thought about the charred remains on my back deck at home. I had to laugh at the irony; the reason for an evening mass on a weekday? It was Ash Wednesday.
We generally go through about two 500-gallon tanks of LP gas in a heating season. We had the tank filled mid-December. We were on the third day of a cold snap. The weatherman said the arctic blast of cold air was forecast to stay in our region for another week.
I checked my laptop. The temperature was negative 27 degrees, with a windchill pushing forty below zero. My trips outdoors needed to be useful and planned. I would check the fuel level in our tank and take June Bug out to potty.
Bundled up tightly, June and I walked out the door onto the front porch. June darted down the steps to find the squirrel that had been on the feeder. "Leave it alone and go potty." I stood for a moment to enjoy the cold air. Just to breathe was exhilarating. I thought, how many times I've stood here when it was even ten degrees above zero, taking deep breaths, filling my lungs with crisp, fresh Northwoods air and the scent of pine. Not today.
There was a tingling sensation around the edges of my nostrils every time I inhaled. In these temperatures, I didn't want to fill my body with bitterly cold air rapidly. I was very aware of my breathing being slower, as if trying to warm the air a little so that it wouldn't freeze my lungs. June was off to her business meeting in the yard. "This is awesome," I said. I genuinely love these cold snaps. "Cold weather brings out the best in people."
I walked down the steps and to the left. The snow squeaked under my boots. I only walked a few feet in the deep snow before getting on a path the deer had made through the yard. The walking was much easier there. June saw me heading away from the house and came plowing toward me through fresh snow.
Each time she came down on her front feet, she intentionally pushed her head into the snow, then lifting her head, shaking about, she threw a cloud of the white stuff around her with every leap. She was having a blast playing in the snow, and the cold didn't seem to bother her.
At the LP tank, June sniffed about the area. "What's this?" She wondered. The deer had packed the snow down in the area. Perhaps they huddle there using the tank and the pine tree as a windbreak, finding shelter from the cold. We'd been using the woodstove a lot on these colder days. The tank level was still more than one-third full. I would order more fuel just to be safe; I don't want the tank getting too low, especially with another week of this weather ahead of us.
June and I walked around the other side of the tank. There was quite a gap in the big pile of wood from me restocking the smaller stack up on the deck. "Maybe I should move more wood up to the deck while we're out," I said but decided I would take June in first. "Come on, Bugs, let's go inside."
June took off running and splashing through the snow. About twenty feet ahead of me she stopped, and gave me a helpless look as if to say, "Dad, my feet are freezing." June does not like me to pick her up, but she gladly let me lift her and carry her back to the house. "Thanks for giving me a ride, Dad." She tried to give me an affectionate kiss, but I turned away.
"I don't want my face wet from you licking me; it would freeze." She understood. "As for the ride, June, it's just what people do when it gets this cold – they help one another out." She offered me another kiss, but again I turned away. "Save the kisses for inside."
As we walked on, June asked, "Dad, is our woodpile getting smaller? Have the squirrels been taking our wood? I can chase them away for you."
"The squirrels are fine, June." I said, "With this cold snap, we've been using the woodstove a lot more." I chuckled and added, "We're going through firewood as if the stuff grows on trees." June and I shared a good laugh about that as I turned up the front steps to the house. Inside, I dried her paws, took my coat off, then June and I sat in front of the fire to warm up.
I had an early dentist appointment the next morning in Duluth. To allow travel time, I would leave by 6:30. I went out to start the van about fifteen minutes before I needed to leave. It was bitterly cold; the temperature was negative thirty-five degrees with a windchill of minus forty-six. When I turned the key, the motor sounded a bit labored as it turned over, but it did start. "Good girl," I said, then set the temperature to high and turn on the windshield defroster and parking lights. When I went back inside, the belts on the motor squealed and howled.
I finished getting ready and ate breakfast, then went back to brush my teeth. I filled my thermos with coffee and let June out one more time. I checked the time. "6:40. Darn it. Not a problem. I allowed a fifteen-minute cushion." I needed to leave right away to be on time, but I still went back to the bathroom to check my teeth one more time, making sure there was not pepper or anything else in them.
While I put on my coat, hat, and gloves, June came and sat by me, looking at me as if she wanted to go along for the ride. "Baby, it's too cold outside for you to wait in the van while I'm at the dentist's office." I walked back to the kitchen and gave her a treat. "Maybe next time, okay?" I gave her a rub on the head, then walked out the door.
Steam flowed from the exhaust pipes of the van as it idled in the driveway. The red taillamps made the rising cloud of steam glow with pink billows. It was pretty. When I reached for the handle on the driver's door, it was locked - with the keys inside. I must have bumped the knob when I got out. I have a spare in the house, but fortunately, the van has one of those digital code pads on the door. I climbed in and sat down on the cold, hard seat. "Too bad it doesn't have heated seats too."
I shivered, turned on the headlights, and shifted the van into drive. The tires made a crunching sound as I pulled away. I glanced at the clock. "6:45 - I'm still okay." It takes exactly one hour and fifteen minutes to get there. At the stop sign, I took my glove off to feel the air coming out of the vent. It was warm, but the large interior of the van takes a while to heat up. The steering wheel was still ice cold, so I put my glove back on, then turned right on highway 61.
As I went south to Duluth, I could see a car on the shoulder ahead. Its amber flashers cut brightly through the frigid air - I could tell there was no steam coming from the tailpipes. Perhaps the car wasn't running. As I got closer, I could see someone leaning over the car's front – but the hood wasn't up. I turned on my flasher and pulled over behind them.
I walked up to the car. A young man, probably in his early twenties, was fiddling with something on the vehicle. The wind chill was minus forty-six degrees, and he didn't appear to be dressed warm enough for this weather – he didn't even have gloves on. "Is everything okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied, then explained, "my wiper blade keeps trying to come off. I'm just putting it back on so I don't lose it."
"I've had that happen before." I told him, then asked, "Your car's not running. Is it going to start okay?" It was an older car, which can often have many little things that need attention or repair.
"It should," he said. "My gauge doesn't work, and I know I'm pretty low, so I shut it off to make sure I won't run out of gas before I get to Beaver Bay."
"I have a can of gas in my van. You're welcome to it if you'd like." I offered.
He was polite. "Thanks, I should have enough to get to the Holiday station."
"Are you sure?" I told him, "I always carry gas just in case I meet people who've run low. It'd be no problem to give you a couple of gallons." I could tell he was considering my offer but then said he thought he'd make it. "It's pretty cold out here," I took my gloves off and offered them to him. "Do you want these? I have another pair in my van."
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pair of worn, brown jersey gloves. He smiled and said, "I'm good."
"Okay," I said, "I'll tell you what; I can wait in my van until you get your car started, and I'll follow you to make sure you make it to Beaver Bay." He seemed genuinely relieved by my offer.
He smiled and said, "I would sure appreciate that, sir." I went back to my van. He got in his car and turned it over two or three times. Each time it started, coughed and died again. I opened my door to see if he wanted the gas – or offer him a ride to where ever he was going. Just then, his engine started. He revved the motor a few times, then pulled away.
He drove well below the speed limit the next five or six miles. His taillights dimmed, and his brake lights never came on as he turned into the gas station drive. I was pretty sure he ran out of gas and coasted in. I stopped on the shoulder to make sure he got to the pumps; if not, I could help him push his car the rest of the way. He got out of his car and waved at me. I gave a couple of toots on the horn.
Pulling away, I looked at the time. Now I was going to be late, and that was fine. If it had been thirty degrees outside, I probably would have driven on past. But it didn't matter if I was in a hurry; I wasn't going to just drive by someone stranded on the side of the road in these bitterly cold temperatures. I do believe cold weather brings out the best in people – even me.
I called the dentist's office to tell them I would be late and make sure they weren't going to reschedule me. "No problem," a friendly voice replied, "Drive safely, and we'll see you when you get here."
I rushed to the front desk, taking off my coat as I walked. "Hi, I'm Tom Palen; I have an eight-o-clock appointment. I'm sorry I'm late." I said, huffing.
She looked puzzled at her computer screen. "Mr. Palen, we have you down for nine. You're forty-five minutes early."
"Early?" I was confused. "I don't know what to do. I've never been early for anything in my life. Should I leave and come back?" We shared a good laugh about that.
She looked again at her schedule screen. "You're here for a dental cleaning. Actually, her first appointment canceled because of the cold." The receptionist said, "We can get you in now if you'd like." That sounded good to me.
When the dental hygienist finished, I paid my bill, bundled up, and went to my van. I climbed in and sat in the cold, hard driver's seat. "Boy, it didn't take long for the van to get cold again. I should have just left it running." While I let it warm up, I pulled down my sun visor. I opened my mouth wide, closed my jaw, and turned my head back and forth, looking at my teeth in the mirror. "They sure looked good." Then I ran my tongue across them from side to side. "They feel good too." It's a routine I go through after every dental cleaning. I don't know what I'm looking for; I just do it.
After running several errands in Duluth, I decided to eat before going home. Today I went to Perkins to breakfast for lunch. After the hostess seated me, I noticed two elderly ladies across the way. Their coats were on the bench next to them; they each wore their knitted scarves wrapped around their neck.
It appeared they had finished their meal and were enjoying coffee and conversation. I was eavesdropping as the ladies talked about how cold it was. "I don't mind this cold," the first lady said, "I just have to dress a little warmer and be careful." The second lady added, "I do believe people are kinder to one another when it's cold like this." I couldn't agree with them more. I wanted to join their conversation, but the waitress was coming with my coffee.
She set the coffee down, asking, "What can I get for you?" I took note of her name tag.
"Before I order, Jordan, could I get the ticket for those two ladies over there? But I don't want them to know who paid for their meal." Handing her my card, Jordan smiled and said she would take care of it.
When she returned, Jordan handed the ladies their receipt and told them someone had taken care of their ticket. There were several tables of people. They asked who paid for their meal. "They didn't want me to say." She answered, smiled, and wished them a good day. The ladies looked around the room. I remained nonchalant and kept looking straight ahead at my computer screen.
After the ladies left, Jordan approached my table, "That was a very nice thing you did," she said, setting their ticket next to me. On the back was a note. The handwriting was very neat and looked like my mom's: "Thank you to the anonymous angel that paid for our lunch. We will pay it forward also!! God Bless You." They made a smiley face with the exclamation points. I smiled, folded the note, and tucked it into my top shirt pocket. I'm not sure there is anything in the world that I appreciate more than God's blessings.
I bundled up and headed out to my van. Standing outside the driver's door, I reached inside, turned the key, and started the engine; then I climbed in. The thermometer read minus 14 degrees. I felt my hind end tingling - rapidly chilling on the cold, hard driver's seat. Unzipping my coat a bit, I reached in my pocket, took out the note, and shivered as I reread it. "I'd take a note like this over a heated seat any day!"
That note from those ladies completely made my day! I pulled out of the parking lot, thinking, "This cold weather really does bring out the best in people."
My wife wheeled the trash can from the back to the front of the house. She cautioned me about the sidewalk behind her. "You might want to put some salt down on that icy patch." I had things to do, and salting the walk was not on the list. Besides, it's just a small, narrow walkway between the house and the bushes, and nobody uses it except us.
"People need to take responsibility and watch where they step," I told her, justifying my lack of concern. I rolled the can to the curb, dragging it down the steps along the way, then set it on the snowy boulevard. Walking back to the front door, I looked down, "I don't see any ice patches."
After work the next day, I used the snow shovel to clear small snowdrifts that worked their way across the front walk. "They must have missed us this morning," I said, looking at the trash can that still sat up right where I left it in the snow. Usually, after picking it up with the mechanical arm to empty it, they set the can back down several inches from it was sitting; often, it falls over on its side, and the lid is open. But today, there were no extras prints in the snow; no one had moved the receptacle.
Lifting the top, I was surprised to find it empty. "Man, he's good!" I said of the driver who put the can back in the very same spot, standing up with the lid closed. I grabbed the handle, pulling the trash can through the snow to take it around back.
Bang, bang, bang; it boomed like thunder with each step it bumped over. "This thing sure is loud when it's empty." I pulled the trash can along the west side of our house with my left hand and carried the snow shovel in my right.
My foot slipped just a bit on the slightly uneven sidewalk. Naturally, I put my other foot down to steady myself. Both feet began sliding and shuffling, desperately seeking dry ground. It was one of those moments where you don't have an opportunity to even think about what you're doing. Without conscious input, my body instinctively began making corrections to avoid a catastrophic injury.
My mind was trying to catch up to my swiftly moving feet, "What's going on here?" Things only got worse when I started thinking. "The trash can! Lean on the trash can to get your balance!" The receptacle's angle with additional downward pressure applied and the fact it has wheels - gave me a lesson on the physics of motion.
I started to fall backward. To keep the can from pulling me down, I released my death grip on the handle. The trash can took off like a hockey puck slapped with a stick! The hollow plastic drum made a heck of a racket when it hit the nearby tree and bounced back to the concrete. The hinged lid slammed against the sidewalk, like a drummer striking a cymbal at the end of a solo. Meanwhile, my panicking feet did everything they could to keep me upright. Releasing the handle gave me one free hand to assist.
I began flailing my left arm wildly through the air; that was not helping. Still behind in the game, my mind started barking orders to the thrashing hand. "Grab the bushes!" Lefty grabbed the leafless, dormant shrubs, but the branches were brittle. They snapped off, offering me no support.
I was now facing west with a handful of broken twigs, a full 90 degrees off my intended course. My feet continued doing their best to keep me from going down. In the back of my mind, I heard Michael Jackson's song, Billie Jean. Was I inadvertently doing the moonwalk? My brain, trying to help, shouted more orders: "Use the shovel. Steady yourself with the shovel, man!" I tried. I really did. I tried using the shovel as a cane or a walking stick.
Our shovel has an ergonomically correct handle to reduce pressure on your back when lifting snow. I briefly wondered why you never see an ergonomically designed cane with a disproportionately large base? I soon learned the answer.
As I poked and stabbed frantically at the ground, the curved handle entered the match and engaged battle with my knees. The shovel would be another contributing factor to my imminent demise. Holding on for dear life, I contorted in ways I didn't think were possible.
While the handle sparred with my knees, the shovelhead began striking at my feet like an angry rattlesnake. In the mayhem, I somehow turned 180 degrees from my original heading. There were too many elements involved in this attempted rescue mission. "Drop the shovel," was the new command from Brain Central, and so I did.
My left hand was still clasping the handful of broken twigs; my right hand now waved rhythmically through the air. My torso was thrown and tossed about as my lower body struggled to hold on. I felt like John Travolta riding the mechanical bull at Gilly's in the movie Urban Cowboy. This situation was not going to end well.
I envisioned myself being thrown from the bull, landing in those prickly, cold, stiff bushes. I could lose an eye. I wonder how many stitches would be needed to repair my torn body. Would I require a cast or two? Was a hospital stay in my future? If so, how long would I be in traction? I should never have attempted moving the trash can without a helmet and proper eye protection. "Lord, help me!" I cried out.
The shovel I heaved a second before deflected off the side of the house and began sliding back toward me. My left foot was going up, as my right foot was descending. The head of the shovel came to rest under my right shoe. Finally, I found solid footing on the shovelhead; unfortunately, the shovel itself was not stable.
My foot pushed backward, riding the scoop like a plastic saucer sled. The shovel stopped abruptly when the tool's wide handle grip struck the frozen base of the bushes. My upper body momentum caused me to lunge forward from the now stationary shovel. It was happening - I was going to fall.
Remember that trash can I dropped behind me a few seconds ago - the one which was now in front of me with the lid laying open on the ground? I was headed right for it! While reaching out, I opened my hands, preparing for a crash landing. My fist-full of broken twigs spewed ahead, landing in the lid.
I fell to my knees, also landing on the hinged lid. My boney knees crushed the sticks with the force of a swinging mallet. Ouch! I interlocked my fingers, hoping my clasped hands would keep me from breaking my nose when I face-planted on the front, which was now the container's top. Landing on my elbows kept me from falling all the way forward.
The chaos finally ceased - my exhausted body came to a rest. Anyone who has prayed on a kneeler in a church can visualize my position.
Since I was already on my knees, I used the moment to offer a prayer of thanks! Although I would be stiff, tomorrow - it seems I had once again eluded the services of paramedics, a squadron of EMS staff, and first responders.
I got back on my feet and looked around to ensure no one had seen this atrocity. There being no witnesses, I gathered my trash can and my snow shovel. I stepped to the right, avoiding the sidewalk, on the narrow space between the house and the concrete.
I looked back to examine the area where the incident occurred, "I wonder if that's the ice patch Melissa mentioned yesterday?" Shaking my head, I walked on, "Someone should put some salt on that before somebody slips and falls."
It was cold outside when I woke up, a few degrees below zero. I opted to use the percolator to make coffee rather than the drip coffee machine. I filled the stainless-steel pot to the six-cup line with cold water. I placed the basket on the hollow stem, added three scoops of coffee grounds, and put the perforated cover on top. I lowered the assembly into the water, closed the lid, set the pot on the stove, and turned the knob - Tick, tick, tick, tick, woosh. I adjusted the blue flame below.
Above the percolator, I rubbed my hands together, warming them in the heat rising from the flame. Thinking a fire in the woodstove would sure be nice on such a chilly morning; I went out on the deck to bring in a few logs from the woodpile.
Wearing my buffalo plaid, flannel pajama pants, a Smokey Bear t-shirt, and my house slippers, I stood where the woodpile should be – but there was no wood. I shivered and recited a children's poem. "Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard – but when she got there, the cupboard was bare." That's exactly how I felt. I forgot to restock the small pile we keep close to the door.
I walked to the edge of the deck, staring at the big pile of firewood across the yard. "Why couldn't some of that be up here?" I seriously contemplated trekking over to gather an armload of logs. I looked down at my feet and bare ankles inside my slippers. In sub-zero weather, running across the snow-covered yard, still in my pajamas, would not have been exemplary of good decision-making skills. It was starting to snow. "I should have worn socks." I shivered and went back into the house.
Back in the kitchen, the coffee was perking with a steady rhythm. There's something about that sound that warms the soul - well, it usually warms the soul. That little excursion out to the deck had me plenty chilled. I poured a cup of coffee and wrapped my hands around the warm mug. "Oh, that feels good."
The mug warmed my hands, but my body was still cold. I wrapped an afghan from the couch around my shoulders, then stood with my coffee, looking out the bay window. The snow was falling much faster now. There were only a couple of chickadees at the bird feeder. Maybe it was too cold for the rest to come out yet.
A small red squirrel was in the pale green feeder that looks like an old-fashioned metal porch glider. The critter was sitting on his hind legs; his bushy tail pointed upward. He held and turned sunflower seeds using his front paws as he nibbled through the shell. Once he had the tasty treasure inside, he tossed the empty husk over the railing, and picked up another seed. He amused me: how fast his little jaws moved. I wondered where the little guy goes to stay warm on these bitterly cold nights. Just then, something spooked the squirrel.
He jumped from the porch, scurrying across the top of the snow, to the safety of a woodpile. He must have a nest in there because my dog June goes nuts running around that pile looking for him. "So that's where he stays warm." I smiled, thinking about commonalities between the squirrel and me. To get through the winter, he has nuts and food stashed all around the yard, where I have piles of firewood stacked all around the yard to get me through the winter.
I looked at my dark, empty woodstove, then at firewood outside. The snow was accumulating on the blue tarp that kept the logs below dry. I scowled, "That squirrel is using my firewood to stay warm while I stand here freezing." It just didn't seem fair. "I sure wish I had some of that wood in here." I rechecked the outside temperature; it was up to one degree above zero. "I don't want it that bad."
I just wanted a way to get warm. Even June was warm, curled up on the sofa. I had an idea that caused me to smile.
Happiness is telling your dog (who is not supposed to be on the couch) to get off the couch, so I can take a nap with my blanket - in the warm spot she left. "Oh, that feels nice." I said, tucking the covers under my chin.
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