"Hey old buddy, do you want to help me move a piano?" If you've ever volunteered or been conned into help move one, you're probably trying to forget the whole incident. Counseling and chiropractic care can help. Okay, I jest; it's really not that bad.
Selling or even giving away a piano isn't easy. It's not that people don't want them; they love pianos – they don't want to move them. They're big, heavy, and cumbersome.
I've always had a piano. When we moved to Minnesota, we found one we liked, and it was free, but we had to move it. We brought the antique upright home and placed it in our dining room. Recently my wife bought an antique buffet, which will sit where the piano is. Our piano had to go.
There were a lot of listings online for cheap and even free pianos. Some had been listed for up to twenty weeks, and more. Common to every advertisement was: you move it, you haul it, or bring your own helpers. I realized it might be more challenging than I thought to give away a piano.
My years of radio advertising and marketing experience came into play to be creative with my ad, making it stand out from the others. A lightbulb lit up over my head. I smiled and started typing. "The Best FREE Piano Offer Ever" was my title line. That would spark a reader's curiosity. I continued typing.
"There are a lot of free pianos available; what makes this offer better is I will help you move it to your home." I included some stipulations, "I can't move it alone; you'll have to provide helpers and possibly rental equipment."
People like pictures, so I posted several along with a video link of my wife playing. With the sheet music panel removed, the motion of the hammers was mesmerizing to watch. The relaxing melody and beautiful tone and sound of the piano made me question giving it away. "I better upload this ad before I change my mind," I said, clicking the post button.
Within five minutes, I received the first message. Someone wanted it delivered to southern Iowa. "Five hundred miles is too far away," I replied. I had a delivery range in the ad. Still, I thought of another potential issue that could arise and quickly edited the script to include a disclaimer: "Offer to help move the piano is dependent on where it's going. Third-floor apartments with narrow staircases aren't going to work."
I had several more inquiries and four solid offers from people who wanted the piano. Overwhelmed by the response, within three hours of posting, I marked the ad as pending. I committed to Natasha's offer, who has five daughters and wants them all to learn to play. They lived outside my delivery range, but I knew this was the right family for our piano and we began making arrangements.
I could put the piano in the back of my pickup, or her husband, Derek, could come to get it with his flatbed trailer. Either vehicle would require lifting and lowering the piano about thirty inches to the ground – that's a lot for something so heavy. They lived about sixty miles away; it would be better to transport the piano inside an enclosed trailer. Natasha said Derek would have no problems lifting, but they would have to arrange for more guys to help.
I suggested using a U-haul trailer that sits low to the ground. With only one step going into the house, Derek and I could move it alone. Natasha said they would gladly pay for the trailer and gas if I would do that. I told her we had a deal and I would be up the next afternoon.
The issue now was at my house. Out the front door, we have eight steps. Going through the basement and garage involves twelve stairs. The back deck has no steps but sits five feet in the air. Not a problem. I called my neighbor Steve, who has a Bobcat.
Steve carefully pushed his forks under the piano. The machine easily lifted the heavy object, lowering it from the deck. He moved it around the house to the driveway, where the two of us slid it into the trailer. (That's also how we got it in the house) With the piano secured, I drove to Ely.
Derek met me in the driveway to show me where the piano was going. A few inches of snow had fallen the day before and he had the gravel driveway cleared. What little snow remained would create a challenge for me, backing the trailer up the slight incline to the house. Trying to move slow, the tires on my two-wheel-drive van slipped. Without good traction, I had no control over the trailer. With my first attempt being unsuccessful, I pulled forward and tried again with a tad more speed. Finally, on the second (or fifth or sixth) attempt, I had the trailer positioned where I wanted it.
With relatively little effort, Derek and I moved the piano from the trailer onto a concrete slab. We lifted it over the one step into the porch and put a flat cart under it. Their girls watched with excitement and anticipation as we rolled their new piano into the house. When the work was done, Natasha offered me a cup of coffee and a cookie. I gladly accepted.
Having five children in this day and age is a big family. Having come from a very large family myself, I could relate and enjoyed watching them interact. Their girls were well behaved and polite. One asked, "Mom, may I have a cookie." Soon we were all enjoying homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The oldest daughter held the baby on her hip while mom made the coffee and served treats. That reminded me of growing up. The kids in my family all pitched in to take care of the little ones.
In our conversation, I learned they home school the girls. The family raises chickens and other livestock. They hunt to put meat in the freezer and grow their own vegetables in a garden. Not because they have to – they prefer to. They're teaching their children how to provide for themselves and others. I really admire that.
Derek said they used to raise many more birds each year, trading the excess with a neighbor - chickens for beef. Raising the birds, cleaning, preparing, and freezing them is a big job. "It's a lot easier to just buy the beef from my neighbor." I'll bet it is.
It reminded me of the old days. A time when neighbors would barter their goods and services; a doctor would accept a chicken, a pig, or whatever you had as payment. I think it would have been fun to have lived back then.
I loved their house. They'd been restoring and remodeling the old two-story structure themselves, making it their home. Derek and Natasha explained how they stripped layer after layer from the walls to expose the original cut logs. "Every time we peeled a layer away, it seemed there was another one under it." As they spoke, they remembered all the work and the mess. Their effort showed; the walls were impressive, and they were rightfully proud of their accomplishment.
Natasha handed me some cash for delivering the piano, but she gave me too much money. "I told you I'd be happy if you just covered the trailer rental," I said, keeping a twenty and handing the rest back to her.
She tried giving it back to me, reasoning, "But your time and the drive all the way up here…"
"The piano was advertised free. I can't take your money." The truth is, I was thrilled it was going to such an appreciative family where it would be well used and enjoyed.
"Okay," she insisted, "but you did say you would let us pay for your gas." I wasn't going to win this, so I humbly accepted another twenty for the fuel and thanked her.
While we were talking, one of the other girls came in the back door with a frozen bird. Her dad said, "Honey, that's a turkey. Can you go put that back and bring in one of the smaller birds? Those are the chickens." Without fuss, she said okay and went to exchange the bird.
I glanced at the time and was almost embarrassed for staying so long. I was infringing at supper time. Although I enjoyed our time together, I needed to head home, leaving the family to prepare their evening meal.
Their daughter returned with another frozen bird and handed it to Derek. He, in turn, offered it to me. "Would you like to take a chicken home with you?" Are you kidding? Of course, I would. I tried to refuse their cash, but heck yes, I would take a chicken!
Derek said something to Natasha, but I didn't make out what he said. She left for a moment then returned, handing me a sealed canning jar. "This is maple syrup we made by tapping our own trees." This was getting better all the time!
After saying our farewells, I took my chicken and maple syrup to the van. I sat the bird in the passenger seat, fastening the belt for safety. To protect the glass jar, I wrapped it inside a packing blanket from the piano. At the end of the driveway, I gave two toots on the horn as I pulled onto the road.
"The best FREE piano offer ever." I looked at my chicken, smiled, and told him, "I made out like a bandit, dude." I felt like I just sold the free piano for a million dollars. Not too shabby, considering I got free myself.
When I got home, I showed Melissa the chicken and the syrup and began telling her my story. She was well pleased with the generosity of the Brekke family. I put the bird in the refrigerator. In a couple of days, it would be thawed and ready to roast.
"I know I shouldn't show you this right now, but…" She pulled up a listing for an antique, mission style, Baldwin player piano. I looked at the pictures. It was beautiful.
"Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, is over one hundred fifty miles from here," I told her.
The ad read, "Free Piano – you haul it." I smiled at her. Pianos really aren't that difficult to move.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s has always seemed awkward for me. On the one hand, it's too many days to waste, but on the other hand, why start any new projects when we're headed right back into another holiday – and there's usually a weekend in there to boot.
Everyone's focus shifts toward the new year, reflecting on the last twelve months of good memories and events. 2020 is different. People talk about how bad it was, saying they wish to put it behind them and never look back.
While trying to find some good in 2020, I recalled a conversation with an elderly friend. We talked about getting caught up, trying to salvage a lost situation. He said, "You have to recognize when you can fix something and when it's time to let go and start over." I listened intensely to his words of wisdom as he continued, "You can't polish a turd." He said, then shaking his head, added, "Try as you may, you'll never get it to shine." I nearly died laughing. He smiled at my laughter, "You’ve never heard that?" I admitted I had not. "You've got a lot to learn, Tom."
I thought of his words and conceded, "Yep, that pretty much sums up the year 2020." It was time to move on.
Our girls were here for Christmas. They started a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas evening. One thousand pieces with an image that would be difficult to assemble. Delaney and Annie had to return home for work, but Sydney was able to stay the week. She and Melissa have been making slow but steady progress on the puzzle.
I heard them talking, accusing our dog, June, of eating a piece from the puzzle. Defending my trusty friend, I insisted, "You cannot convict the canine until you've completed the puzzle. As of now, you don't even know if any pieces are missing." They knew I was right; still, I got glaring looks and was informed June's breath smelled like puzzle pieces. "Circumstantial evidence won't hold up in court." I declared and hurried June off to the other room for her safety.
Speaking of pieces, Sydney had been searching a long time for a single piece that would complete the area on which she'd been working. "If I could just find this one piece..."
Hearing this, her seven-year-old daughter, Addison, approached the table. Glancing over hundreds of loose pieces, she picked one up and pressed it in place. "You can quit looking, Mom." She smiled and walked away, smugly. Addison was now an admired hero.
Speaking of heroes, I didn't really want to work on a puzzle. It had snowed overnight, leaving about six inches of fluffy stuff. Clearing the driveway would give me something else to do. I told my granddaughters, "I'm going to snow blow the driveway. Do you want to come with me?"
Dressed in frilly white ballet outfits with shiny tinsel and glitter, they informed me princesses do not shovel snow. "Princesses?" I challenged, "You look like snowflakes to me, and I'm going to pile all the snowflakes on the side of the driveway."
I went into my bedroom and put on my navy blue long johns and matching long sleeve thermal shirt. I pulled my white tube socks up over the legs about halfway to my knees to keep my long underwear from riding up when I put my pants on. When I picked up my jeans, I spotted something that gave me an idea; a light blue bath towel hanging on the towel bar. I laughed an evil laugh.
Today I intended to make snow blowing more fun than usual – even memorable. Over my socks, I put on my new dark blue knit slippers. I tucked the bath towel into my collar on the back of my shirt and wore my blue, white, and orange ski mask. With only an oval opening for my eyes and an extended neck, it looked like a helmet. I put on my camping head lantern and a pair of sunglasses. Oh, I also added blue latex gloves to cover the rest of my flesh, complimenting the goofy blue theme.
With my headlamp set on the flashing mode, I ran down the hall to the living room – my towel, I mean cape, waving behind me. The girls screamed and laughed. Melissa rolled her eyes. "Oh my gosh," Sydney exclaimed, "Who are you supposed to be?"
I turned my head slightly, lifting my chin with dignity. In my best French accent, I announced. "I am a north shore superhero. My name is Long John Jerry. (pronounced Lawn Jawn Jair-ee) I am here to pile all zee snowflakes on zee side of zee driveway!" The two little girls, dressed in white, screamed and ran. I began chasing the snowflakes around the house. "I am Long John Jerry! I shall pile you in zee snowbanks! Mwahaha!"
After a couple of laps around the living room, Addison pulled my towel away – I mean my cape. "You're not Long John Jerry – you're Papa." She laughed.
"Oh, no!" I declared, "Everyone knows a superhero is powerless without his cape." I quickly snatched the towel – I mean my cape, from her hands and retreated.
After clearing the drive, I drove into Silver Bay looking for a snowman or snowflake cookie cutter so the girls and I could bake and decorate cookies. There were none to be found. Before heading home, I thought I would check the Dilly Dally Shop – maybe they would have one. They didn't, but I found something even better.
The Dilly Shop had an old-fashioned Tupperware popsicle maker. It was complete with all six cups, handles, lids, and the tray with six slots to hold the popsicles upright while they're in the freezer. Everything was on sale – 75% off, so it only cost me 67 cents with tax!
Addison, Evelyn, and I filled the molds with pineapple/orange juice then added a little grenadine for color. We pushed the handles through the slots in the lids. "What are we making, Papa?" They asked.
After I snapped the lids on, the girls placed each container in the tray. I lifted Evelyn and she set the tray of unfrozen treats on the freezer's top shelf. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out," I said, setting her down and closing the door.
Early the next morning, something happened that hasn't happened for about twenty-five years. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came into my bedroom whispering, "Dad? Dad, wake up, it's…" I opened my eyes briefly then drifted off. It was still dark out. I wasn't yet coherent and mumbled something about waiting until the morning. "Dad, just come look at this." She pleaded with urgency, tapping on my arm.
I pulled myself from under the toasty covers, put on my slippers, then followed her down the dark hallway. I thought she would show me some deer or wolves in the bright moonlit yard, but she stopped at the thermostat. "It's freezing in here," she said, pointing to the temperature.
I squinted my eyes to see, "Sixty degrees is not freezing." I replied.
"But it's set at sixty-nine. I don't think the furnace is working." She was more concerned than I.
"The furnace is only five years old." I explained, "I want to sleep a few more hours; then I'll get up and look into it."
I checked the time and temperature; 6:34 a.m. and minus twelve degrees outside. "Twelve below?" That made me shiver; I was awake now. "Are the girls in your room?" I asked. She said they woke up cold and came to bed with her. "Okay, I'll look at it now. You go back to bed and keep them warm."
I checked the breaker and the fuse at the furnace. I made sure the filter was clean and had not been sucked into the fan. It all was good. I shut everything off to reset the unit. The lights came on, but not the furnace. Next, I put on my coat, hat, and boots; I went outside to check the air intake and exhaust with my flashlight. Both were clear. We had just filled the LP tank, but I trudged through the snow across the yard to check it anyway. It was full.
Back inside, I lit a burner on the stove to make sure gas was getting to the house. It was. I even changed the batteries in the thermostat; nothing. It was still before 7:00. I called the furnace repairman, leaving a message to get my name on his list, then started a fire in the woodstove.
I heated corn bags in the microwave for each of the girls and my wife. Putting my coat and boots back on, I went to get more firewood. Knowing my furnace was on the fritz and having no idea when the repairman would be able to get here made it seem even colder outside.
I knelt and grumbled as I set each log in the cradle of my arm. "Twelve below zero, a full tank of gas, and my new furnace isn't working. Screw you 2020." I stood up with a heavy armload and banged my head on an overhead beam. I cursed, rubbed my head, and started walking back to the house. "At least I cleared a path to the woodpile yesterday." I smiled, "Well, actually, Long John Jerry cleared the way."
In the house, I crawled back into bed and tried to snuggle up to my warm wife. She woke up, shocked. "Are you crazy?" she asked, shoving me away. "You're freezing!"
"Fine!" I said, grabbing my pillow. "Come on, June, we'll go sleep on the couch."
"I don't think so, Dad. I'm not cuddling up with your frozen bones." June said, curled up in her warm dog bed.
Our black cat, Edgar Allen, rubbed against my leg as we passed in the hallway. "Meow, meow."
"Are you coming to sleep with me?" I asked him.
"No way, man. You're too cold for me." He explained, "But as long as you're up, how would you feel about putting some crunchies in my bowl?" Humph. I gave him his food, then I laid on the couch with my pillow and an afghan in front of the fire. Ahh. It wasn't too long before Edgar was purring next to my chest and June curled up behind my knees.
Around 8:30, I got up, put some more wood on the fire, then turned the oven to 450. The heat would be welcome in the house and homemade biscuits and gravy would be perfect on such a cold morning.
After breakfast, I went to the freezer, pulling out the tray. My granddaughters were excited to see what we made. I pulled them from the forms and handed one to each child. "Popsicles!" They were well pleased with the fruits of our labor.
While washing the breakfast pots and pans, I got a text. I dried my hands and picked up my phone. "This is Denny. I'll get there in the afternoon." I took a deep breath and exhaled. Just knowing he was coming took a ton of weight off my shoulders.
Denny looked at the furnace. "I'm going to have to order a blower motor," he said, "with the holidays, it may take a few days to get." He assured me he would be back as soon as he had it.
After he left, we all got dressed in warm clothes to go outside. Seeing me in my blue thermals, Addie called out, "Evelyn, it's Long John Jerry." Her French accent is cute.
"No, no." I said, "He only comes out with the snowblower."
Sydney brought her saucer sleds. It was time to prove septic mounds have more than one use. Romping and diving through the powdery snow, June retrieved sleds for the kids, carrying them up the hill in her mouth like they were frisbees. The only problem was trying to get the sled back from June at the top of the mound.
After sledding, we came back into the house. Melissa put more wood on the fire while I turned on the burner. I made a batch of hot cocoa, just like Mom used to make. The girls got marshmallows with theirs while the adults got a splash of peppermint schnapps. Mmmm. I drank mine while sitting on the hearth in front of the fire.
The girls began dancing and singing, "Hot, hot, hot. Hot chocolate." Melissa put Polar Express on the TV. I cleaned up in the kitchen, pouring the extra hot cocoa into the Tupperware molds, and setting them in the freezer.
After the movie, Addison, Evelyn, and I went to work in the kitchen. For Christmas, we gave them a pop-up book: Stone Soup, along with a handwritten recipe. Melissa happened to have a perfect soup stone that came from the shores of Lake Superior. I rounded up some ingredients, and we soon established an order.
Addison was the head chef; Evelyn, the sous chef. I was the prep cook while Melissa and Sydney were assigned wait staff to prepare the dining room.
The girls poured four cups of water into a pot, then added the soup stone. Next, they added chopped onions, carrots, celery, and diced potatoes. They stirred in some seasonings, peas, green beans, corn… Everybody helped and in about thirty minutes, we gathered at the table to feast on a full pot of delicious stone soup. Yum!
After supper, I put another log on the fire. My wife and daughter proudly announced the completion of their big jigsaw puzzle – except for that one piece on the bottom edge that was missing and one other piece that was pretty mushy from being chewed and spit out on the floor. I gave June a rub on the head and whispered in her ear, "The jury is back. You might want to go hide out in the other room for a little while."
The next morning, before dawn, Sydney stood next to my bed, "Dad, the fire is out, and it's cold in here." I got up, rekindled the fire, then went outside to get more wood. When I came back inside, I was cold and anxious to return to my warm bed.
Edgar was sleeping soundly by my wife. From the motionless lump under the covers on the far side of the bed, a voice spoke out, "Don't even think about it." Humph. I thought she was asleep.
I grabbed my pillow. "June?" She shifted in her cozy dog bed and let out a sigh. "Never mind," I said and went to sleep on the couch in front of the fire. A certain dog and cat soon joined me, but I'm not one to drop names.
The next day we had homemade fudgesicles. The girls loved them. That 67 cents was definitely money well spent. We got dressed to go sledding on the big hill at the golf course. It was a blast!
On New Year's Eve, the wall clock chimed twelve times. I got up and opened the back door to let the old year out, while Melissa opened the front door to let in the new year. We toasted the new year, then danced in front of the fire to Guy Lombardo's Auld Lang Syne. After throwing a couple more logs in the woodstove, we sat on the couch and watched the flames.
I gave up trying to tally the ugly events of 2020. Instead, I focused on the previous few days – just those awkward days between Christmas and New Year's. Was my furnace dying in subzero weather a curse or a blessing? I have a good woodstove and plenty of wood. Many people don't have the luxury of a backup source for heat. It also gave me cause to remember what's truly important; time spent with my wife, children, and grandchildren, making memories that will last a lifetime for all of us.
Considering all the good things that happened over these last few days, the furnace going out seemed pretty menial.
I often think about that conversation long ago with my elderly friend. It wasn't the best year, and you can't polish a turd. But still, there was too much good in 2020 for me to write it off as a turd. He was right in saying I had a lot to learn, and I have learned much since then. Now I am blessed to still be here with yet more learning to do.
Welcome, 2021. Let's see what you've got.
The other day I picked up fresh tomatoes at the grocery store for our salad. The tomatoes were the best you’re going to find this time of year on the north shore – but they were no match for the tomatoes I used to grow in my garden.
I held the overly firm orb in my hand. Having just past the winter solstice, I sang a line from an old Guy Clark song called, Homegrown Tomatoes: “Plant 'em in the spring, eat 'em in the summer, all winter without 'em's a culinary bummer.” So true. Placing them in my basket, I thought they may not taste as good as homegrown, but the bright red tomato wedges against the dark green lettuce will look nice for Christmas dinner.
I often ponder another line from the same song: “Only two things that money can't buy, that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Again, so true. If you go to a farmer’s market in the summer and purchase locally grown tomatoes, they might be farm fresh tomatoes but they are not technically homegrown tomatoes because you didn’t grow them. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here, but that’s how I feel.
Just before dinner, I called out, “Who all wants tomatoes on their salad?” One by one came the replies; No thank you. None for me. I don’t like tomatoes, but thanks anyway. Not one person wanted them. I wasn’t going to cut a whole tomato just for my salad – I’ll save it for tacos later this week.
After dinner we gathered in the living room to open Christmas presents. I handed my wife the last package; it was a gift for the two of us that would also solve a household issue; annoying shuffling of the feet. (specifically, my feet)
Our floors are all hardwood, so we don’t wear shoes in the house. The kitchen and bathroom floors are ceramic tile which can be cold in the winter. We wear house slippers to keep our keep warm. I always tell guests coming to stay with us, “This is a slippers house – bring ‘em if you want ‘em.”
I’ve not found the right slippers for me. The problem is they tend to have hard rubber soles that slap against the floor when I walk. As the tops of new slippers stretch a little and become loose, I find myself dragging my soles across the floor to keep them from falling off my feet. This creates a shuffling noise that my wife finds more annoying than fingernails being dragged over a chalkboard. Ew!
When I was little, Mom would hand me a few tin cans; a coffee can and a couple of old cookie tins with metal lids. Each was filled with miscellaneous buttons. Mom never threw away a worn-out jacket or article of clothing without first removing the buttons and good, re-usable zippers. “Here, find me a few pairs of matching buttons.” She would say as she sat on the couch with her legs pulled up under her and her feet tucked in between the cushions.
Below her on the floor was a wicker basket with balls of yarn in various colors. Mom would carry on a conversation as her hands moved methodically. Strands coming from the basket were wrapped through and around her fingers to feed the tips of two long knitting needles. Sometimes she would be pulling different colors of yarn from multiple balls at the same time.
I would pour the buttons on the floor to look for matching pairs. “I need buttons with large holes this time.” She would say, while knitting away and I started poking through the little plastic discs.
Mom would knit sweaters, scarves, stocking hats and mittens – she could knit anything. Some things were one solid color and others were multiple colors with neat patterns and designs. When it was the right size, she’d remove the piece from her knitting needles. She’d thread the eye of a big needle with the same color yarn and start stitching the pieces together. “Hand me those two dark blue buttons.” She would say, then fasten them at the front of the foot opening. “Here, try on these slippers.” She handed them to me, “Can you find another big red button like that for me?” She said, while pointing to a button in the pile with her long knitting needle. I put the slippers on my feet and started looking through the pile. Another big red button should be easy to find.
My feet always felt nice and warm in a pair of mom’s homemade slippers and I don’t ever recall them making any shuffling noises when I walked. If a pair had holes in the toe, Mom would stitch them up. When a pair had holes worn in the heels, we cut the buttons off and put them back in the can. Then we threw the slippers away and Mom would make a new pair.
I did some looking online and smiled when I found hand-knit slippers for sale. I bought dark blue slippers for myself and a pair for Melissa in sage green yarn.
After she opened the package, I immediately put on my new slippers and pranced around the room. “Look! No slapping on the floor and no shuffling noises. They’re stealth, silent slippers.” I ran across the room then slid across the smooth oak floors like a kid sliding on the ice. Wheee!
I walked around more in the slippers. They were nice, but not quite as comfortable as Mom’s. Maybe they were made with a different yarn, I don’t know – they just weren’t the same.
I walked in my new slippers to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to get a glass of eggnog. There sat that whole tomato. I smiled. There is a difference between someone else’s homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes you grow yourself. There is also a difference between hand knit slippers and homemade slippers that mom knitted for you.
I was looking about as shaggy as could be and still be recognized. Man, I really needed a haircut. Having several other errands to run, I figured it would be a good day to make a trip to Duluth. Maybe along the way, I would be able to get in someplace for a trim.
Everything seemed to be going my way; I was getting a lot accomplished. I felt like there were a couple more things I needed from Duluth, but they weren't on my list, and today I was determined to stick to my plan. The only thing I had left to do was get groceries, which would be my last stop on the way home - and to take care of the mophead.
I found a salon that could get me in in thirty minutes. I didn't want to wait but considered Christmas coming this week. There would be photos taken for sure, and I wanted to look good. I wanted people to look at the pictures and say, "Oh, that's Tom," not to question, "Did the Palen's get an Old English Sheep Dog?" I decided to take their offer and waited in my truck. After a quick haircut, I thanked the lady. In the spirit of the holiday season, I left her a nice tip, and I was on my way – behind schedule, of course, but I always am. Groceries next and then home.
I walked into the store with my list and a pen to cross off items as I placed them in the cart. A little voice in my head said, "Remember, Tom, stick to the list today." The last time we went to the grocery store, we ended up buying five family-size boxes of cereal. That's what happens when your stray from your list.
Right inside the front door, they had raspberries and blueberries, two pints for five dollars. I put them in my cart. A little voice in my head said, "Those aren't on the list, Tom." I put them back and reminded myself; the store always has two of the four berries needed for a mixed-berry pie on sale. The other two berries will be regular price – expensive.
I selected five Granny Smith apples, put them in a bag, and crossed them off the list. Turning around, I ran into another fruit display. Wow! Blackberries and strawberries were also on sale! It was too much to resist. I put a pint of each in my cart. The little voice reminded me these items were not on the list. "Hush yourself, you fun hater," I said to the little voice and moved along.
I put two loaves in my cart and crossed bread off the list. The next item was a space heater. "A space heater?" I scanned the rest of the list. "Ribbons and bows. Milk. An Ice Scrapper. Eggs. A boot tray. Those little bottles of peppermint schnapps…Uh-huh. Here's the rest of the Duluth list." I sighed. "Why were these written on the grocery list." I looked at it again, to see who did this. "My handwriting. Huh. Well, we'll just have to do without them."
I stopped a man who works at the store and explained I had ordered a couple of special cuts of meat. I gave him my name, and he went to retrieve them. He came out the swinging aluminum door between the meat counters. "I couldn't find anything back there with your name, Mr. Palen, and the meat department guys have all gone home." That's what I get for taking time to get a haircut that was not on my list of things to do.
"Not a problem," I told the young man, "I can come back tomorrow." On my way home from the store, well after dark, I saw a wolf along Highway 61. "Man. He is pretty!" I said as I slowed down. There was no other traffic, so I made a U-turn to go back and see if I could get a second look. Sure enough, he was still there. I stayed back away on the shoulder and watched him in my headlights – and he watched me. As soon as he determined I was no threat, he turned and continued trotting southbound down the ditch. I watched until he disappeared in the brown grass around him.
"Brown grass." I said aloud, shaking my head, "This is going to be our first Christmas without snow since we moved to the north shore." I made another U-turn and headed for home, singing, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…"
The next morning, I looked outside and smiled. I didn't recall snow being in the forecast, but we had a few inches, and it was still coming down at a pretty good rate. I had a lot to do, and clearing out the driveway was not on the list, but I would have to make time.
I went to get ready for the day. In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. "I must be seeing things," I said, putting on my glasses and turning on the lights over the vanity. "I'm not seeing things." My hair was cut uneven on each side. There were patches where it was really short while others were longer. Differing lengths created a diagonal line ran from above my temple, over the top, and behind my right ear. "If I put a carpenter's pencil there, no one will notice the line."
I used my iPad and the mirror to see the back of my head. It looked like the stylist put a bowl on my head, cut it, then used a ruler to draw a straight line and cut it again – a full inch above my natural hairline and at least an inch behind each ear! "Well, at least I don't look like an Old English Sheep Dog, anymore. Now I looked like a stray dog - with mange!"
I thought to myself, "This is the worst haircut I've ever had." Then I recalled getting a haircut a few years ago, out of town. It's now known as The Alabama Butcher Shop Incident. In that case, I actually told the stylist to put down her scissors and just stop cutting – but that's a different story. Not sure what to do about my hair, I decided when I go back to Duluth today, I would look for a festive Christmas hat and wear it in all the photos.
I watched the snowplow go past our house. By the time I took the trash out, we had about five inches of new snow. The plow left a good berm at the road. I really didn't have time to get the snowblower out, but I hate to drive through it and pack down the snow at the end of the driveway.
Back in the house, while I finished getting ready, I heard a motor running outside. I looked out the bay window to see my neighbor with his tractor and big snowblower, cleaning out my driveway. That certainly made me smile. I started humming, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…
Today is December 21st – the winter solstice. Tonight, Jupiter and Saturn will line up. I read somewhere this will be the closest they've come in hundreds of years. Appearing as one, they will be very bright, together creating the Christmas Star. A white Christmas, here on the north shore, is certain now, so I started humming, "It came upon a midnight clear…Peace on the Earth, goodwill toward men…"
Welcome to winter, and Merry Christmas to all.
For several years, I was the emcee for an annual radio auction. Five radio stations participated. Starting in January, we went on the air weeknights at five p.m. We sold furniture, cars, implements, appliances, lawn equipment, dinners, agricultural item, vacation packages – you name it, and we probably sold it at one time or another. The radio auction is where I met my friends Dick and Jan Allen.
I would announce and describe the item up for sale, then Dick, the auctioneer, took over and started his rhythmic chant. Listeners would call in and place their bids through Jan, and a cast of operators who would call out their offers. If an item wasn't drawing enough interest, the auctioneer would take a break; I would talk more about it, allowing time for more bidders to call in – just like they do at an in-person auction.
We were doing more than just selling merchandise; it was an evening of entertainment for the listeners. We told jokes and stories and just had a grand ole time on the air. After each night's program, the auction crew would meet at a local restaurant for dinner.
We seemed to choose a lot of establishments that offered a smorgasbord. "I've never met a buffet I didn't like." Dick used to tell us. I reminded him of a couple that weren't so good. Dick defended them, "No matter how bad the food is, I always say, 'as long as they have gravy, everything is going to be okay.'"
I've always remembered his line and used it many times metaphorically - especially during times of frustration. "As long as there's gravy…"
A couple of weeks ago, I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I had my side dishes ready to go in the oven as soon as the turkey came out. I took a final inventory, "Sweet potatoes, stuffing, spicey corn, green bean casserole - where's the…?" Dang! I forgot to make it, and you cannot serve Thanksgiving dinner without green bean casserole – I'm pretty sure that's illegal in all fifty states.
I quickly grabbed six cans of beans and two of cream of mushroom soup. I bought a large can of French's fried onions – everyone loves lots of crunchies on top. I drained the beans, picked up a brand new 9X13" yellow baking dish. We bought it for our daughter Delaney's birthday. It's her favorite color, and the green beans would look quite appealing against the yellow. I emptied the first can of beans and grabbed another but needed more countertop space to work.
My hands were wet, but I was in a hurry. With a can in my left hand, I lifted the glass dish with my right. As I turned to set it on the other counter, I was losing my grip. I tried to set it down but it slipped away and smacked the edge of the surface. We have quartz countertops, which are beautiful but very unforgiving. The heavy Dish broke in two, with half crashing to the floor.
I had no idea one can of green beans could cover so much floor. "Darn!" I yelled, or something like that. My dog came running to help; she loves green beans. "No, June!" I shouted, shooing her away before she got into the shards of glass. I cleaned up the mess, took out another pan, and finished prepping the casserole – now with five cans of green beans.
While the oven was full of sides, I put the roasted bird in a different pan and began to whisk flour into the turkey drippings to make a roux. I was still fuming over breaking Delaney's new dish. I added milk to the mixture and some black pepper. As I stirred the gravy, I could hear Dick Allen saying, "As long as you have gravy, it's going to be okay."
I took a small spoon and tasted the creamy sauce. "Oh my, that is good!" I smiled, "It's not just gravy, Dick, this is good gravy." Dick was right. We had gravy, and everything turned out just fine as we enjoyed a delicious turkey dinner.
The girls went home, and a couple of weeks passed, bringing us to yesterday.
Saturday morning, I went out to get the mail. I wasn't wearing my glasses, but I could read the large, bold letters on the outside of the envelope: "Official Court Business – Response Required." I had a strong hunch about what it was and hoped it would be addressed to my wife, the dog, or the cat. I would even be happy if it was for a neighbor but accidentally delivered to our house.
At the kitchen table, I put my glasses on and read: Lake County District Courts – Jury Summons Processing Center…to Thomas Palen. "Dang!" I blurted out – or something like that. I know a lot of people who have never been on jury duty, and this will be my fifth time. "Why me? Why can't they pick someone else who hasn't served?" I even moved to a different state to hide from the Iowa courts. Maybe they called Minnesota and said, "Call Palen – he loves jury duty." I'll bet they all had a good laugh about that.
In four of my previous terms, I was selected for two trials – both times as an alternate juror. I had to sit through the whole trail but was never able to vote on the outcome. "Always the bridesmaid - never the bride."
In highlighted, bold letters, it said to submit my response within ten days. I looked at the calendar; December 12. The notice inside said the summons was mailed on November 27. "That was fifteen days ago. How am I supposed to respond within ten days?" I checked the outside of the envelope, "It wasn't even postmarked until December 2." I complained out loud, "How can it take 15 days to get a letter mailed within the same county?"
I started filling out the questionnaire – grumbling all the way through it. "I'll probably end up going to jail for not responding on time." I checked a few more boxes, "I don't even look good in an orange jumpsuit." I scribbled my signature on the bottom, folded the paper, and slid it in the return envelope. I licked the edge and ran my finger over the flap to seal it.
I turned it over to write my return address when I notice the little box in the top right corner. "Are you kidding me? Postage required?" I muttered as I dug through the drawer looking for a stamp. "Maybe I won't write my return address. I'll just mail it in with no postage."
I chuckled, imagining the reaction of a judge getting my summons – postage due. I stopped laughing when I envisioned that judge slamming their gavel, "Thirty days! Take him away, bailiff." I saw myself in handcuffs and shackles, shuffling my feet while being escorted to the dungeon.
I wondered what they serve for dinner in the Lake County Pokey. Whatever it was, I was sure I wouldn't like it. I started laughing again as I could almost hear Dick Allen assuring me, "Don't worry. As long as they have gravy, everything is going to be okay."
Before music was on a CD or programmed into a digital device, we had records made of vinyl. They were simpler times but had more challenges.
I'd lift the tonearm, swing it over and set the needle on the vinyl disc. With the turntable shut off and the pod level (volume) turned down, I would manually spin the record forward until the sound started in the cue speaker, then give it about a half turn backward. It's called "cueing a record," and it had to be just right.
If it was cued too tight, the audience would hear the turntable picking up speed. Too loose, and you'd end up with a one or two-second delay. Neither was good and would cause the inevitable phone call from the program director telling you, "Get it together, tighten up your show! Do I need to come to teach you how to cue up a record?" Blah, blah, blah.
Then, there was always the DJ who would rapidly move the record back and forth repeatedly right at the beginning of the audio, resulting in "cue burn." An unpleasant scratchy sound at the beginning of the song.
I had side 1-A ready to go. Right at noon, I pushed the button to start the front turntable. You'd play track one. A few songs would play, the guy would talk about each, telling a story. Some theme music played, there was a national commercial, then a break.
I cued the second track while playing a couple of local ads. After the second track finished, I'd give the weather forecast, read a public service announcement to promote a local organization's upcoming event, and then start the back turntable with side 1-B. Next, turning the front record over, on the flip side, was segment 2-A, ready to be cued up.
After starting each segment, I would sit back, listen to the music, pick up a magazine, or work on a commercial I was writing. Sometimes, I would look at the record, estimating the amount of time left on the segment, and decide to make a run to the bathroom. Inevitably, from the back of the building, I would hear the theme music that ended the segment. Dang!
A foot race ensued to see if I could get back to the studio before the turntable rolled into the next segment, or worse yet, made that scratchy, clicking noise when the needle reached the end of the record.
Desperately trying to reach the control board before any dead air happened, I would trip over the rack on the floor, the rack of cartridges which recorded commercials. Carts crashed about the room. I knocked over my cup of coffee, and line two on the telephone was flashing. Yep, the program director heard it.
While I was getting chewed out, my mind would wander: Whose bright idea was it to put the studios in the front of the radio station and the bathrooms in the back - one hundred feet away? How stupid is that? If I ever build a radio station, the john is going to be right outside the studio!
Line three, the request line, would ring. "Can you play..." "Sorry, we're not talking request right now; you can call back after 4:00. Thanks for listening! "
I hung up, then looked at the phone as if I was still talking to the caller, "Are you even listening to your radio? Geesh! We're in the middle of the weekly countdown."
After playing all four albums, front and back, the announcer came on with some closing comments and a teaser for next week's show, then said, "...until next week, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars! I'm Casey Kasem, and this is the American Top Forty."
After the theme music ended, I opened the microphone: "You've been listening to Casey Kasem's American Top Forty, on K-98, and now here's..." Line two lit up on the phone. It was the program director.
"He just said you were listening to the American Top Forty; you don't need to repeat it. You're supposed to play a station liner and start the next song..." Blah, blah, blah.
Times would change. We stayed on the cutting edge of programming - who was the most popular, the hottest show running. Our weekly countdown changed from Casey Kasem to Scott Shannon, then to Rick Dees. The countdown show changed, but I didn't. I still made the same mistakes - on purpose sometimes, to rile up the program director.
Years later, I bought the radio stations and relocated them to a different building. I designed the new layout, and you can bet your last dollar, I put the studios upfront and the bathrooms in the back...one hundred feet away. Why should these new young DJs have it any easier than I did when I started? Besides, what better way to entertain the program director on their day off?
One Sunday afternoon, I picked the phone up and dialed 682-8712 - line two. "Come on, Chad, pay attention! Plan your bathroom breaks better, and don't be writing commercials during your air shift. You know the rules. There's just no excuse for dead air!"
While I was chewing him out, he probably was drifting off, thinking, "Who puts the studios in the front of the building and the bathrooms in the back, one hundred feet away?" Blah, blah, blah...
When the program's theme music ended, Chad opened his mic. "You've been listening to Rick Dee's Weekly Top-Forty countdown on KOTM, and now here's..." I picked the phone up and dialed 6-8-2-8-7-1-2... I swear he did that just to rile me up.
Albeit more challenging, radio was a lot more fun when every station had vinyl records and real-live disc jockeys working the studio - especially DJs who had not perfected to 100' dash.
I decided to get ahead on my stockpile of firewood for the next heating season. I tried to buy it in May, but, for many reasons, it just didn't happen. I kept telling myself, "I'll stay on it and get it done early this year. I'm not waiting until the last minute, like last year…and the year before." I did make several more calls but didn't find the right deal yet.
It was now early October. We'd already had a few fires in the woodstove when I stood looking at my woodpile, taking inventory, if you will. "About a cord and a half, split, stacked, and seasoned." We usually burn about five face cords per year, but we plan to be home more this season, and I wanted at least seven or eight. I shook my head and walked to the house, "I'm just not ready."
I found a man selling split, seasoned hardwood. We talked over the course of ten days or so and finally made arrangements to pick up a load the next Sunday, around noon, right after church. I drove my old dump truck to mass. She's not much of a looker and she's pretty loud, but back in her prime, she was both a beauty and a beast. I would park at the way back of the church parking lot to be less conspicuous.
On my way into town, I was aware the bright red leaves on the maple trees had all fallen. Glowing gold leaves of the birch had blown away in the wind. The spectacular fall colors of the north shore had come and gone. Barren birch looked like vertical white logs with spindly empty branches scattered among the deep green pine trees. I thought how nice it would be to have some of those trees in my stack of firewood at home.
We had already had a decent snowfall, six or seven inches, that melted nearly as fast as it came. The grass on the side of the road had turned brown. Where they could find sparse patches of grass that were still green, jittery deer gathered on the sides of the road, ever vigilant of passing cars.
Further ahead on the shoulder, near the edge of the ditch, I saw the silhouette of something. Was it a deer that would jump in front of me? It was too short. Maybe it was a wolf or a fox. It could also be a big dog. Or, a bear! Yes! It was probably a bear that was late to hibernate.
Always eager for a bear sighting, I will admit to being deceived more than once. When you really want to spot a bear, a trash barrel, mailbox, tree stump, or even a rock can look like a bear from a distance. I slowed down. Whatever it was, I didn't want to hit it should it run into my lane.
As I got closer, the shape became more defined – and odd. It had a short body, a broad flat back, and a long neck. It must have been sitting or lying down because it didn't appear to have legs. When I finally reached it, it was obviously...uh...a chair? Yes, a chair sitting perfectly at the side of the road.
It was a rather handsome chair, even elegant. Gold in color, I felt like the chair had a rich history. Shorter than most, I assumed it was older – people were smaller back then, so furniture was more petite as well. The seat top had rolls and tucked pleats that rounded over the front edge; like a bear claw pastry. The pleats continued, lined up perfectly with those in the gold skirting below. A horizontal band between them, like the cummerbund on a tuxedo, defines the line between a man's shirt and his trousers. The fabric was still taut, even on the crescent-shaped back.
I wondered if it fell from someone's truck or trailer. Except for a couple of abrasions from tumbling on the pavement, it was in perfect condition. It was undoubtedly, too good to be going to the landfill. It was placed neatly, right at the edge of the gravel shoulder and the ditch. Its legs on the line, like athletes in a sports game. I imagined someone stopped to position the chair like this, making it easy for the owner to find when they returned, looking for it.
Perhaps, someone intentionally set it on the road hoping another person would take the chair home. No. It sat just past Olson road, on the opposite side of Highway 61, away from any houses. All alone on the shoulder - like an orphan, I felt sorry for the chair. I had thoughts of adopting it. I would put it in the back of my truck and take it home, "Look, honey! Look what I brought home to put in the three seasons room." Anticipating my wife's reaction, I felt it was best not to take it home, lest I should be placed alongside the highway, sitting in that very chair, holding a cardboard sign: "FREE to a good home. Husband. Comes with his own gold chair."
I was torn. If I didn't take the chair, eventually, the highway people would haul it away. As I slowly drove past, the chair called out to me: "Please, sir, take me with you. I'll be a good chair. I'm not ready for the landfill yet." Suddenly, remembering my mission, I decided to load my firewood and see how full the truck was on the way home. I drove on toward church.
After mass, I called the man. I told him I was going to grab a burger and would be on my way. Then, I noticed I had a low tire – actually, two of them. I stopped to fill the tire with one of those C-store air compressors. Man, they are slow, and the valve stems on a dual wheel are hard to reach. It took almost 40 minutes to bring each of the four back tires up to 80 pounds and add some power steering fluid to my old truck. At 2:00, I called again, "I'm on my way."
"Are you sure this time?" He laughed.
Not knowing how much wood the truck would hold, we loaded two cords. I told him, "I'll run this home, stack it and come back for another load tomorrow if that's okay."
"This is all I have left right now." He told me, "Could've sold this wood ten times over, but you kept saying you were coming, so I've been holding these two cords for you." I appreciated that. I paid the man and started for home. I now had three and a half cords of firewood. I'm still not ready yet.
I drove home, considering how cold it was getting. We were now into the first week of November, and I was about four cords short on firewood for the winter. As I got closer to home, I noticed something in my headlights on the left side of the road. It had a short fat body and a long neck, "Is that a big turkey?" I slowed down in case it ran onto the road ahead of me. I leaned my head closer to the windshield and squinted my eyes. The headlights made it look orange, like a giant pumpkin. Leaning back in my seat, I relaxed and laughed. "It's that chair again." I kept going.
Over the next several days, I drove back and forth along Highway 61 almost daily. Each time the chair was still there, and each time thoughts of taking it home returned – along with visions of being placed on the roadside with it. Finally, one day on my way to get more firewood, I pulled over just past the chair.
I sat in the chair on the shoulder of the road on a beautiful fall morning. My trusty but beat-up old truck sat rumbling to my left. The air was chilly, but the sun warmed the gold fabric. Albeit a little short for me, it was actually quite comfortable. I tried to give a spin with my legs to see if she swiveled. Nope. I looked under the skirt to check out the legs. They were in good condition. I was startled and blushed when someone, unbeknownst to me, spoke up. "Do you need help lifting that chair back up into your truck?"
I straightened the skirt and got up off my knees to greet the stranger. "No, it's not my chair. I just stopped to look at it." I thanked him for stopping. He drove away, and I sat back in the chair.
I pondered the trees, bare of their leaves; they had taken on a new beauty – a look of the winter to come. I watched as cars passed, a few honked. Ravens flew overhead, squawking, talking to each other: "Look at that man down there in the chair. Should we stop and see what he's doing?" The other answered, "We don't have time. There's a fresh deer just past Palisade Head. I want to get there before a crowd shows up."
I slipped into a daydream. One day I am going to build myself a writing cabin out in my woods. Maybe ten by twelve, the place will have a small potbellied wood stove for heat, and my furnishings will all be humble treasures I have found along the way. This chair would be perfect for my cabin.
Lost in the moment, I was startled when some asked, "Do you need help getting that chair in your truck?" I laughed. I didn't even hear the car pull over. Sitting comfortably in the chair, I explained it wasn't mine; I had just stopped to look at it. The lady said, "It's been sitting out here for quite a while. It looks like it's in good shape. You should take it home – you must really like it, to be sitting here on the side of a highway." I smiled and waved, still sitting in the chair, as she pulled away in her car. People sure are friendly along the north shore.
I stood up, giving the chair one last look; I grabbed my iPad from the truck to take a couple of pictures. It was sad; I watched the chair disappear in my rearview mirror as I drove away.
The next morning, driving into town, I didn't see the chair. I made a U-turn driving back to Olson Road. Indeed, I was in the right place. The chair was gone. I wondered if the highway crew took it or if someone else appreciated her beauty as I did and brought it home. I guess I'll never know.
I drove into town, second-guessing myself. Maybe I should have brought the chair home for the little cabin I'm going to build someday. I'm just not ready.
I spotted something ahead on the side of the road. Was it a bear that was late to hibernate? I slowed down in case it should run into my path. My spirits began to rise, "Could it be the chair?" If it was, I was definitely taking it home this time. My smile faded - my hopes dashed. It was just a trash barrel lying on the side of the road at the end of someone's driveway.
I have a friend whose idea of a nice business suit is a camouflage shirt, pants, jacket, and a matching hat. On the best business days, his outfit will include enough orange to be safe. His ideal office has a view, preferably from a deer or turkey stand or looking out from a duck blind. He writes a weekly column: Water Scott's Outdoors. As the title implies, he writes about the great outdoors. Whether it's a recent adventure he was on or just sitting and observing nature; his column is always fun to read. This week he wrote about the challenges that come with running a local newspaper during a pandemic.
Walter closed the offices of his newspaper. He and his staff all work from home now. He dedicated a downstairs room in his house for his office. The office window looks out over his countryside property, including the lake, the rolling hillsides, and into the woods. He wrote, after some adjustments, the transition has been pretty smooth. I wondered how a guy like Walter would get any work done with that view!
He wrote in his column that the biggest problem working from home had been the scenery. When something outside is more interesting, like two bucks sparring on the dam, it distracts him, taking his attention away from his work. It is a blessing to have such a problem. Walter wrote of more significant issues in the home office setting.
The other day, through his window, he spotted the largest buck he had seen in years. It was well within bow range, and he had his deer tags in his pocket. The problem was his bow. It was in the garage.
While planning how to sneak to the garage without disturbing the buck, Walter's mind got ahead of him. He had visions of his new deer mount proudly hung on the office wall. He envisioned a freezer full of venison and probably a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. But Walter had more problems than bow separation anxiety.
Billie, the designated office guard dog, was on duty. Sensing an imminent invasion, the poodle sounded off. The buck heard the dog. Fearing what sounded like a pack of wolves hunting, he hightailed it over the crest of the hill and out of sight. I can only imagine the look of disgust Walter gave his comrade, Billie.
Walter took steps to correct the problem. For the next few days, he kept Billie upstairs should the buck return, and his bow next to his desk with all the other office equipment necessary to publish a newspaper. True outdoorsmen can be fanatical like that. The sportsmen of northern Minnesota are every bit as enthusiastic.
Every opening day is an event treated like a national holiday. Men and women will take time off work for the fishing season's opening day, bear season, hockey, and such - deer season included. Although I don't hunt anymore, I listened with interest, hearing people talking a week or so in advance about their opening day plans.
They told stories of a huge buck they've seen on the trail cam, a specific group of does moving together, bedding spots, and wolves. Occasionally someone will ask, "Where did you see that?" The answer is always specific: "Out there in the woods." Hunter's discuss their equipment, the terrain, different weather scenarios, all in anticipation of Saturday, opening day.
It was just a few minutes after eight in the morning when I heard the first gunshots. Someone filled their tag early. All-day long, I saw pickups and SUVs along the roadside, many pulling trailers with four wheelers and side-by-sides to retrieve their game from the woods.
Hunters in camouflage with proper orange markings gathered at the side of the road. Some were getting ready to head into the woods. Unsuccessful hunters discussed what area they would try next, while a successful hunter boasted details on how they took down the buck tied to the rack on their ATV. Others were taking a break, enjoying a cup of coffee. All the activity tapers off at sunset when the hunters go home - well, most of them. I was just getting started. Hunting deer after dark is illegal, but that's when I went.
I was driving into town when a large doe came sprinting out of the woods across the highway. "Oh darn," I said out loud, or something like that. I hit the brakes hard. I could hear everything in the bed of my truck slamming forward. It looked like I was going to miss her, but BAM! I got her in the hindquarter. "Son of a gun," I yelled, or something like that. Thrown by the impact, the doe spun in the air before going down on the shoulder of the road. I quickly thought, "At least I can fill the freezer."
I envisioned my deep-freeze filled with packages, neatly wrapped in the white butcher paper, and a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. I imagined the kids asking, what's for dinner, Dad? "Roadkill." I would tell them.
I quickly turned the truck around just in time to see her get up, shake off the injury, and bound off through the ditch. "Are you kidding me?" I asked her as she disappeared into the woods. I cursed the deer, "Hunting after dark is illegal, but so is fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run accident!" I laughed to myself. Usually, when an outdoorsman tells about the one that got away, they're talking about fishing.
Next came that sinking feeling in my gut, wondering the extent of the damage done. Maybe I got lucky, and it would be minimal since I barely got the doe. The headlight was still on but pointing downward, toward the road. I pulled under the lights at the gas station to assess the damages.
"Darn it!" I said, or something like that. "A wrinkled fender, a broken headlight, and all for naught – no meat for my freezer!" There's no sense in crying over spilled milk. It is what it is. I tried to find some humor in the situation by asking myself, "What's the penalty for taking one doe after dark? About twenty-five hundred bucks," I chuckled, wishing I had someone with whom to share my quick wit.
Just like Walter, I had been thinking ahead of myself. Now when the kids ask, what's for dinner, I'll sarcastically tell them, " Just eat your mac-n-cheese, and I'll nuke some hotdogs."
I looked out the window across the driveway at my damaged Dodge pickup. I cringed a little, and then I looked at my old dump truck parked next to it. Not everything was terrible. Behind it, I stacked a load of split firewood about twenty feet long and six feet high. There were logs scatted on the ground. "Hmm. I thought I had put it all up." The top two feet of my stack was toppled over. "Wow." I said, "we must have had some pretty strong winds while we were gone this past weekend."
It was then I noticed a bird under the old Ford's dump box. A grouse, if you're an Iowan; a partridge, here in Minnesota. The hen looked like an inflated balloon with her feathers thoroughly roughed. Then I saw a second bird behind the truck by the spilled firewood, and then a third! They were pecking at seeds or something in the grass.
Suddenly, it occurred to me; I parked the truck and stacked the wood right where those birds frequently gather. The wind didn't blow that pile over – it was those grouse. They knocked my woodpile down! And Walter thought he had problems? Between the deer that boogered-up my truck and grouse that vandalized my woodpile - Geesh!
It is a blessing to live amongst all this wildlife, but maybe it'd be best to let Walter write about it in his Outdoors column. On a brighter note: Hey Walter. I got a deer on opening day. How'd you do?
It had been a productive week. I got a lot of work done, including splitting and stacking several face cords of firewood. It was no wonder I went to bed with a few stiff and sore muscles. The next morning, I slid out of bed. My back was still stiff when I bent over to get my slippers. I wondered, "Did I move that much wood?" Then it hit me like a ton of bricks; smacked me right in the face, "Dude. You're sixty! It might just be old age." I didn't feel sixty, but then again, I've never been sixty before. I had no idea how it should feel. I was a little confused, almost like I was in the Twilight Zone. I needed some confirmation and orientation.
I went to the bathroom, put on my glasses, and picked up my cell phone. "6:37 a.m., November fifteenth. Yep. It's my birthday." I had planned to welcome sixty with a cup of Norseman Grog, watching the sunrise over Lake Superior. With rain and snow falling from a completely overcast sky, I wouldn't be seeing the rising sun on this birthday. I cleaned my glasses with the bottom of my T-shirt, put them back on my face, and looked in the mirror. "Glasses." Sigh.
I remember when I first got glasses as an adult. I was having a little trouble reading, mostly at night when I was tired. The optometrist prescribed reading glasses. Several years later, I found myself using the readers more and more, even when I wasn't reading. Eventually, I needed a little correction all the time and something a little more substantial for reading. After wearing spectacles for about ten years, Dr. Mark suggested bifocals. "Bifocals?" I questioned his absurd comment, then laughed, "I don't think so."
He suggested bifocals again at each of my annual eye exams over the next four years, but I consistently refused them. He finally asked me, "What is your aversion to being able to see well?"
"Bifocals are for old people, and I am not old!" I adamantly told him. "I'm barely in my fifties!" Mark had a good laugh about that, then explained he had patients in their twenties wearing bifocals. "Really?" I raised my eyebrows, quite surprised. I agreed to bifocal contacts, "But not glasses. Those are for old people, and I am not old." I smiled, recalling that visit, then put my glasses on to look in the mirror.
Examining my face, I found no new wrinkles. Oh sure, my crow's feet were still there, but I'm rather proud of them. I didn't get them squinting at the sun; I earned them by laughing – a lot. As a matter of fact, I prefer to call them my laugh tracks. Rows of horizontal lines run across my forehead, but they've been there for as long as I can remember. I got those by raising my eyebrows.
Over the years, I've had many brow-raising experiences and surprises, some good and some bad. Some amazed me while others frankly scared the daylights out of me. Having three daughters caused my brows to rise quite often. It also happened while flying airplanes, driving fast cars, riding motorcycles, running up and down rivers in a boat, and riding my Jet Ski. I’ve been blessed with so many experiences, I could write a book – actually several books about them all.
In the mirror, I noticed a small cut on my head. I banged it while stacking firewood. I started talking to the man in the mirror. "Back when you had a full head of hair, no one would have noticed a little scrape on your noggin, but with all that bare space…" I laughed. The man mimicked me and laughed back. "It's not funny," I told him. "It is so," he argued. "Oh my gosh. I'm talking to myself, and he's answering!" I quickly put toothpaste on the bristles, brushed my teeth, then straightened my hair on the sides of my head. My hair has been slowly departing since my late thirties, but I still have over half of it, so I'm doing okay. I got dressed, ready to go to church.
The readings were about a master entrusting his servants with talents. Father challenged us to ask ourselves, are we best using the God-given talents our Master has entrusted to us in serving one another? It was a good sermon prompting me to do some personal soul searching.
When I got home, my wife offered to make breakfast; I told her I wanted to cook. I would use some of my talents to serve her, even if it was my birthday. I made scratch buttermilk biscuits and gravy while she prepared the table in the dining room. She placed a birthday card in front of my plate. A large box was in the chair to my right and a whole onion was sitting on a placemat. I don't know; maybe she was going to ask me to cook something else later.
After breakfast, I opened the card. It was very cool. Melissa has a knack for choosing very thoughtful, meaningful gifts. She had bought the card over twenty years ago and kept it, waiting for the right person to give it to. "You're that person." She said. That made me feel very warm and fuzzy inside. She said to open the present. I reached for the big box. "No, the smaller present with the bow." She said. I started laughing as I remembered.
A year or two ago, I gave her a present, but I didn't have a bow – so I put an onion on the gift box. "That's a bow." I said, explaining, "An onion has many loops just like the ribbon that makes a bow." I noticed a flat bulge; something was under the placemat. I lifted it to find a book: Gone…But Not Forgotten; Ottumwa, Iowa in the twentieth century.
I opened the book, where she placed a note marking page 174. It was a nice feature on my dad and his positive impact on the city. Of his forty-one-year career in radio broadcasting, Dad had spent twenty of them in Ottumwa.
I smiled, reflecting on the good times I had both working with and learning from him. Dad taught me that radio was about serving the public; your community. He did that exceptionally well, instilling that talent in me to carry on in my thirty-five-year broadcasting career. Melissa and I spent the next hour or so looking through the book together; then, it was time to open the big present.
I cut the top open. Inside was a ton of plastic packaging. After digging through the large air pouches, I pulled out something rectangular wrapped in large bubble wrap sheets. "More layers." I smiled, thinking about the onion. I carefully unwrapped it and found a beautiful watercolor painting.
I recognized the piece as being the talent of Richard Dutton, one of our favorite artists. Richard was Melissa's art instructor in college, as well as a good friend of my family's for decades. Although I knew it was his work, I didn't recognize the scene. It reminded me of a road on the Arrowhead Trail in northern Minnesota, but I don't know that Richard had ever been there.
He titled the painting: "Lake Wapello Trail." She liked the image because it depicts a place from where we came, southeastern Iowa, and also looked like places in northern Minnesota, where we live now. The fact that Richard created it made the artwork much more meaningful for both of us. It was a special gift that we will proudly display on our dining room wall.
Melissa and I spent the rest of the day lounging around the house. All three daughters and our two granddaughters called to wish me a happy birthday. We had homemade potato soup for dinner, then shared a slice of rich, dark, chocolate birthday cake for dessert. Afterward, we retired to the living room to enjoy a local brew and conversation near the hearth of a warm fire. Our dog, June Bug, and cat, Edgar Allen, took advantage of the woodstove's heat; it was an opportunity for a well-deserved evening nap.
Later, as I climbed into bed, I thought about my life so far, the person I have been, and who I am now. I considered my blessings and talents. Am I using them in the best way possible? Could I use them better in serving others? Much like the scene in the painting, where I came from looks a lot like where I am. I wonder what it will look like where I am going?
As I laid there, it occurred to me; my back hadn't been stiff throughout the day except right after I got up in the morning. I guess it wasn't old age, after all. "It must have been all the firewood I moved." I smiled, giving thanks for the gift of my good health as I pulled up the covers. "Sixty is going to be a breeze."
Just the other day, my brother Dan and I were going through a storage area of mine. I was looking for a couple of things, and I found some things I wasn't looking for, but it was convenient to take them home while we were there.
One of the items I wanted was an American flag displayed in a triangular wooden case my brother-in-law Gary made. Through the glass front, the properly folded flag shows only the blue canton of white stars. This specific flag was draped over Dad's casket at his funeral. I'll always remember the military service performed at his graveside by the men of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW Post 775 from Ottumwa, Iowa. I could see it again in my mind.
On a sunny day in February, my family, relatives, and friends gathered under a blue tent in the cemetery. Father Nick had completed his service. Outside the tent, a line of seven veterans in military dress stood in formation. The leader called out, "Present arms." Simultaneously the soldiers lifted their rifles, cocking them. "Aim." They raised their firearms to a 45% angle above the horizon. "Fire!" All seven men fired their guns, sending a deafening shock of sound echoing across the land. "Aim. Fire!" They fired again. "Aim. Fire!" They fired their third and final round. "Ceasefire." The leader ordered. The soldiers lowered their arms. Except for sniffles and crying, everyone was silent. My knees were shaking; I had goosebumps on my arms.
I shivered, and a chill ran down my spine as the bugler, who stood alone, played taps from a short distance away. The solitary brass horn sounded soft but powerful as it penetrated the air with an emotional song that pierced my soul. A group of local pilots flew their airplanes in a low pass above the cemetery, followed by a high-speed jet.
Two veterans returned inside the tent. With one on each end, they lifted the American flag from Dad's casket. Methodically they folded the flag. The leader narrated the significance of each of the thirteen folds. He tucked the ends, making a neat triangle, the same shape as the American Revolution's patriots' hats.
The leader carried the folded flag in his two hands at waist height. He leaned forward, presenting the American flag to my mother, who was seated. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army Air Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your husband's honorable and faithful service." Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she received the flag and thanked him. My tears flowed, as well. I don't know if I had ever been as proud of my father as I was at that moment.
I began thinking about the people who have fought and died for this country under variations of that flag. In states that were the original thirteen colonies, I visited graveyards and read faded names on deteriorating shale and slate Patriots' grave markers. They died in the American Revolutionary War. A war to gain independence from British rule and assure our religious freedom.
I recalled visiting numerous Civil War battlefields in the east. The spirit of what happened on those fields is still vibrant. In cemeteries and graveyards around the country, I've read the names of young men whose bodies were returned home for burial. Men who died fighting under this flag in a war to end slavery and hold this country together.
I've seen many memorials around the nation honoring the men who died while fighting under this flag in World Wars One and Two. In Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I flew over the USS Arizona. I could see the ship beneath the shallow water where she rests on the harbor floor, next to her mooring. Oil still weeps from the vessel as she continues to mourn. A bright white memorial structure straddles the deck of the battleship, which has become the tomb for those servicemen onboard. In the warm Pacific breeze, the American flag waves high above the sailors at rest.
In Washington, D.C., I ran my fingertips over names engraved in the smooth polished black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I felt the spirit of those lost soldiers. It was humbling to read just some of the over fifty-eight thousand names on that wall. People had placed small American flags near their loved one's name. The emotions are overwhelming.
The feelings of pride for my father returned as I stood there, holding his flag. The feeling was bittersweet, for I also carried a sense of shame for not having served myself.
I thought of my family; Dad and his brother Dick were both in the Army Air Corps. My brother Dan, standing right next to me, and his son Warren served in the Air Force, as did my uncle John. My brother-in-law, Bill, was a Navy pilot. My nephew Avery was a Marine. Another nephew, Drake, is now serving in the Corps, and my niece Melissa, currently serves in the Illinois Army National Guard. I am proud of every one of them.
I picked up another flag in the storage area; it too was appropriately folded. It was a cotton flag with strong stitching binding the red and white stripes; the white stars were embroidered on the field of dark blue.
I found that banner in Winona, Minnesota. It was in the garage of a property we purchased from the estate of Ruth Brendel. She had been a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Services Corps. I have reason to believe the flag laid over the top of her casket. I tried to reach her children to return the flag to them. Without success, I've kept the flag for the past six years.
I offered it to Danny, "Do you want this?" I asked, telling him the history. He gladly accepted it. I knew he would appreciate and take care of the flag; I also know he would respectfully return it should one of Lt. Brendel's children ever inquire about it.
I thought it was appropriate for Danny to keep her flag. Lt. Brendel never met either of us, yet she and veterans from every branch served in a military that protects us all as Americans.
I love this country. I love our American flag and everything it stands for. I'm grateful to all veterans who fought and kept a vigilant watch over our freedom, the veterans who protect my right to display the red, white, and blue so proudly.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!