The trash man came by this morning and as is my usual practice, I met him at the street. They didn’t pick up our garbage last week because an open trench to replace a culvert was blocking the way. So, today there was our regular trash can plus a large sunflower seed bag full of stuff. I also had two broken down window frames. I had removed the antique stained-glass panels and was throwing away the rotten wooden sides.
I met the driver at the back of the truck. I tossed in the big bag and the frame pieces; he got the heavy container that had two weeks of trash inside. I watched as he dumped it into the bin on the truck. “You know a man should never look at what’s in his trash can.” I said.
“Why’s that?” He asked, “Did you see something of yours that you didn’t mean to throw away?”
“No. I saw something of mine that my wife DID mean to throw away.” We shared a good laugh about that. He was going to give me time to retrieve the item from the truck.
The item was a four-cup Mr. Coffee brewing machine. I had bumped the pot on the quartz countertop in our kitchen, shattering the glass. I looked online and found a replacement carafe for $8 plus $11 shipping. Another was $18 with free shipping. I also found I could get a completely new coffee maker for $16 at Fleet-Farm, in Duluth.
I only gave $5 for this coffee maker at Goodwill when I was working on a project in Winona, Minnesota. When the project was done, I brought it home to use. We have a Bunn coffee maker, but I started drinking decaffeinated coffee and my wife drinks regular. It was good to have a second machine. Besides, it was so small it didn’t take up much room on the counter. Without a pot, my wife suggested throwing it out.
The coffee maker worked perfectly – it was too good to throw away. I knew if I went to the Dilly Dally Thrift Shop in town, I could find a used pot for a buck or two. I’ve often wondered why thrift shops have so many glass pots? I always manage to break the pot and still have a good machine. Apparently, I am not normal.
While I pondered grabbing the unit from the garbage truck, the driver told me about an elderly man and a woman who were down-sizing. “It took me twenty minutes to get the man away from the dumpster.” He said, “The man kept picking up items, saying, ‘I could fix this.’ Then about another item, ‘Why did this get thrown away – it still works.’ His wife finally came out and got him.” Although we shared a good laugh about that, I empathized with the old man. “Did you want to grab that coffee maker?” The driver asked.
My mind drifted. I started to think back fondly on my school days. My brother Gerard and I walked about a mile or so to Schenk Middle School. Tuesday was our favorite day to walk because it was trash day. We often found ourself junk pickin’ – seeking treasures along the way. If an item was cool enough, we would drag it home before someone else found it, then forge a note from Mom for the attendance office, asking them to excuse our tardiness.
We found some pretty cool things. Some we kept, others we made a couple dollars by selling. Truthfully, most items went right back into our trash when we figured out why the original owner threw them away in the first place.
Although we thought junk pickin’ was a concept we created – it was not. Dumpster diving and curb shopping have helped students furnish college dorms since the beginning of higher education. Many first-time apartment dwellers found a couch, end tables, a lamp or a dresser on a curbside. The furnishing often lasted for years and created some very fond memories. The practice carries on today.
A lot towns now have specified “Curb Days.” People will put items they no longer need on the curb and then peruse the town themselves, looking for treasures they just can’t live without. Things we don’t need, don’t need to go to waste. Someone else might have use for them. The old phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is so true. My nephew scored a really neat cooler on curb day in Hutchinson. It was a plain white, rectangular plastic cooler with a split lid on top. It was in decent condition, but this cooler was different.
It was a motorized cooler with two wheels on the back and one on the front for steering. The back compartment had an electric motor with vents in the side for cooling and a space for a battery. On the front there were chrome handlebars with a throttle on the right and a brake lever on the left. Foot pegs were mounted to the lower front end. The driver could sit on the back lid to ride it, while keeping his beverages ice cold in the front compartment. How cool is that?
Unfortunately, it didn’t work – I suppose that’s why it was on the curb. But Andy saw the potential. He called his Dad at work, telling him about the find and urging him to come home right after work to help retrieve the unique vehicle before someone else laid claim to it. At five-o-clock, Jeff made a B-line from work to home. Jeff and Andy viewed the curbside treasure and Jeff agreed; it had potential. The two of them loaded the cooler into the back of the truck and took it to the house.
Together they gave the vessel a good inspection. Determining it needed a new battery, they got one on order. Over the next few days, several hours were spent cleaning the various components, lubricating wheels, making sure the brakes were in working order and so on. When the battery arrived, the two men installed it. The motor seemed to work just fine. Andy took it for a slow test ride in the driveway, then bolted up and down the neighborhood and into the parking lot next door, having a blast. Melissa and I heard all about the fun being had. We decided to venture to Hutchinson to see the amazing machine.
It was near Halloween, so we wore our costumes. Melissa was a witch in a stylin’ blue dress. She wore a black, long sleeve thermal shirt and long johns under her getup. She wore her long hair in two braids, draped over her should from under her classic, tall pointed witch’s hat. Lime green, knee-high socks with horizontal stripes and brown leather cowboy boots really made the outfit special. In a bright orange thermal, hooded jumpsuit, fitted with a stem on top and green leaves, I was the coolest walking pumpkin around.
In the driveway, Andy gave a demonstration of how to operate the motorized cooler. The witch climbed on board as she would have if it was a broom. Placing her feet on the foot pegs, she twisted the throttle and the cooler lunged forward. “Ohhh!” she declared, “This thing has more zip than my broom.” What a sight it was to see! The witch cackled and laughed as she rode slowly up and down the driveway. With a little confidence, she began to go a bit faster…and nearly upset the three-wheeled cruiser while cutting a corner. She soon found the ride would not fly like a broom. Or would it.
Andy took his ride back and showed us how the cooler would really fly. He cruised across the lawn, under the pine trees, into the parking lot next door, whipped around and came back full speed. He cut across the driveway, aiming for the end where the pavement curves up slightly. He hit it just as fast as the motor would run and went airborne, jumping the curb! We all cheered as we shared his thrill and excitement.
It’s amazing! With a little work and plenty of determination, a broken-down gadget found on the curbside provided numerous hours of entertainment.
Andy and Jeff eventually advanced to minibikes with gasoline engines and big tires. I often wondered what ever became of that motorized cooler? Maybe it went back out on the curb for someone else to discover; Afterall it is true: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The driver repeated his question. “Did you want to grab that coffee maker?”
“Nah. I better let it go.” I admitted, “If I haven’t bought a pot for it in the last several weeks, I probably won’t.” We said our farewells, then he climbed into the cab. The air brakes hissed. The diesel engine belched a puff of black smoke into the air and the big truck pulled away. I stood alone in the street watching him disappear around the corner by the neighbor’s house. I gave a shallow wave. “Goodbye Mr. Coffee. You were a good friend.”
Running behind as usual, I didn’t have time for breakfast as I rushed out of the house to make my 8:00 a.m. appointment in Superior, Wisconsin – 65 miles from home. I was getting hungry while waiting for my van to be serviced at the dealership. To take my mind off the unhealthy snack chips, popcorn and candy offered in the customer waiting area, my mind wandered off to food and what to have for dinner tonight.
My wife made meatloaf last night – it’s really good stuff and there are always leftovers. I suggested we should have a repeat of last night’s dinner tonight. She said no. I started craving, of all things, beef liver and onions. I love them – my wife does not. I have not always loved them but our palates change through time.
When I was a kid, babies were delivered by the family doctor – a general practitioner, and prenatal vitamins weren’t a thing yet. Doctors instructed their expecting patients how to eat healthy to accommodate the nutritional needs of the mother with child. This included plenty of beef liver to increase iron levels. With seven younger siblings, my mom was pregnant through many of my childhood years and we ate a lot of liver.
It wasn’t my favorite and I certainly would not have requested it for my birthday dinner. I disliked the slimy onion more than the entree, but if liver was dinner – well, you ate what was put on the table. Times have changed. Young parents today are more likely to accommodate the individual likes and dislikes of their children.
I wonder if it was an advantage to be told to eat what was served, like it or not, or if my palate just changed as I got older. I took time to think about some things my granddaughters have recently said:
While reading something online, my daughter Sydney, blurted out, “Holy guacamole!”
Three-year-old Evelyn declared, “I don’t like guacamole.”
Surprised by her comment, Sydney repeated, “You don’t like guacamole?”
Evelyn confirmed, “No. It’s disgusting and it makes me nervous.” Good for you, Evelyn. I didn’t like guac until I was in my thirties…but it never made me nervous.
My seven-year-old granddaughter asked, “Papa, why did you eat the last grapefruit?”
Her comment caught me off guard. “Because I brought it with me to eat.” I said, then asked, “Do you like grapefruit?”
“Papa, I love grapefruit.” She informed me. I’m learning new things every day. When I went to the grocery store that afternoon, I bought another grapefruit. I peeled the citrus delight to share it with her.
Addison took one bite. Her face contorted; her eyes squeezed so tight they drew her brows to a sharp V. Her nose wrinkled and her lips puckered, pulling her ears forward. She spit the sour piece from her mouth onto her plate, then began scrubbing her tongue with a napkin while reaching for water. I guess Addison is also learning new things every day. Not all things were sour; some were sweet.
One day, from inside their fort made of blankets and chairs, they told me I couldn’t come in because boys have germs. “Besides you don’t know the password.” They said. I overheard them earlier and told them the password was Horse. The blanket moved to the side, creating a wedge-shaped opening and they let me in. When I wanted to leave, they informed me, “You can’t leave unless you know the password to get out.”
Evelyn whispered in my ear, telling me the outbound password was cookies. “Cookies.” I said, expecting the magic door to reopen.
“You can’t just say it.” Addison informed me, “You have to bring back the bag of cookies you took from us earlier.” I agreed to return with some cookies.
On a piece of paper, I drew several small round green things. I placed one of their toy horses on the paper with its tail over the dots. “That’s horse poop.” Addison informed me. “You have to bring us real cookies.”
“Those are horse cookies.” I said, knowing full well they were road apples, but some fruit in their diet would do them just as well.
My stomach growled and gurgled. I was really hungry and started thinking again about something to eat. Chips and guacamole would be good. So would some cookies. Heck, I’d have even loved a grapefruit. Then I remembered another comment from the grands. Addison called out, “Mom! Evelyn took my gum out of my mouth and now she’s chewing it.” ABC gum? Maybe when I was three, but today? Ick!
Our palates do change as we grow. I think I’ll stop at the store and get some beef liver for dinner tonight.
Normally our fall trip would take us into Canada; sometimes trekking all the way up to Nova Scotia, sometimes just camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Other times driving to Agawa Bay, or making the full circle around Lake Superior, however 2020 has been everything but a normal a year. The Canadian border was closed, so we would travel a different direction. We opted to head west to Ouray, Colorado, then south for Texas, before returning home.
Colorado has challenges unique to the mountains. Driving from Ouray, to Silverton, takes you along a route known as the Million Dollar Highway. This road offers some of the most spectacular sights in the San Juan Mountains along some of the most dangerous roads. Dangerous in that the narrow road winds and turns following the mountain side. Speeds are often reduced to 10 or 15 MPH to maneuver the multiple switchbacks in the road. Driving this route can raise the hair on your arms and the back of your neck as most of this road has no guardrails.
There are places where the white line marking the edge of the driving lane is literally on the edge of a cliff that falls hundreds – if not thousands – of feet to the valley below. The cliff is so close to the road and so steep, there isn’t room to put up guardrails. With all her beauty, the road is unforgiving and the consequences severe. If you’re one of those drivers who is constantly hearing the rumble strips on the side of the pavement, you should not drive this highway. There is no room for error.
Colorado offers beautiful fall colors and spectacular sights that can easily humble a man. Thousands of acres of brilliant gold aspen leaves and dark green pine trees against the mountain sides and down into the valleys, are a sight to behold – one you’ll never forget. Looking up at rocky cathedrals that reach into the purest of blue skies is humbling. It makes me realize how small I am in the midst of all of this majesty. Water babbling over rocks in the creeks and rivers, along with the sound of the wind, creates a symphony of nature’s best music. It’s absolutely breathtaking – or could it be the altitude?
Our home in Minnesota is at an elevation of 750 feet above sea level. Silverton, Colorado, where we would be camping, sits at 10,505 feet. That difference can make breathing difficult as the air is very thin. Albeit the most important, breathing is just one of the many challenges that come with high altitude. Thin, dry air changes all the rules for baking, too; something I love to do.
One of our destinations in the mountains would be Lake City. We rented a cabin from our new friends (whom we had yet to meet) John and Lynne. Lynne said she had heard many stories about us from her dear friends, Kenny and Gail - Melissa’s aunt and uncle from Texas. Lynne invited us to dinner one night, saying she felt like she already knew us and couldn’t wait to meet in person.
I was flattered to learn they had heard about my pies. I said I would bake a pie for them if I could use their kitchen. Lynne told Melissa she had also heard Gail raving about my dinner rolls but she didn’t want me to be stuck in the kitchen too long. I laughed because I love being in the kitchen, “Tell Lynne she will get the pie and the rolls and she can still order up to two entrees.”
It wasn’t long after I extended my offer that Melissa and I were hiking up the side of a mountain. The path followed the edge of a stream with several little waterfalls. The thin air had me huffing and puffing my way along the trail. We wanted to, or should I say needed to, be off the mountain before the sun went down behind the other mountains across the valley, leaving us in a cold shadow. Still, we wanted to make it to the top of the trail on the Continental Divide, where there was a really cool waterfall. We were both getting tired, although our dog June seemed to be doing just fine with energy to spare.
Each time I wanted to quit and turn around, Melissa would say, “Let’s just go a little further – ten more minutes.” When we had climbed ten more minutes, she would be ready to call it enough and start back down the mountain.
“Let’s go just a little farther.” I would tell her, “I’m pretty sure I can hear the waterfall now.” I’m not really sure if I was hearing the falls or if the sound was like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Although tired, we eventually encouraged one another to the top of the hill.
Taking deep intentional breaths, we rested on a log alongside the waterfall. I started wondering just how high we were. “We must have climbed about 2,000 feet.” I figured. That’s when it occurred to me that Lynn’s house is at an elevation of 9,200 feet.
I’ve read that anything over 3,000 feet really changes the way baking works – especially when working with yeast and breads. There were high expectations for my pie and rolls. I’d never baked at high altitude. What if they didn’t turn out? Would I be shunned from baking in the San Juan Mountains for the rest of time? It was like driving one of those roads without guardrails; there was nothing there to keep me from falling. I started to feel a little panicky. “Maybe it’s just the thin air.” I justified as we started down the big hill.
Back at our cabin, I immediately got online to research high altitude baking. The article read: Pies aren’t as affected as yeast breads, although there can be differences… “Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. Blah.” I rebuked the article. “I have my pies down pat. I don’t need any advice on pies – let’s get to the differences in bread making.”
I made notes: Cut the yeast by one third. Use cold water and add a quarter cup. Knead the dough with oiled hands, not floured. Watch the rising time and remember the rolls will bake quicker. “Got it!” I declared with confidence.
When we got to Lynn’s house, she showed me around the kitchen. It’s wasn’t long before I had a peach pie in the oven. I started my dinner rolls. I kept a close eye on the pie baking, as well as the dough while it was rising. Hmm. The pie seemed to take a little longer to bake before the filling boiled. “It must be the high altitude.” I concluded.
Soon, I took the pie from the hot oven. Everyone oohed and aahed at its wonderful appearance and sweet aroma. I was quite proud of the pie, however, I was concerned that it wouldn’t have enough time to fully set up before dessert was to be served. We set the pie outdoors for faster cooling.
I put the rolls in the oven as everyone was sitting down to eat. Again, I kept a close watch on them. When the rolls came out of the oven, I brushed the tops with melted butter and served them. The moment of truth was at hand; I watched for facial expressions as each person bit into their rolls. Everyone complimented how good they were. I tried to remain humble when everyone took a second roll, but inside I was dancing and cheering myself, “Yes! Yes! I did it. Who needs guardrails? Even at high altitude, I nailed the rolls perfectly!” I couldn’t wait to serve the pie.
With a stack of clean dessert plates, I took a knife and cut into my beautiful, perfect pie on the kitchen island. What? Why wasn’t the knife gliding through the crust? In the bottom of the pie pan it felt like I was cutting through a rock and my usual light, flaky top crust was hard and crisp like a cracker. When I lifted the first slice, the bottom crust stayed in the pan and the filling was runny. Suddenly, I felt like I was careening over the white line on the edge of the road and plummeting into the harsh valley below. There was no guardrail to save me.
I’ve always said, “Crust is easy and it will make or break your pie.” If you have a mediocre filling but a good crust, people will say, “The crust was great.” On the other hand, if you have a really good filling but a bad crust, people will note, “The crust was kind of tough.” I took a bite of the pie. The filling was really good, but all I could think is “This crust is lousy.”
“What happened?” I wondered as I retraced every step of making the pie. I did everything the way I always do. Then I remembered before I made the pie, boasting to myself, “I don’t need any advice on pies…” I guess it is true, the mountains do have a way of humbling a man – in many ways.
The heavy dose of humility was well deserved and brought me down a few steps in ways that I needed to be. I took another bite of the lousy pie I had baked, then thanked God that I was in the kitchen and not on the mountain pass as I went arrogantly speeding down a road with no guardrails.
This story began on the North Shore of Lake Superior. My friend of over thirty years, Stu Stetter, came to visit. His friend Martin and Martin’s dad, Marty, came with him. The four of us would enjoy a guy’s get-away, in the north woods.
We set up camp at Esther Lake on the Arrowhead Trail. With only four campsites, it’s really quiet, peaceful and very dark at night. Stu and I stayed in my Scamp; Marty and Martin pitched a tent. Before we set out to paddle on Devilfish, the next lake over, we met Travis. He was set up in the campsite next to us. He came to the north woods to “get away from it all,” relax and do a little fishing.
We learned Travis was from Knoxville, Iowa - about forty-five miles from our hometown of Ottumwa. He did some work in Ottumwa, as well. Names started being dropped and, although we had never met before, it turns out we knew a lot of the same people. Stu asked Travis if he ever listened to TOM-FM when he was Ottumwa. “All the time.” Travis replied.
Stuart pointed at me and said, “That’s Tom.”
Travis laughed, “Well, I guess I have to travel more than a thousand miles from home to find a place where nobody knows me.” We all shared a good laugh about that. We said our farewells and our group got ready to go fishing.
Stu was putting his things away in the Scamp. He came out and told me there was a mouse in the trailer. I assured him there was not. “We don’t have mice in our camper.” Stu showed me his backpack.
“Then what’s this?” There was a small hole chewed in the mesh pocket on the side and another hole chewed through his package of sunflower seeds.
I examined the damage. “It looks like a mouse chewed it.” Then warned him, “You better not have brought mice in your backpack, into my Scamp.”
It was cold and cloudy when we launched the canoes on Devilfish Lake about a mile away. The fish were biting okay but they were mostly little guys, so everything went back in the water. Stu had a few nicer fish on his line, but each popped off the hook before he got them in the boat. Now, as guys will do, we were keeping track of who caught how many fish.
Stu tried to take credit for the three fish that got away but I wasn’t going to let him count them. “It’s catch-and-release.” He insisted.
“Yes, but you have to catch them before you can release them.” I said, “Besides, you didn’t release them, the fish released themselves.” Stu continued to justify that he did catch them. “How many points would you get for those fish in a tournament?” I asked him. Stu mumbled something, then admitted they would not get any points. After a couple hours of fishing, the wind started to pick up and the water was getting choppy. It was a good time to head back to camp.
We feasted on brats, then sat around the campfire having a few beers, telling stories and making our plans for the next day.
We started our day by hiking into the High Falls on the Pigeon River; the border between the United States and Canada. The falls were beautiful as always. From there we visited the trading post at Grand Portage and a few other sites before heading back to camp.
After dinner we were gathered at the campfire. “I got a present for you.” Stu told me. “I set it up in the camper.” He and I walked to the Scamp. Stu bent over and picked up a mouse trap from the floor. There was a mouse in it. “Well, would you look at that?” He said, then picked up a second trap, presenting another mouse.
“Where did you get those?” I asked Stuart.
“I bought the traps at the C-store in Grand Portage, today.”
“No, I meant where did you get real mice to put in your traps?” I insisted, “Because I don’t have mice in my Scamp.” Stu shook his head over my denial and reset the traps before we went out to join the other guys by the fire. A little later he went back to the Scamp for something and returned to the fire with another mouse in a trap. “This is crazy.” I said, “We’ve never had mice in the Scamp.”
I suppose it was around midnight when we finally retired for the night. I gave Stu the bigger bed in the back because he is much taller than me. I took the couch in the front. I pulled the covers up to my chin and fell asleep with my right arm outside the blanket. Shortly after dozing off, I felt something moving on my arm. “Is it a fly?” I wondered, “Maybe a bug? Egads, it better not be a spider.” Still half asleep, I contemplated the possibilities.
It had creepy little feet that gripped my skin like a June bug, but it was too late in the year for beetles. Just then it occurred to me, the feet were spread too far apart to be an insect. “Good God, it’s a mouse!” I whispered with alarm, while remaining perfectly still. “I’ve got a flipping mouse crawling on my bare arm!”
I lifted my arm slowly to turn on the light. The critter hung on for a moment, then I felt it jump off my arm, on to the covers on my chest. Still in the dark, I quickly grabbed the edge of my blanket with both hands. Giving it a good, fast shake, I flung the intruder across the camper. I heard it hit the wall of the Scamp and I quickly turned on the light and jumped out of bed. I grabbed a flashlight and checked both traps. They were empty and I couldn’t find the mouse.
I am not afraid of mice, but I will not, WILL NOT share my bed with them. I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin and tried to go back to sleep. Needless to say, I did not sleep soundly.
It was three in the morning when I heard a noise. I awoke and listened. I was pretty sure the mouse was on the counter rustling around. I got up and looked for him, but he wasn’t there. When I laid back down, I heard it again. Again, I got up to investigate but found nothing. As soon as I turned the lights off, the noise resumed. I got up a third time, this time checking the traps. Sure enough, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to get away with it. I put the critter outside by the others. The rest of the night was calm.
The next morning, Stu presented me with yet another catch from overnight. We broke down the campsite and moved to another campground – not that we’re scared by the mice, because we’re not. We are manly men, but because we had a site reserved at the end of the Gunflint trail.
We fished, hiked and explored all through the day, then retired to another evening campfire. I also caught two more mice. In all, seven mice perished during the men’s outing.
Stu pointed out that he caught four mice and I only caught three. “Not so, my friend.” I told him, “There was also the mouse on my arm. So, as I see it, we are tied at four mice each.”
Stu insisted that I did not catch that mouse, while I insisted I did. “How many points would you get for that mouse in a tournament?” Stuart asked. Hmph! He had me using the same logic I used on him. I conceded, Stu caught the most mice.
The next morning, I fixed an egg scramble for breakfast. Marty told me he looked over my Scamp and had a pretty good idea how the mice were getting in. “There’s a gap in the weather stripping at the bottom of your door.” He said, “If you put a new rigid foam seal there, I think it would keep them out.” I thanked him and said I would look into it at home.
Back at my house. Stu, Martin and Marty took hot showers. We said our farewells and they began their long trek home to Iowa. I told Melissa about the mice. “What? I let you guys use the camper for four days and you bring it back infested with mice!”
“It’s not infested,” I argued, “we got them all.” We had two days to get the Scamp ready for our next trip; heading west to Colorado. All the bedding was stripped, curtains were removed, the cabinets were emptied and the Scamp went through an antiseptic sterilization.
In Colorado, we set up camp on the edge of Molas Lake, near Silverton. The elevation was 10,505 feet above sea level. The elevation at our home on the north shore is around 650 feet. Both of us were finding it a little difficult to breath while acclimating to the thinner air. We finally got to sleep well after midnight.
Around three in the morning, there was some sort of ruckus in the camper. Melissa sprang up from her pillows and quickly turned on the light. Our dog June was sitting upright in the dark, pressed hard against the side of the bed trying to stay clear of our black cat, Edgar, who seemed to be possessed.
On the floor in front of Edgar, one mouse had already been slain. He had another in his mouth that wasn’t done yet. I tried to get the mouse from him, but the closer I got, the more Edgar snarled and growled like a wild panther in the woods. It was amazing how our nice, good-natured cat took on a whole new demeanor, that of a great hunter when an intruder encroached upon his territory. I didn’t how to get the mouse from him. I was considering cowering next to June to wait this event out.
Melissa told me, “Hold the mouse by the tail, and gently lift Edgar by the scruff. He’ll let go of the mouse.” I did as she instructed, but first put a heavy leather work glove that I use around the campfires on my right hand. I’m not afraid of mice, but this thing was still kicking and I wasn’t going to be bitten. As soon as I lifted Edgar by the nape, he let go of the mouse. I took the now expired mouse and the other mouse Edgar had caught, outside and placed them next to the fire ring.
Back inside the Scamp, I washed my hands then sat down on the floor next to June. “Man, Edgar looked like a wild cat the way he handled those mice.” June said. “It was kind of scary.”
“Yeah, I know.” I agreed then boasted, “Did you see the way I took that mouse from Edgar? Pretty cool, huh?”
June replied, “How do you suppose Mom knew how to make Edgar let go of that mouse?”
“Mom?” I questioned, “I’m the one who took the mouse away from the vicious hunter.”
“But Mom had to tell you how to do it.” June argued.
“Not so,” I defended, “I just…”
From the mattress top above us came a voice, “Both of you! Turn off the lights and go to bed.” We did as we were told. There were no more incidents the rest of the night.
The next morning, Edgar was his usual charming, goodnatured self. When I checked next to the fire ring, both mice were gone. The same thing happened with the mice Stuart and I caught on the Gunflint and Arrowhead trails. A really cool thing about nature – nothing goes to waste. Something will always come along and consider them an easy meal.
At the end of the camping trips, I tallied and shared the battle results with June. “In the Great Mouse Hunt; defending the Scamp, keeping it safe from pesky intruders; Stu was the main warrior. I came in second and Edgar finished third.”
“Not so fast handing out those awards, my friend.” Edgar said, as he jumped down from the front bunk and moseyed his way to the bed, then asserted, “As I see it, I won.”
“How do you figure that?” June and I both asked.
Edgar paced back and forth like the great detective; Sherlock Holmes in a black trench coat, tied at the waist, a double-billed deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe with a long swooping handle and large bowl. He was about to solve the mystery. Edgar Holmes explained. “It is true, Stu did catch the most with four mice. But more mice came in, allowing Dad to catch three mice. But still more came in. Even though I only caught two, no more mice came into the trailer under my watch. Therefore, it is I who holds the title as the greatest defender of the Scamp.
June said, “But Edgar, this contest was only among the men.”
Edgar gave June a firm look, “I am still one of the men,” then glared my way, “even though there was that most unfortunate ‘snipping incident’ which you initiated.”
I looked the other way, swallowed hard, then told June, “He has a valid point. In the contest of mice and men, Edgar wins.”
A really fun part of any adventure should be the journey to the destination. For worthy reasons, we didn’t get to the campsite until close to midnight. We quietly pulled into our space, got in the Scamp and went right to sleep, so as not to disturb the neighbors by making a ruckus. I could set up our camper in the morning.
It’s nearly the first thing I do when setting up our campsite, sometimes even before the Scamp is unhooked from the van; raising the American flag.
In the cool, fresh morning air in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, I stood, looking up at her, flying on top of the ten-foot pole mounted on my trailer. The red and white stripes rolling slowly like waves, billowing gently in the breeze. The dark blue field of brilliant white stars dancing just like the stars in the sky at night.
Feelings and emotions moved through me: pride, safety, honor, strength and humility were just a few. Standing alone, I placed my right hand over my heart: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Shortly after, a lady passed on her bike with her little grey schnauzer trotting on its leash ahead of her. She said, “I like your flag.” As she peddled on. Then, a Jeep, with the top down, drove by. The passenger waved; the driver saluted the flag. I saw an Army bumper sticker on the back when they passed. Another lady walking two dogs pointed up and said, “That’s pretty cool.”
I learned an appreciation and respect for our flag starting in kindergarten. I recalled those days at Horace Mann Elementary School, in Ottumwa, Iowa, so many years ago. The first thing in the morning, before class started, the students would gather around the half-circle driveway in front of the two-story brick building; the flagpole stood in the center in a small grassy area. The custodian would raise the flag, then together we would recite the pledge of allegiance.
My family moved to Madison, Wisconsin when I was in the third grade. Frank Allis School was also a brick structure, with an extra tall foundation. It had a Federal style main entrance. About ten steps led up to the porch where four white columns stood two stories tall, to the pitched roof above. Black colonial style lanterns hung on each side of the heavy wooden front doors. From the steps all the way to the street was a wide concrete sidewalk. In the middle was a small circle with a very tall flagpole. I remember the student body gathering around it to say the pledge as well.
In 1975 we moved back to Ottumwa, where I attended Washington Junior High School, it was hands down, the coolest school building of them all. Constructed in the late 1800’s with classic, large cut brownstone, it was a three-story building with a very high, steep pitched roof. The school stood proudly on a hilltop overlooking the Des Moines River valley below. Between the first and second floors across the front, in a band of lighter colored stone or maybe concrete, it read, “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
A small limestone retaining wall, about thirty inches high, ran across the front of the property, parallel to the sidewalk. There were four or five steps up to the walkway made of paving blocks that sloped steadily uphill toward the building. It got wider at the top, almost like a martini glass, creating a large area where students could congregate before and after school. At the top there was another retaining wall, about three feet tall, with a staircase on either side leading to the front doors. The flagpole was in the grassy area above that wall.
It was always a good feeling to get off the school bus and see the American flag flying high on the hill in front of my school. I liked watching it wave and flow in the breeze. When the wind was a little stronger, the flag would make a snapping sound; like when you take a towel from the dryer and give it a quick shake and it snaps and cracks like a whip. I liked hearing that.
More than once, I found myself mesmerized in a classroom by the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew the flag was there.
As I stood gazing at the flag on my Scamp, I thought about how blessed I am to live in this country. I reflected on the many places I have been able to visit and how fortunate I am to have the freedom to fly that flag so proudly, wherever my travels take me.
I considered all the schools I attended where I learned the history of this flag and all the things she stands for; the many places it has flown all around the world. I said a prayer for all those who fought for and served our country, under this flag. All these thoughts raised goosebumps on my arms. I did learn to appreciate and respect this flag at a very young age and I always will.
Now, on a cool morning in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, I found all these years later, the American flag has the same effect on me today. I was taken in, watching Old Glory wave in the breeze. I had work to do. I hadn’t even disconnected the camper from the van yet, but I was completely mesmerized hearing the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole.
“Peach.” “Peach.” “Apple,” were the answers I got simultaneously when I asked what kind of pie I should make. Melissa asked her dad, Phil, what kind of pie he wanted. “Oh, I’ll eat anything.” He answered.
Since his was the next birthday coming up, and this was going to be his birthday pie, she pressed for commitment, “Dad, if you were in a restaurant, what kind of pie would you order?”
Phil blushed, “Oh, I would probably order apple.” That’s his favorite.
“Then apple pie it is.” I said. This would require a trip to the store; the pie calls for four or five apples and I didn’t have any.
When we got back to their house, I was trying to find my way around Carol’s kitchen. It’s always a little more challenging to cook or bake in someone else’s kitchen because I don’t know where things are. I found the pie pan. “Carol, where’s your rolling pin? Carol, do you have more flour? Carol, where would I find…” With each call she came to the kitchen, pulling out what I asked for, then returned to the living room to visit with Phil and Melissa.
I looked through the drawer of utensils. “Carol? Where would I find your potato peeler?” Carol asked why I needed one. “To peel the apples.” I replied.
She called back, “Use my paring knife – it’s a real good one.” I told her it was easier for me to use a peeler. “I don’t have a potato peeler.” She said.
“How do you peel potatoes without a potato peeler?” I questioned.
Carol looked at me funny, as if I should have known and said, “With the paring knife. I always use a paring knife, don’t you?”
I confessed, “I can’t tell you the last time I used a paring knife to peel an apple, a potato or a carrot. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I have ever used one for that.” I guess it was time to give it a try.
When I peel apples (with a peeler) I start at the stem then make my way from top to bottom, around the apple, taking the whole skin off in one long curly piece that kind of looks like a stretched-out Slinkey. Sometimes I try to put the coiled piece back together in my cupped palm to reconstruct a hollow apple.
I tried my technique using the paring knife. After hacking three small, individual pieces of apple skin, I said, “This is going to take a long time to do five apples.”
“No, it won’t” Carol assured while walking to the kitchen. “You need to quarter the apple first.” With a large kitchen knife, I cut the apple into four pieces. Using her paring knife, Carol removed the core and seeds, then skillfully cut the skin off each quarter. As she worked, Carol told me how her mom had taught her to use the paring knife. When she was done, I checked out the skins she removed and they might have been even thinner than mine – they certainly weren’t any thicker.
I took two mixing bowls down from the top shelf of the cupboard; Texas Ware bowls. Texas Ware melamine bowls are cool! They were manufactured from the mid-forties, into the eighties. They come in a variety of sizes and colors; each is speckled with various colors making it unique. With the multiple sizes, they are easy to store stacking one inside another. They were often called “garbage bowls” or, “end of the day bowls.” Ladies would set one on the counter while cooking to toss peels, egg shells and other food scraps into the bowl. Then, at the end of the day, take them out to empty on the compost by the garden.
Carol has a large green and a smaller orange Texas Ware bowl. They belonged to her mom; Melissa’s Grandma, Lucille. The bowls are not only very useful, these are family heirlooms and it was certainly a pleasure to use them making Phil’s birthday pie.
After Carol peeled them, I cut the apples into thin slices and put them in the large green bowl. I stirred in my spices and set them off to the side. Using the smaller orange bowl, I mixed the flour and salt, then cut in the shortening. I rolled out the bottom crust and laid it carefully inside the glass pie pan – this was also Lucille’s.
Pie pan sizes are an opinion, if you will. For example: a “nine-inch pan” can range from eight and a half, to almost ten inches – and depths vary, too.
I formed the bottom crust into the pan and poured in the apple mixture. Since the pan was much deeper than most; I was sure glad I got five apples rather than four. I rolled out the top crust and trimmed and fluted the edges. Instead of cutting my usual pattern in the top crust, I used Carol’s sharp paring knife to carefully carve a large P for Phil. I put the pie in the oven and soon the whole house had the wonderful aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg; an apple pie baking.
That evening, after supper, we presented the pie while singing, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Phil...” His pie was still warm when I cut the first slice. Carol added a scoop of vanilla ice cream and handed the plate to Phil, then one to Melissa, me and one for herself.
Watching the family enjoy the pie, sure makes the baker feel warm inside. Using Grandma Lucille’s bowls and pie pan, and, watching Carol peel the apples the way she taught her, I really felt like Lucille was there with us. Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, that made me feel even warmer.
I decided when I make my next pie, I would try peeling the apples with a paring knife. I’m sure I could have learned to do it but I didn’t get the chance. You see the next pie I baked was for one of the girls who voted for peach.
There was no particular hurry driving home from northern Iowa to northern Minnesota. I decided to take some old routes; roads we used to take because they were more scenic, but haven’t driven for years because US 63 was faster and easier with less curves.
It was a really hot day. Temperatures were already in the high nineties when we left Waterloo around noon. When driving in an air-conditioned car, it’s easy to forget just how hot it is outside. I pointed out to my wife, the thermometer on the dash board just reached one hundred degrees.
Heading north on US 63, I looked at the fields of corn. The stalks were starting to turn brown. It wouldn’t be long until those fields were full of combines picking corn. With bright lights on the machinery the farmers continue their harvest late into the night.
To get to the smaller rural roads we wanted, I turned off Highway 63 onto Highway 9; headed east toward Cresco, Iowa, home of Featherlite Trailers. Just past town, we turned north. We don’t travel that road very long before Iowa Highway 139 becomes Minnesota 139.
Reaching upward from the far side of a large cornfield was a bright white church steeple, but we never saw a road leading to it. Somewhere along this route, still in Iowa, I passed a private, grass-strip runway between two fields of tall corn. The orange wind sock indicated a light breeze. Not far away was a weathered barn with worn, faded paint and an old windmill stand with vines growing up the legs, all the way to the top. The blades were missing, but I doubt they would have been turning anyway – the overgrowth of vines would have them bound.
For a moment I dreamed of an old yellow Stinson biplane with a blue tail, buzzing the small town of Cresco - a Barnstormer. The pilot, wearing a leather helmet and goggles, with a white scarf trailing in the wind, waved vigorously from the open cockpit at the people on the ground. He was trying to lure them to the tiny airstrip, in hopes of giving them a ride and making a few dollars for the day.
A little farther up the road I smiled, seeing the sign at the state line. It was much older and smaller than those you’ll see on Highway 63 or I-35. It was a stone sign with a warm message; “Welcome to Minnesota.” After traveling for several days and passing that sign, no matter what road I’m on, I instantly feel like I’m almost home – even though we were still 325 miles away. Speaking of warm messages, the thermometer now read one hundred and three. The dog days of summer were here.
Not far into Minnesota, we came around a curve in the road. On the southern end of a field was a small pond. There were a few cows gathered in a narrow line of shade from large trees on the other side of the fence. The smarter cows were standing in the pond to keep cool. These cows knew how to beat the heat. So did the people.
In the small town of Harmony, Minnesota, there was an older man wearing a John Deere cap, sitting in the shade of a covered front porch. A lady sat next to him; each were in an old-fashioned white metal lawn chair. A small round table between them had a pitcher and two glasses. It looked like ice tea. I could imagine the sweat trickling down the cool glasses in the hot air, making puddles of water on the table top. I waved at them, as I wasn’t sure if they were just watching traffic, or the house across the street.
A group of young kids were playing in the front yard. The girls had swimsuits and the boys wore cut off jean shorts. They all ran, laughing and screaming; chasing each other as they charged threw the arch of cool water going back and forth, coming from the lawn sprinkler.
Memories of my own youth came to mind and just the day before, when I took my granddaughters for a walk. A neighbor was watering their lawn. The path of the water was encroaching on the sidewalk. We didn’t mind at all; we ran through the water, turned around as if we had forgotten something and ran through again laughing ourselves silly. Kids (and the young at heart) enjoy the benefits of lawn watering devices – it’s just a natural thing on hot summer days.
Road construction detained us for a few minutes, but we were in no hurry. We passed a farm with a freshly painted red barn. The color contrasted with the shiny, new black asphalt road and the bright yellow and white painted lines. It was beautiful.
In a yard on the right side of the road, clotheslines were weighted down, sagging in the middle, with laundry. All the clothes looked homemade and were shades of blue. Maybe an Amish or Mennonite family lived there. Other lines had bed sheets. When I was a kid, we used to hang laundry out to dry. It saved electricity by not using the clothes dryer. Many times, we had to rush to get the laundry in because it looked like rain was coming. The sheets off the line were never as soft as they are coming out of the dryer, but I don’t think any fabric softener ever matched the fresh smell of linens hung out to dry in the country air.
We turned off on route 52, then 16 and 43. The scenery is amazing and the road is fun to drive as it turns and winds, going up and down hills until it brings us into the small town of Rushford, Minnesota – home of the Creamery Pizza and Ice Cream – quite possibly the best pizza in the state. It was no coincidence our path brought us here. After pizza, we shared a dish of maple nut ice cream, then got back on the road again.
We passed through Winona, driving by houses we used to live in, and talked about a lot of good memories. We saw a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the road. Watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and more – all a part of summer in the Midwest. Sweet corn seemed to be tapering off, and the strawberry stands were gone but soon it will be apple harvest and Minnesota grows some amazing apples!
We opted for another scenic excursion by going through Fountain City, then through the big hills and valleys into Arcadia, Wisconsin – home of Ashley Furniture. At one point, going up the bluff, the van thermometer peaked at one hundred and eight degrees outside. I questioned if it was really that hot. When I rolled my window down to put my hand out into the wind, it was hot! Hot, humid air gushed into the van. Ick! Some people like that real hot air, but not me. I quickly rolled the window up again.
Cattails were standing in wet ditches and at the edge of ponds. Their tall, thin brown heads were starting to show signs of late summer; looking weathered. Soon, they would burst, turning furry, then blow away. The teardrop shaped milkweed pods also looked close to opening. Light feathery seeds would emerge, floating through the air to plant next year’s crop. The further north we traveled, the milkweed became sparse, then there was none. Waves of delicate pampas grass swayed back and forth in the wind almost as if dancing to the music of the breeze.
As we followed Highway 93, then 53 into Superior, Wisconsin, the temperatures kept falling to the mid-seventies. By the time we turned onto Highway 61, the final stretch home, following the shoreline of Lake Superior, the temps dropped to 63 degrees. Ah…that’s more like it. With the AC shut off we opened the windows, taking advantage of the cool, fresh air coming in off the big lake. If my thermometer in the van is accurate, we went through a forty-five-degree temperature change in about six hours. That’s a lot.
When we got home, I was curious when the actual dog days of summer take place. According to what I read online, they ended about two weeks ago. Hmm. I guess when it comes down to it, Mother Nature has the final say over that Old Farmer’s Almanac.
I spent some time recalling the Labor Day weekend from a few years ago. I got to do some flying Friday night, which allowed me to see something I'd not seen before.
From the air, with the sun setting to the west over Duluth, I watched a large ship enter Superior Harbor. We've watched lots of ships come in through the canal and under the lift bridge at Duluth, but I had never seen one actually entering Superior. It was pretty neat.
Saturday, I spent a full day flying skydivers. I haven't done this for eight or nine years and it was really a blast. I stepped right back into it without missing a beat. My flying was good, the jump runs were into the wind and my altitudes were right where they were supposed to be. I felt very comfortable with the door opening at 10,000 feet above the ground, watching people climb out on the wheel and strut. The lead jumper nods his head, giving a three count, then they fall away from the airplane, tumbling through the air rapidly toward the ground below me. I love that sight!
Sunday, after mass, I went to the Superior airport again, to get checked out in a Cessna 172 at Superior Flying Service. This is an easy plane to fly. The checkout is a standard procedure flight required when a pilot, new to the area, wants to rent airplanes.
Three times round the patch, three landings, one with a simulated "engine out" and my instructor said, "You're good to go!" Cool. Now I have another place I can rent airplanes to take people for rides and maybe get Melissa up to do some aerial photography of the Northwoods.
After checking out in the 172, I drove all the way around the Twin Ports harbor, then out to Park Point where Sky Harbor airport is located. I got to meet John. He owns an impressive Dehaviland Beaver - the most classic icon of all float planes.
I had heard him making several radio-calls the day before when I was flying skydivers, so I came here to find and talk to him. He was having a dish of homemade ice cream a vendor was selling just outside the flying service.
I asked if he gave instruction, that I would like to get my seaplane rating. He said he didn't, but took me into an office area and gave me the name and phone number of a man who does.
We chatted for a few minutes, then he saw two of his passengers coming and he had to go. As a young couple approached, he extended his hand. "I'm John, the pilot and we'll be going up right after I finish my ice cream. You can go out, look, and take pictures, but please don't board the airplane until I am there."
A happy pilot is a good pilot and honestly, everyone is happy after finishing a dish of homemade ice cream. These young people were in for an extra good time - I could tell!
Outside, I stood at the water’s edge watching the plane tied off to the end of the dock. A couple was standing there, each eating a dish of ice cream while watching the Beaver with great interest. "Are you two going for a ride in the seaplane?" I asked.
They answered simultaneously, "I'd sure like to." She said, while he said, "No, not today."
The wife asked me, "Are you going for a ride in it?"
"I don't just want a ride in it, I want to fly it!" I answered. They both looked at me rather oddly. "Let's go stand over there, honey." The man said to his wife, but I think what he really meant was, "Come on wife. Let's take our ice cream and move away from the crazy man."
I stood in awe, watching John maneuver the plane in the water, so smooth and graceful, like...well, a beaver swimming in the water. He taxied to the takeoff area, then turning the nose into the wind, he began easing in the power. The sound of his big radial engine was chilling. More and more, the plane pushed through the water until the floats planed on top just like a boat. Within a few moments, he gently lifted the airplane into the air and away they went.
A seaplane license; that’s the next pilot rating I will work on!
After watching the Beaver disappear into the distant sky, I walked back to my car, daydreaming about flying that airplane. A man and woman were standing near the parking lot, each enjoying a dish of homemade ice cream.
He looked quite charming. Gray hair with a distinguished gray beard and glasses under a safari style hat, with the string connected by a single bead coming down under his chin.
I approached him, "Excuse me sir. I was wondering if I might have a bite of your ice cream?"
"Sure!" He said, without hesitation, extending a full spoon of the delicious treat toward me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm just kidding, I just wanted to see how you would react."
"Well you're welcome to try it, I have plenty to share." There was a sincerity in is voice that I really liked, and an accent too! He made me feel good.
"I'm happy to meet people who are friendly and willing to share with a stranger." I told him, then inquired, "May I ask where you're from."
"Chicago." His wife answered.
"Well," I commented, "You have a beautiful accent in your voice, but it doesn't sound like a that of a Midwesterner."
The man explained, "Originally, we are from Russia, now we live in Chicago. We are just visiting here.”
I welcomed them and asked how they liked Chicago. He assured me they like it very much. I wanted to ask if they root for the Cubs or the White Sox, but having just met, I thought prying into their politics would be a bit brash.
We chatted for a bit, then as we said our farewells he again asked, "Are you sure you don't want to try the ice cream? It's really good."
"No thank you. I'm good." I said, waving as I walked away. Then, looking over my shoulder, I called out, "You two enjoy the rest of your day...and that ice cream, too!" I could hear them laughing.
I sat in my car for a bit, watching the harbor where the Beaver had just taken off. I put the car in reverse, then looked over my shoulder to back up. While looking behind me, I saw the ice cream vendor with his big signs, "Homemade Ice Cream."
I put the car in first gear and started to pull away. I smiled, nodded and said, "After I get my seaplane rating, I'm gonna have a dish of that homemade ice cream.”
That fall, I did get my sea plane rating at Sky Harbor Airport and a dish of ice cream too – a double scoop.”
I always seem to have a project, or two, or three, going on someplace. Last week I undertook a new task: re-siding my Aunt Di’s garage. I went over Friday to remove all the old siding and loaded it into my dump truck. Saturday, I went to Duluth to pick up new windows and all the materials to complete the project.
Sunday after church, I started loading my tools into the van. I was pulling a trailer to carry my ladders. As I started stacking my ladders on the flat bed, I said, “Man, I sure have a lot of ladders.” While I was tying the ladders down, I wondered if I may have too many ladders?
I need the four-foot ladder for shorter areas, just out of my reach while standing on the ground. Melissa is helping me with the project, so I needed another four-foot ladder for her. The two six-foot ladders are for areas just beyond the reach for the four-footers. The ten-foot step ladder is necessary for reaching higher areas.
There are a lot of places where I need to work, that call for even taller ladders. So, I brought along my twenty-foot, and thirty-two-foot extension ladders. The ladders can’t be leaning on the building because they would be right in front of the place I’m trying to work. The extension ladders always seem to be too close, or too far from the building; plus, I have to have an open span between ladders, since I am working with twelve-foot long sections of siding. For that, I have ladder jacks.
A ladder jack is a triangular piece with two brackets that will latch onto the back side of a ladder’s rungs. By separating the sections of my thirty-two-foot extension, I end up with two sixteen-foot ladders. I lean them against the building, hang the ladder jacks on the back of each and lay a plank across the jacks. Now I have a nice platform with no obstructions between me and the face of building, upon which to work. Of course, to reach even higher areas, I have two, thirty-two-foot extension ladders and a forty-foot as well.
The ladder jack triangles are adjustable, so depending on the angle of the ladder against the building, I can change the triangles to assure a level working surface. That’s important when you’re working in the air. Still, all these angles and numbers can make your head swim.
I thought back to my days at Ottumwa High School. I sat in geometry class, gazing out the window at my motorcycle in the parking lot across the street. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day. The classroom windows were open and the breeze was blowing in. It felt good. I was thinking of all the things I could be doing outdoors; the places I could ride my bike – if I wasn’t trapped in this senseless math class.
Mr. Patrick called my name, snapping me out of my daydream, to ask me a question. I had no idea what he was talking about because I wasn’t paying attention. Thus, I answered him, “Why do we have to learn this stuff? I’m never going to use this in the real world.”
“When you get to that stage of life, Mr. Palen, you’ll figure out why you need to know this.” He explained, as he kept drawing lines and numbers on the chalkboard. He quickly caught me up to speed, then we worked out the problem together.
In my driveway, I tightened the last rachet strap across the load. I counted the ladders on the trailer. “Eight ladders, plus one I’m not taking and two that are still in Ottumwa. Do I seriously own eleven ladders? Do I need that many ladders? Does anyone need that many?” I guess I do use them all.
I thought about m(insert your web ay ladders and Mr. Patrick’s geometry class and how today, I actually DO use the things he was teaching me. I recited my high school class call: “The ladder of success we’ll climb, we’re the class of seventy-nine.” I started laughing, “I guess I made it.”
It wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did. As a matter of fact, today, I would label it as one of the dumbest things I ever did.
I had recently graduated high school and got my first “real job” at Plywood Minnesota, in Ottumwa, Iowa. In junior high school, I had worked at my parent’s restaurant, the Runway Café. In high school I worked at the China Restaurant, then Mr. Munchee’s – a burger joint across the street from the movie theater. I thought I had hit it big time when, as a junior in high school, I got on with Pizza Hut. But, to get hired at Plywood Minnesota, my first job outside the world of food service? That was really something.
At all my restaurant jobs, I lectured any co-workers who smoked. I told them about the health dangers, the high cost of cigarettes and how smoking made them smell badly. But. Now that I was in the big league of employment, I didn’t want to come across as being a smart aleck; a know it all, or self-righteous. In reality, I was eager to fit in with my new colleagues and most of them smoked. So, even though it was one of the dumbest things I ever did, I started to smoke.
In less than a year, most of the guys quit smoking but I continued. They would tell me how bad smoking was. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t going to admit that, so I told them I enjoyed smoking; it was relaxing. I told them those health problems wouldn’t happen to me because I was different. Besides, I would quit before the smoking ever became a problem. The truth is, I have a very addictive personality. I was hooked and to keep smoking was easier than quitting. I eventually did quit smoking – thirty years later.
I’ve always believed anything worth doing is worth doing well. Smoking was no exception. I didn’t want to be one of those people who only smoked two or three cigarettes a day. Why smoke at all? So, I smoked a pack a day for the first ten years. Well, a pack a day until the Marlboro Man started putting those “Marlboro Miles” on the side of each package, then I kicked it up to about two packs a day. I had to have those miles – each one was worth five points! You could redeem the points for some pretty cool stuff. I was especially interested in the camping gear.
I liked camping in the mountains - and winter camping when it gets really cold. Marlboro offered a Zero Degree Sleeping bag. A similar item retailed for over $100. I saved enough miles to get one. It was a “mummy bag,” with bright red nylon on the top, black on the bottom and bright yellow inside. When it arrived, I took a motorcycle trip to the mountains to try it out. I was so impressed with the quality I wanted to get three more; one bag for each person in my family. But that would have required a lot of smoking. Two packs a day was already too much for me, so I solicitated the help of other smokers.
I tapered back to a pack and a half per day, and friends who weren’t going to use their miles, collected them for me. Pretty soon I had all the sleeping bags I wanted. Because it wasn’t cool for the kids to have a cigarette logo on their sleeping bags, I carefully remove the Marlboro patch with a seam ripper. I still had enough points to get the red duffle bag I wanted.
It was really cool and durable. Made of bright red canvas, it had a large space for clothes on top, a separate shoe compartment on the bottom and a pocket for toiletries on the front. The bag had handles on top and a large shoulder strap that made it super easy to carry. The duffle bag had a retail value over $100. It was a well-made piece of luggage – even the zippers were high quality. I’ve had the bag for many years. (decades) It’s traveled with me through all fifty states and Canada!
On one trip to Alaska, visiting my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks, the shoulder strap broke. The bag was heavy when fully loaded and frankly, it wasn’t easy to carry without that strap. Besides, it was over thirteen years old. I told my aunt Di about the damage and said I was going to throw the bag away.
“I can fix that for you.” She said. I explained it was very heavy canvas and I didn’t want her to damage her sewing machine trying to repair it. She laughed at me, “Give me the bag.” That’s when I learned Di had commercial sewing machines that could stich several layers of canvas together at one time. After she repaired it, the bag was better than ever and continued traveling with me for years.
It was on that trip to Alaska when Uncle John and I were way out in the wilderness staying at his cabin, that I ran out of cigarettes. I lasted three days without smoking and when we returned to Fairbanks, I decided to stay off the cigarettes. Just a few days after returning home from that trip, I started smoking again. Sigh. In all, I smoked for thirty years before quitting in 2009.
One day, about two and a half years after I quit, one of the girls at work came in from outside; she had been on a cigarette break. When she walked up to the front desk, I told her. “You really stink.” She returned the sentiment. “No, I mean it. You really stink like cigarettes.” She walked away a bit offended.
I asked another girl who was there (a non-smoker) if I smelled that bad when I was still smoking. She smiled, “Yes. You did.” It surprised me that it took so long after I quit before I became sensitive to the smell. It was awful, but years later I discovered something that smells even worse!
Just the other day, I was working in Ottumwa. I was cutting down trees with the chainsaw while my helpers hauled the branches to a trailer. When we were finished, I loaded my chainsaws, gas, oil and tools into the van and started to head out of town. I was going to my daughter’s house in Waterloo. Before I got out of town, I started to small gasoline – it was strong. Is there anything that smells worse than gasoline? I stopped the van to investigate.
It seems the cap on my gas can had split. The can tipped over and leaked gasoline all over the floor of my van. My red bag was back there. The gasoline soaked into the bag; mostly into the bottom compartment, but it didn’t seem to get to my clothes in the top section. I rushed into a grocery store to buy a package of paper towels and some Windex.
I removed my clothes from the duffle bag, placing them in plastic grocery sacks. The red bag itself was soaked with gasoline dripping from it. I put it inside a separate plastic sack, setting it outside, then began cleaning up the gas with paper towels. I cleaned the floor the best I could with Windex. It seemed to have removed the gas from the rubber floor mat – but, the smell was still strong!
Outside the van, I picked up my red bag. It was really a mess. It broke my heart to admit it, but after thirty years together - it was time. I threw my red bag away. It was a long drive back to Waterloo. I reminisced about all the places we had been together – me and that red bag. I kept the windows open, hoping to air out the van.
It was 10:30 p.m., when I arrived. Before going in the house, I smelled my clothes in the sacks. They didn’t smell like gas so I went inside. My daughter walked over toward the front door to greet me. About ten feet away, she wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the front door with a stiff arm. “Out! Now!” Apparently, I had become immune to the stench of gasoline.
I took my clothes to the laundromat. Before washing my clothes, I told a lady they were clean and asked if they smelled. “They smell like gasoline.” She said, “You better wash them in hot water.”
“You’re the first women who ever told me to wash colors in hot water.” I told her and we shared a good laugh about that.
When the washer was done, I put my clothes in a roller basket and started wheeling them to the dryer. The same lady approached me. Taking a damp T-shirt from my basket, she sniffed it. “Did you use hot water like I told you?” I assured her I did. “Did you use soap?” Again, I said I did. “You’re going to have to wash them again and make sure you set the machine for hot water.” I did as I was told.
As the lady was folding her clothes, a friend of hers walked in with a few baskets of clothing. The two started chatting. Before the first lady left, she brought her friend to me. “Brenda, this man got gasoline on his clothes and the smell was still there after he washed them, so I made him wash them again. Before he puts them in the dryer, will you make sure he got the smell out?”
Brenda assured her, “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Then she looked at me, asking, “Did you wash them in hot water?”
The first lady left and about ten minutes later my machine was done. I put my clothes in a basket and started wheeling them toward the dryer. Brenda walked up and took a damp shirt from my basket giving it the sniff test. “Did you use hot water?” I assured her I did. “And did you use soap?” Again, I assured her I did. “Honey, you’re going to have to wash them again.”
She led me to the soap vending machine, pointing to a particular box, “Use this Gain with bleach and a box of this Oxy Clean. That’ll take the smell away.” I bought the products she recommended and returned to the washing machine. She followed me, looking over my shoulder, “Now make sure you use hot water or you’ll never get that gas smell out of your clothes.”
When the load was done, she smelled another of my T-shirts. She smiled, extending the damp garment toward me, “Now doesn’t that smell clean and fresh?” I agreed it did and proceeded to the dryer. “Now you dry those on medium, not high heat. You don’t want to shrink your cotton shirts.”
I was grateful to both ladies for their help. Thirty-seven dollars and almost four hours later, I left the laundromat with clean clothes. It was just after 2 a.m. when I got to Sydney’s house.
The next day, after doing a little online research, I spent a couple hours cleaning the inside of the van with a solution of vinegar, baking soda and water. It worked. The gasoline smell is gone. Fortunately, the van came along many years after I quit smoking, so that’s a stench I didn’t have to deal with.
I smoked for thirty years and I had that red duffle bag for thirty years. I still have two of the sleeping bags, thirty years later. It almost seemed like a fair trade off until I considered, the four sleeping bags and the duffle bag would have cost me $500. I can’t even fathom the real cost of getting those items “FREE.”
I thought about the demise of my Marlboro duffle bag and chuckled out loud, “I guess cigarettes and gasoline never have mixed well.”
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!