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It was nearly noon on Saturday. Heading home, I noticed the leaves along the four-lane highway between Duluth and Two Harbors were starting to change. Turning yellowish green; some trees were already bright red and gold. With the first sign of fall colors, comes a steady stream of traffic, heading north on Highway 61.
I don’t know how people know the colors are turning. It’s like birds at a feeder. Our feathered friends just seem to know when more seed has been put out. Hungry for the wonder of fall, people flock in from near and far to take in the beautiful colors of Minnesota’s north woods. And who can blame them? Fall is a big part of the north shore magic that drew us to move here.
About a half mile outside of town, traffic was already backed up on 61 coming in from the west. Road work in Two Harbors had cars, trucks and RV’s passing through narrow channels of orange barrels, posts and cones, changing and contorting the lanes as we knew them.
Hustling to beat winter, workers in neon green vests, machines and equipment moved about busily. Intersections were closed, adding more disruption to the flow. It’s going to be very nice when it’s done, but for now the road construction has really slowed the heavy traffic through Two Harbors. I was caught in that line of traffic.
Finally making it about midway through town, I decided to pull into Mc Donald’s. I would get lunch and try to write a story. The restaurant was busier than I have ever seen it. I ordered my meal, poured my drink, and set them on a table.
An elderly gentleman with a cup of hot tea and a chocolate chip cookie in a small paper sleeve was looking around the restaurant for a place to sit. I looked around as well. I felt bad; I had just taken the last available table. It had four chairs and I only needed one.
Just as I was about to offer the man a seat at my table, he asked me, “Have you got more people coming?” “Nope,” I answered, “I’m alone.” He asked, “Would you mind if I sat on this side?” “Well, it depends,” I said to him, inquiring, “you’re not going to try to sneak any of my french fries, are you?” We had a good laugh over that. He assured me he wouldn’t bother my fries. “I would love to have you join me.” I said, inviting him to sit down. He took a seat and I went to get some ketchup for my fries.
When I returned, he had the lid off his cup of hot water and began gently steeping a tea bag. We shared some conversation about the weather, the traffic and how the town was buzzing with tourists today. “Do you live here in town?” I asked him. “Yes, just up the way.” he said, then asked,”How about you?” “No, but I’m not far. I live in Silver Bay.”
“Silver Bay? Do you work at the mine?” He queried. “No,” I told him, “I was a broadcaster for thirty-five years. I sold my radio stations in Iowa and we moved up here.” He told me, “I worked for the Erie Mine Company. It was hard work but I didn’t mind. It was a good job and it paid good. But they went to swing shifts, so I quit. That just wasn’t for me.”
The man wore a plaid wool shirt with brown and grey checks and a green, worn cap that had a Minnesota logo of sorts. I think it was a forestry hat. He reminded me of my uncle, John. I knew he had stories to tell.
“I lived in Chicago for awhile, but it was too big. I like it up here in the woods. I’ve always liked the woods.” He said, “I wanted to work with the forest service, so I looked at schools for training. There was one in Alaska that really had my interest, so I went to Alaska. When I got there, the school was closed and I ended up a 75 MM gunner in the army.” He paused for a moment, then said, “That’s a big gun; and it’s loud. Those shells went off right next to my ear. That’s why I’m hard of hearing now.”
I asked him, “Did you like Alaska? There are a lot of woods up there.” “I didn’t like Alaska much.” He recalled, “It was cold. Too cold, and too dark. In the winter it’s dark all the time. That wasn’t for me, so I left there.” He seemed to be thinking about those army days, then changed the subject.
“I got out of the army and went to school on a GI bill. I studied forestry and went to work for the forest service. I started in St Louis County and I’ve worked all up and down the north shore. I like Lake County the best.” He broke off a piece of his cookie, ate it and sipped his tea.
“I married a Swede.” He boasted. A smile came over his face as he fondly remembered a day long ago, “She brought me a sandwich and a cup of coffee one day when I was working in Dinky Town, way out west by the ocean. I thought, ‘I really like that girl.’ So I kept an eye on her. I’ve been married to her 50 years or so. We’re still married. She’s a good lady. We had a few arguments along the way, but we just got through the rough parts and it’s been pretty good.” His smile was beautiful as he talked about her; his love and respect for her was clear.
I needed to get going, but was so drawn in by his stories, I stayed longer. “I’m surprised I never got killed out in the woods.” He said, “Oh yeah?” I replied, encouraging him to tell me more. “One day I was walking in the woods and my gun went off. It really stunned me, and I dropped to my knees. But when I looked at my rifle, the safety was on and my gun hadn’t fired. About that time a man came running toward me and screaming. He was shooting at a deer and didn’t see me. That bullet went right past my ear!” He said. Holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart next to his head, he showed me how close it was. “The man thought he shot me and started throwing up.” My new friend laughed, “I almost got killed, but I made it out okay.”
“That’s the way it was back then. Some people didn’t have any money and they depended on deer to feed their family.” He recounted, “I was out calling on a man one day, talking to him in his yard when his dog walked up. The dog was carrying a good size bone from the hind leg of a deer in his mouth. It was fresh.” A compassionate look came over his face as he shook his head and said, “I didn’t say anything about the deer being taken out of season. The man was doing his best to feed his family. That’s how it was back then, but I’ll bet the next time he took his deer a little deeper into the woods to clean it.” We shared a good laugh about that.
He told me a few more stories and spoke fondly of his property. “I’ve still got forty acres.” He said. There was a pride in his voice as he spoke about his land, “But I stay pretty close to town now days.” “Is your forty acres around here?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s not too far out.” He said with a vagueness in his voice. A skeptical look came over his face. “Why?” I chuckled, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hunt, I was just curious if you still go out there sometimes.” He laughed about my answer.
I began to gather my things, then stood up, offering him my hand, “It’s been a real pleasure being able to spend this time with you my friend, but I need to start for home.” I shook his hand, “I’ve really enjoyed listening, and I thank you for sharing your stories with me.” I told him.
I am so bad about asking for names when I talk to folks, I was really happy when he asked, “What was your name?” “Tom Palen” I answered, he shook my hand again and said, “Tom, I’m Marvin. Marvin Maki, from Two Harbors.” I told him I was going to write a story about our meeting and would send him a copy. I exchanged contact information with him, and said, “Marvin, I hope I run into you here again! I’ve really enjoyed our time together.” He said, “Well I was sure glad you let me sit here. I liked having company; someone to talk with.”
I was feeling pretty blessed abut spending time with Marvin. I got in my car and pulled to the edge of the street, feeling hopeless as I looked at the solid line of traffic as far to my left as I could see. A car on the road stopped. The driver motioned to me, waving her hand, letting me into the traffic. I waved back to thank her.
I noticed more trees changing. The colors of the trees and bushes along the north shore are beautiful, as are the people who live here, and those who come to visit.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98