Melissa and I took our dog June, for a walk down the road. Passing our neighbor’s yard, I heard a voice call out to me. “Hey Tom, do you want some lettuce?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I replied to no one there. Then Gene stood up. He was bent over, working in one of his gardens. He has amazing gardens; some with fruits and vegetables and others with the most beautiful flowers.
Gene cut two heads from the garden and handed them to me. It doesn’t get any better than lettuce, right from the garden. After that, we walked around the yard. He was showing us different varieties of flowers they planted. His wife, Lois, joined us. One of the flowerbeds is her project and very beautiful.
Gene started picking and gathering flowers from around the yard. Yellow, deep orange, blue, white – there were even a couple beige flowers I had never seen before. He shuffled the bunch for a moment or two, and then handed them to Melissa. “Here, these are for you.”
Maybe it was because he and Lois grew all the flowers, or perhaps because they were fresh out of the garden, but without a doubt, it was one of the most beautiful flower bouquets I’d ever seen. Melissa absolutely loved them!
Lois invited us in for refreshments. Of course, she always includes June, and had some special treats for her too. We sat and talked until after dark. Melissa thanked Gene again for the flowers. She was so thrilled with them. Gene just blushed. He is rightfully proud of his gardens and was happy to share the spoils.
While Melissa admired the blossoms, I told Gene, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.” We shared a good laugh about that as Gene loves desserts.
I picked up my heads of lettuce from the picnic table and we started the short walk home in the pitch-black night. “We should have brought a headlamp.” Melissa said.
June confidently replied, “Follow me Mom, I know the way.”
It is true what I said about the flower delivery guy and the person with the dessert tray.
When I was cooking at the assisted living home, after a meal was served, I always went to the dining room with the dessert tray. It gave me an opportunity to ask the people about their meal. Most were happy, but sometimes I got an earful. “How was your meal?” I asked Will.
“Meal?” He scowled at me. “It was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had – if that’s what you can call it.”
I smiled as I set his dessert next to his plate. “I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” I told him. His wife, Ruth, was quick to let me have it as well.
One day the steamer in the kitchen quit working. It’s important to serve meals on time because many of the residents are on medications that have to be taken with food. As quickly as I could, I heated the frozen green beans in a pan on the stove and served dinner promptly at 5:00 pm.
Afterwards, I made my rounds through the dining room. “How was your dinner tonight?” Ruth gave me a cold stare.
“The beans weren’t done. They weren’t hot – not even warm. As a matter of fact, they were cold. Just terrible.” She shook her head.
“If I tell you a secret Ruth, can you keep it just between us?” Wanting to hear what I had to say, she agreed. Curious, her husband Will leaned in to listen. “You can eat the beans cold.” I said, “You can eat them raw if you want to. They won’t hurt you.” Will and Ruth both looked at me, appalled. I cracked a smile and said, “But I will try to do better tomorrow.”
We all have our off days, but I know I almost always serve a good meal. I viewed concerns as constructive criticism and never let the few who would complain no matter what I did, bring me down. As a matter of fact, I was now on a mission to win over Will and Ruth – and because I am not a flower delivery guy, I planned to do it with the dessert tray.
After serving a spaghetti dinner, I was making the rounds with the dessert tray. “How was your meal Will?”
“There was too much dressing on the salad and too much butter on the garlic toast.” He complained.
“Will, the dressing comes on the side in a cup.” I justified, “If there was too much dressing on the salad, that was your doing – not mine.”
Will didn’t have anything to say after that, but Ruth spoke up, “I thought the garlic toast was good.”
“Did you leave room for a piece of apple cobbler?” I asked. With each meal I served, Will and Ruth seemed to lighten up a bit.
One night I made a dessert I knew Will was fond of. “Did you leave room for a lemon bar?” I asked each of the four people at Will’s table. They all said they did. I intentionally gave both Will and John a smaller piece. Although he wasn’t going to say anything about it, I caught the expected look of disapproval. “Will, do you by chance have room for two lemon bars?”
“I can certainly make room.” He said pushing the first one over a bit with his fork. I gave him another smaller lemon bar. Then I asked John if he would also like a second piece. He too made room on his plate. I had cut the smaller pieces with exactly this in mind. The two smaller pieces combined gave each of them just a little more than a normal portion, but it sure made them feel special.
“There you go gentlemen.” I said in a secretive tone of voice as if we had just conducted a shady deal. “Now don’t tell anyone else about this or everybody will start asking for two pieces of dessert.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I went back to the kitchen.
From the serving window I watched the two men, both in their nineties, each cutting their additional lemon bar and sharing half of it with their wives. It was one of the sweetest things I’d ever seen and really warmed my heart.
A couple nights later, Will addressed me, “Say Tom, did you prepare the liver and onions yourself?” I told him I had. “Well let me say, that was the best liver I’ve ever had. I was having a hard time deciding if that was beef liver or a very good steak. And you served plenty of onions with it. I like that.”
From the lemon bars incident forward, Will and Ruth were absolutely golden to me.
Another night, Will spoke before I had a chance to ask how he liked his meal. “Say Tom, did you make the lasagna?”
“Indeed, I did.” I replied, “It’s my homemade recipe.”
“That was quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Was there any left over?” I told him there was. “If you could save a piece of that for my lunch tomorrow, I’d sure appreciate it.” I told him I would do that. Will added, “You know, I believe you may be the second best cook I’ve ever met.” He touched his wife’s hand, “Ruth of course being the finest. She’s magnificent in the kitchen.” His compliment made me smile and caused Ruth to blush. Will had a soft, loving side to him and was sure smooth with his diplomacy.
"You probably don't want one of these,” I said presenting a tray full of brownies, “so I'll eat yours for you."
"Oh no you won't. Just put it right here!" Ruth said. Will chimed in, "I left room for two!"
“Sorry, that was a onetime deal my friend - it's one per person tonight.” I said. We all shared a good laugh before I moved on to the next table.
The brownies were a big hit. Very moist and rich with dark chocolate -fudge frosting. Simply delicious. I wished I could say I made them, but I didn't. My boss Gretchen made them the day before, I just had the pleasure of serving them.
Before taking the dessert to the dining room, the head boss reminded me of a resident with a nut allergy, who couldn't have a brownie because of the walnuts. Poor Della looked so sad as I told her, “I brought a special dessert for you.” I had a cup of lime Jell-O cubes with a burst of whipped cream on top attempting to make it look a bit more appealing. Although it was pretty, it was no dark chocolate brownie. "There you go, Della. Cool, refreshing Jell-O with a little something extra on top!" I said as I placed the cup in front of her.
"Thank you." She replied, in a sheepishly polite, but heartbroken tone in her voice. Della watched with wanting eyes, her mouth nearly watering as I went to the next table with my tray full of chocolate goodies.
On the way to the kitchen, I glanced back her way. Della was poking at her Jell-O with a spoon, watching with envy as the others at her table enjoyed a brownie. She looked so left out and forgotten, it made me sad.
After dinner, when the dishes were being cleared, I noticed the cup of green Jell-O came back to the kitchen, nearly untouched. It made me feel awful for dissing her on the brownies, but I wouldn't want her to have an allergic reaction either. As I worked, I thought more about the emptiness in her eyes. Then, I remembered Gretchen telling me a while back, she didn't use nuts in any of her baked goods.
I sent Gretchen a text briefly explaining the situation. She responded, “There are chocolate chunks but no walnuts in the brownies. Della can have one.”
Thrilled with her confirmation, I stopped one of the resident assistants, told her about Gretchen’s text then handed her a plate, asking if she would take a brownie to Della.
The RA returned to the kitchen with a big smile on her face, "You just made her day! Della’s eyes lit up when I told her there were no nuts in the brownies and she could have one." The RA was happy. Della was happy. All this happiness made me happy. It was a great way to wrap up my shift.
I was back in the kitchen the next morning. One of the resident assistants came to the kitchen, telling me again how happy Della was to get the brownie the night before. “She’s still talking about it this morning.” She said. I smiled.
At lunchtime I served a homemade vegetable soup to everyone except Will and a few others who requested left over lasagna. After lunch, I took made my rounds with the dessert tray, stopping at Della’s table first. “Della, I have ginger crack cookies and just one brownie left over from last night. Which would you like?”
“Can I have the brownie?” She asked. While I put the brownie on her plate, she pointed to a small juice glass with a handful of wild yellow flowers (dandelions) setting in the center of the table. “Someone brought me daisies.” She cut the brownie with the edge of her fork, saying “I like daises.” Then taking a bite, she smiled a million-dollar smile. I moved on feeling pretty darn good.
“That lasagna seemed to be even better today. Thank you for saving me a piece.” Will said, “Say Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have any brownies left over from last night, would you?”
“Sorry, Will.” I said, “I just gave the last one to a gal who didn't get one at the dinner table last night. I baked ginger crack cookies this morning. Would you like one?”
“Are those molasses cookies?” Will asked, stretching his neck to peer over the top of the tray. I told him ginger cracks and molasses cookies were pretty much the same thing. “Well a rose by any other name is still a rose.” He said, chuckling. “Molasses cookies are my favorite.” He added, tapping the napkin next to his plate.
“Speaking of flowers,” Will said, “did you see all the dandelions in bloom this morning? They sure are pretty. I went out and gathered some for a couple of the folks who don’t get out much so they could enjoy them too.”
My heart was full. “Will,” I asked, “do you happen to have room for a second cookie?”
“I sure do.” He said, pushing the first cookie over to make room for another.
I gave Will and Ruth, and John and his wife, each a second cookie. Then announced to everyone in the room, “I have extras, would anyone like a second cookie?” Hands went up all around the room. As I handed out the extra cookies, I noticed almost all of the tables had a small juice glass with dandelions in water.
When I got back to the kitchen, I asked two of the resident assistants if they would like a cookie. “Sure!” They said, smiling as they took one from the tray.
“Take two if you’d like.” I said, adding “Come back after I get the kitchen cleaned up and I’ll give you a few in a baggie to take home to your kids.”
“What’s the special occasion?” They wondered.
“You know,” I explained, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.”
A friend of mine posts a daily series on his Facebook page, he calls “From my heart and home.” Dan is a very accomplished pianist and composer. Last Friday, on day one hundred thirty, he offered his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. “…today, my heart is full.” Dan wrote, saying he finds great solace and inspiration in that song. I do as well, so I gave it a listen.
While listening, I watched the video with Dan’s fingers so gracefully dancing and floating over the keys. He makes it look so easy. I thought about an old episode of the television show MASH, titled Morale Victory. Major Charles Winchester, had operated on a patient whose leg was badly injured. Being the top-notch surgeon that his character was, Winchester boasted to Private Sheridan, that he had skillfully saved his leg.
Looking at his bandaged right hand, Sheridan asked what happened. The doctor explained there was nerve damage and the patient would have partial loss of dexterity in three of his fingers. The private wept. Winchester, expecting praise and gratuity, didn’t understand. “Your hand will look perfectly normal,” he said, “but I saved your leg!”
Private Sheridan cried, “I don’t care about my leg. My hands are my life. I’m a concert pianist.” That was a powerful scene.
Winchester tried to convince the younger man, who was feeling hopeless, not to abandon his talent. “There are other ways to share your gift.” Charles brought sheet music for the left hand only written for Paul Wittgenstein. (a real concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI and upon whom Sheridan’s character was inspired.) Winchester pleaded with the musician, “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “I can play the notes, but I cannot make music. The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” I thought about those words as I watched Dan’s video. Many people can play the notes, but… Responding to Dan’s touch, the piano became alive; together they made beautiful music.
I was in high school when I first came to know about Dan. Although he was several class years ahead of me, we had the same vocal music teacher; Merlin Schneider – a legend.
Mr. Schneider was teaching Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the sophomore choir. The tenors, of which I was one, were struggling with the line, “and He shall reign forever and ever.” The word He, hits a high A. That’s a pretty high note for a bunch of boys whose voices had recently changed.
The tenor section practiced the line over and over. Each time we sounded more like cars pulling into a service garage with bad brakes. Really screechy, bad brakes. Mr. Schneider stopped and went to his record player. One of those vintage players that looked like a suitcase when the top was closed.
He opened the lid, carefully removed a black vinyl album from the sleeve and placed it on the platter. He moved the tone arm over, setting the needle on the record. It was the Hallelujah Chorus. When it came to the part that we were having so much difficulty with, the tenors sang smoothly and with ease: “And HE shall reign for ever and ever.” Mr. Schneider moved the needle back and played the part several more times. “That is what it sounds like when you do it right. Now let’s do it again - this time with confidence, men.”
Mr. Schneider told us the album was recorded by the Ottumwa High School, Class of 1971. Dan Knight was one of the tenors in the choir. I was impressed. He hit that high A like it was a simple mid-range note.
After school, I went to the radio station and looked through the Christmas records. Sure enough, we had a copy of the album. I asked Dad if I could take the record home to practice. He said that would be fine, so long as I didn’t forget where it came from.
At home, I played the song over and over again, singing along, convincing myself, if that Dan Knight guy could hit that A – so can I. I remembered Mr. Schneider’s instructions: “Don’t pinch your throat. Push from the diaphragm. Let it roll out naturally.”
It was time for the last number in the Christmas concert. The juniors and seniors were still on the risers onstage. The sophomore choir was seated in the first few rows of the auditorium. We all stood up in perfect unison; Mr. Schneider would have it no other way. (We actually practiced standing and sitting.) The strings ensemble began playing the introduction. The entire audience stood up and together we all sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we came to the line, I hit it perfectly and with confidence: “and HE shall reign for ever and ever.” When the song ended, the audience applauded. While some of the tenors still had “brake trouble,” I smiled and silently thanked Dan for his hours of rehearsing with me until I was able to hit that note smoothly.
I restarted Dan’s video, listening again as he played his rendition of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Taken by the sense of emotion expressed through his music, I drifted off in thought, remembering the first time I had met Dan Knight in person. It was nearly thirty years after I had first learned of him through a common high school music teacher. Through generous donations, the new Bridgeview Center in Ottumwa was able to purchase a very beautiful, brand new Steinway & Sons Concert Grand Piano. Among an impressive list of other notable organizations, Dan is a performing artist and composer for Steinway & Sons. He was coming home to perform on the new piano for his hometown.
A man of distinguished appearance, Dan was easy to pick out in the crowd. I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with him. I’ll admit to being a bit starstruck, but was also taken by his humility; how easy it was to speak with him. It was like talking to any ordinary kid from a small town – but Dan went on to make it big.
I wanted to tell him of the positive influence he had on me and how he had helped me, an awkward high school sophomore, gain confidence in my singing and learn the Hallelujah Chorus. I wanted to tell him a lot of things, but we only had a few moments. This was a homecoming of sorts and other folks were waiting to talk to him as well. It was really good to finally meet him.
I had listened to several of Dan’s prior performances in his series. For some reason the Leonard Cohen piece really captivated me, reaching my soul. After listening for a third time, I wanted to hear more. I scrolled back through his wall to the previous post, but it wasn’t a musical performance - it was a story he had written. I read it, then read it again. It now made sense to me what Dan meant in this post, “…today, my heart is full.”
I won’t attempt to paraphrase his writing. A story of unfortunate happenings and circumstances I never knew of. So, with his blessing, here is Dan Knight’s story.
I was riding a motorcycle on the south side of Ottumwa, Iowa on that evening forty-nine years ago, when I was hit by a drunk driver. That accident changed the course of my life forever.
I had a full-ride scholarship to Drake University, as an applied voice/opera major.
I lost my voice. The voice that remained after two years of hospitalizations was not the voice I once had.
I lost my scholarship, and most of the ability to earn another one.
I nearly lost my life. I had blood clots in my lungs that were so large that they could be seen on x-rays. I had pericarditis, and pleural effusions, and sepsis that nearly killed me.
But I continued. And the piano, eventually, became my voice.
So July 24 is a date that marks my death, in a way -- it was the death of the person I was, and of the career I had hoped to have.
And it marked the rebirth of the new me: the person who pulled himself up off the street after his right leg had been smashed, and stood. The person who taught himself to walk again, after ten months in a cast. The person who lost his golden voice, but sang again anyway. The person who made the piano his career.
And so we continue, all of us. We are broken, all of us, and damaged, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But still we continue, with the understanding that on some days, just managing a smile is an achievement.
I cheer for us, all of us, who, in our own ways, somehow find the courage to continue, day after day, with love, and hope, and conviction, and courage, and purpose.” Dan Knight.
Wow. I had no idea. His words; his story, choked me up. I suddenly realized the man I thought I knew – well, there’s much more to know. Read again his last two paragraphs. There’s a message, which most of us – probably all of us, need to hear today.
I don’t know why listening to his performance of Hallelujah and the expression in his music, reminded me of that MASH episode. This was before reading the story he posted earlier that day. Dan’s accident happened almost nine years before the television show aired and that episode was inspired by a true story from more than sixty-five years prior. The similarities and happenstance were most uncanny.
Major Winchester told Private Sheridan: “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” Charles went on, “You can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.”
Dan found a new way; a new voice, “…the piano, eventually, became my voice.” When I heard his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah, I came to understand, Dan’s voice is as loud, clear and expressive as ever. May your gift of music, your voice, sing to us, my friend, for many years to come. Peace, always.
Here is a link to Dan’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” if you would like to listen.
I like Scamp campers. A lot. I’ve had somewhere around forty-two of them over the years, and often own more than one at a time. Currently, I have one 13’, two 16’ and one 19’ models. Please don’t judge me.
Some women have lots of shoes. They need certain footwear for different occasions and outfits, just like I need different Scamps for different settings. My wife says I need an intervention, but I feel I am getting better. At the beginning of last year, I had seven Scamps. Besides, we have five acres of land and the trailers are on the back side of the property, out of sight – out of mind, where they aren’t hurting anyone.
Last week I went out back to pull our 19’ fifth-wheel Scamp to the driveway. I want to get it cleaned up to either use, or sell. Now, I fancy myself pretty good at backing up to connect the trailers. I put the camper hitch directly over the ball. BAM, perfect, first time. I left the truck running. The crank handle was already in place so I began rapidly turning it clockwise, lowering the trailer onto the hitch. This requires about 100 turns. A robin in a nearby tree was sure noisy, giving me a piece of her mind.
I ignored her and got down on my hands and knees, pulling the pins to lift and stow the camper legs into their towing position. While I secured the second leg, the truck died. “That’s weird.” I said. I went back to the cab and restarted the engine. It ran for just a few seconds before the check engine light came on and the motor died again. Hmm. I had plenty of gas. I tried a few more times. It turned over but wouldn’t start.
I got out of the cab and returned to the camper. The robin kept squawking, occasionally charging toward me, then fluttering back to her perch high above. “Leave me alone, lady! I’m not having a real good day here and I don’t need any of your lip!” I fired back at her before getting on my hands and knees to lower the legs again. I secured the footpads in their down position, then got up to crank the handle, to lift the camper off the truck.
Chattering away, the robin charged at me again, getting even closer as soon as I started turning the handle. I think she meant business! “Look you red-breasted baboon, leave me alone!” I said.
She answered me. “I’m not a baboon. Baboons can’t fly and birds don’t have lips, genius. But if you don’t get away from my babies, I swear I’ll peck your eyes out, mister!”
“Babies? What babies” I looked under the bunkhouse of the Scamp and sure enough the robin had built her nest under there between the vertical frame and the front wall. A robin’s nest is not very large to begin with and crammed into this one, were four young birds, squeezed in tightly.
They sat, hunkered down low in the nest. Their mouths closed; their little black eyes wide open. They were very attentive but didn’t make a peep, in case I was a predator. Each had their beak pointing upward. I suppose prepared in case they needed to peck at me, or maybe waiting to see if Mom was coming back with a juicy worm or some tasty bugs. “Okay, lady. Just let me lift the weight of the camper off my truck, then I will go away.”
There is a system of square tubing that spans across the front of the trailer, connecting the two jack legs. With each slow turn of the handle, the nest would lift about three-quarters of an inch then settle back down. I only can imagine when I was raising the jacks, turning the handle very rapidly about 100 rotations, (unaware the nest was there) these poor chicks probably thought an earthquake was happening!
Mama robin was still giving me a really harsh verbal lashing. I stopped cranking – even slowly. “You know,” I said to her, “your kids look like they are very close to leaving the nest. I think the truck can handle the weight for a few more days. But I am going to get a couple photos before I go.”
I got my pictures, then tried again to see if the engine would start. Plenty of battery, but no spark. I locked the doors and started to hike back to the house.
Along the way I ran into my neighbor. I told him about the baby birds and the truck not starting. Being a very mechanical person, he asked, “What do you think is wrong with the truck?”
“Well,” I said rubbing my chin, assessing the situation. “either that mother robin tampered with my motor, or it’s just God’s way of saying, ‘Leave them be. Let the truck stay there until the birds move on.’”
“Do you really think so?” He asked.
“Yep.” I said with certainty, “I’ll bet you a buck the truck starts right up once the birds have flown the nest.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I walked home.
A couple days later, I went back to the truck. The birds were still sitting in the nest and the engine wouldn’t start. While walking back to the house, I called Triple A to see if my roadside assistance would cover towing the vehicle to Duluth, almost seventy miles away. The lady said it would and asked if I wanted her to get a tow truck on the way. “No, not yet.” I said, “I have to wait until the birds have flown the coop.” She didn’t understand, so I filled her in with the details. “I’ve got a strong hunch the truck is going to start once the birds are gone. But I’ll call you back in a few days if I need you.”
About three days later, I went back again. My neighbors were standing out by their garage, “The baby birds were all gone when we looked in on them this morning.” They informed me, then asked, “Do you really think your truck is going to start?”
“Yep.” I said, and walked on.
I sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key. The motor started right up. I repositioned the Scamp on our lot, then disconnected the trailer from the hitch.” The neighbors were still standing by their garage when I drove past, going to my house without the Scamp.
“Did the birds steal your camper?” We shared a good laugh about that.
“No,” I said explaining, “but the check engine light is still on, so I left the Scamp there. I’ll take the truck into Duluth to get the engine checked, then come back for trailer.
I called Triple A to let them know they could close out the service ticket which was still active. The lady read the notes in my file. “You had birds in your truck and they disabled it?” We shared a good laugh about that.
“I was carjacked by a family of robins” I said, “They took my truck and camper for several days before giving it back.” The operator laughed. “We live in a pretty rough neighborhood.” I explained, “I guess you could call it a Robin’s Hood.”
It was around ten in the evening. I stood on the front porch looking toward the northwest. In the distance I could hear thunder rumbling. I watched the black skies. With each flash of lightning, the overcast of clouds lighted, turning to a greyish-purple color. The wind kicked up substantially, coming sporadically from different directions. The temperature dropped rapidly and large raindrops started to fall, making a plunking noise as they hit the wooden steps. The thunderstorm the weatherman promised, was arriving. I went inside and started closing windows until I could determine from which direction the rain would come.
I tiptoed quietly into the dark guest bedroom where my two granddaughters were fast asleep – or so I thought. After closing each of the windows about halfway, I silently moved toward the door. “Papa, what are you doing?” came a soft, sleepy voice.
“I’m closing the windows a little.” I whispered, “It’s starting to rain and I don’t want water to get in.” I pulled the covers up over her shoulder and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Evelyn.”
“I love you too, Papa.” She whispered back. “Papa can you stay in here with me?” Those words would melt any man’s heart.
“I can for a little bit.” I replied, still whispering so as not to wake her sister. “Are you okay?”
From the other side of the bed came a not so sleepy voice, “Papa, Ev doesn’t like the lightning and thunder.” Addison explained, “It scares her.” I assured them both, they were safe inside the house and that I would be in the living room if they needed me.
As I walked down the hallway lightning illuminated all the rooms through the windows; a very loud crash of thunder seemed to shake the whole house. I heard Ev start crying in the dark bedroom. I went back and laid on the bed next to her. “Would it be okay if I stayed in here with you for a while longer?” Stretching my arm across the pillow, Ev curled up with her head on my shoulder and nodded, yes. “Addie, are you okay with the thunder?”
“Not really,” she said, “I don’t like it.” I reached my arm a little further laying my hand on her shoulder, asking if that made it better. “Yes.” She said, scooching toward Ev and me. She let out a sigh of contentment and drifted off to sleep. Funny; I went in to comfort the girls and somehow, laying there with them, they made me feel safer in the storm.
After a while, Sydney came into the room. She would stay with the girls so I could get on the treadmill for my evening walk.
I picked up my stride as rain continued to fall and thunder boomed. With the windows open, I enjoyed a cool breeze and the smell of fresh rain. It was very pleasant. I would normally be looking out a large picture window into the yard, but this night, the big window looked more like a black TV screen. When the lightning would flash, the whole yard lit up like daytime, then, just as quickly returned to darkness. I love walking in the dark on nights like this, it’s a good setting for me to think and reflect; taking time to consider what is really most important in life.
I thought about our day; the Fourth of July. It was 90 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun was hot, the air was humid and there was not the slightest breeze along the Northshore. Melissa and I took Sydney and our two granddaughters down to Grandpa Ken’s Beach on Lake Superior. The water is always cold, but today it felt good.
The beach was busy with sunbathers and swimmers. Paddle boards and kayaks glided over the calm waters. Dogs joined in the fun, charging into the lake to retrieve sticks and balls and such, then dog paddling back in to shore. The spot we wanted was already taken by another group, which was no problem. There is plenty of shoreline for everyone. We walked down a little further.
We all waded into the lake. My wife and daughter stayed with Evelyn, close to the shore. Addison and I went out beyond what I call the safe rocks, out to the slippery rocks; the slippery rocks are larger and tend to stay put when the waves kick up, thus building up slime. The safe rocks are smaller and roll in and out with the waves. As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Addison cleaned the top of a rock by moving her foot back and forth over the surface, removing the slime. She stood on the rock while I stood in front of her in my own sure-footed spot. We counted to three then she sprang up as high as she could. With my hands on her waist, I continued to lift her over my head, much like a talented figure skater would lift his partner high into the air, performing a platter lift. With a little more practice, we might be Olympic contenders, but for now we were just a little girl and her Papa having a good time in the largest fresh water lake in the world.
The people up the way headed out so we moved to the spot we first wanted where there’s a very large, flat rock formation. Between the rock and the shore, is a real nice place for little kids to play and splash in the water. Most of the rock’s edges taper off into the lake but the western end is more like a small ledge, dropping straight into the lake. Addison, would come to that end to jump into the water. The ledge is less than thirty inches high and the water about sixteen inches deep with a nice area to land. Pretty small for an adult, but when you’re six years old? What a thrill.
Evelyn, wasn’t so sure about this jumping in business. At three-years-old, that twelve inches down to the water seemed like a really big fall. She wanted Papa to help. Ev would hold onto my hands and swing forward down into the water, like a teenager swinging out into the swimming hole on a rope tied to a tree branch above. I did get her to jump in on her own once while I was standing there, but she didn’t like it much so I didn’t push her to do it again. She eventually did jump off with her older sister and her mom.
The three of them stood at the edge, holding hands, pondering the challenge before them. It was like they were on the edge of a jagged cliff looking at a raging river, one hundred feet below in the canyon. Collectively, they mustered up their courage. “On the count of three!” Sydney called out, “One. Two. Three! Ahhhhh!!”
They all jumped together, plunging into the icy waters below. Laughing with excitement, Evelyn started climbing back up the rock, “Come on Mom, let’s do it again! Let’s do it again!” Her sister and her mom were right behind her. We jumped and played and splashed together until the sun and the waves had us all worn out. We gathered our things to head for home. As we were leaving, I took a look down the beach. There were a lot more people now than when we got there. I smiled. We were having so much fun swimming and rock hunting, we didn’t even notice them come in. It was a day that provided memories to last a lifetime.
I increased the speed on the treadmill just a little and thought about the contrast between our day today on Grandpa Ken’s Beach, compared to the last time I was there about two weeks before.
I woke up around 4:30 on a Thursday morning. Like a prelude, the soon to be rising sun turned the horizon bright magenta behind the tops of the pine trees. I decided to stay up for the main show. I put on a pot of coffee then went to the bedroom to ask my sleeping wife if she wanted to go watch the sunrise. “Uuh nuh da blah duh muh.” She mumbled then rolled over, adjusting her pillow. (translation: “I need to sleep some more.”) A morning alone with the sunrise would be good for me, giving me a beautiful time for meditation and prayer.
I filled my thermos and made way for the front door where my dog June, was waiting for me. “June Bug, I’m going alone this morning.” I told her. I gave her a good rub on the head, “I’ll be back in about an hour.” I hurried to the van and drove to Grandpa Ken’s Beach.
There are two vertical posts with an upper and lower chain draped between them to keep cars out. A spider had woven her web diagonally from the post down to the chain. Dew that collected on the web overnight, glistened in the morning light. An unsuspecting insect that flew into the trap was bound in silky webbing. The spider sat on the edge of the web near the post, keeping watch on her prey. “Nice catch, Charlotte.” I congratulated her, “That bug will make a nice meal for you.”
Dew collected on my toes, making my sneakers wet as I walked down the path through the open, grassy field. I felt like someone was with me. I turned around looking for June; did she sneak out the door and come with me? No. She wasn’t there. The presence was very strong. I turned again, “Charlotte?” I called out softly. “I’m losing my mind. A spider did not follow me down the trail.” I looked all around me and into the edge of trees. I couldn’t see anyone but there was definitely someone there; not in the woods watching me from a distance, but very close – like right next to me.
The presence was not threatening, but gentle, loving and nurturing. Being one who believes in angels, I pressed on. “Fine,” I said, “If you’re going to follow me, keep up. I don’t want to miss the sunrise.” I walked quickly toward the lake. On the beach, I picked a spot to sit and drink my coffee. I gave thanks to the One who created all this beauty before me.
Off the very peak of a peninsula to the east, the sun broke over the horizon. She cast her beams into low wisps of clouds, turning them amazing shades of yellow and orange. Silhouettes of three small pine trees on a rocky island, seemed to face the sun; anticipating her arrival and welcoming her as the new day began. The sound of gentle waves touching the shore was mesmerizing.
Consumed by serenity, I felt completely weightless. I had no worries; no problems. Just the gift of a glorious new day filled with hope and promise…and the presence of someone beside me, although I had no idea who this friendly spirit was.
As the sun rose higher into the sky, I picked up my thermos and started walking back to the van. I looked up and down the shoreline, and again, into the woods. There was no one there, but the spirit was still with me. Walking back through the open grassy field, I looked toward the memorial marker that had been placed for Grandpa Ken. At the base of the large grey stone there were three very colorful painted rocks. I must have overlooked them in my haste to get to the beach before sunrise.
I knelt down to have a look. The first stone had a purplish cloud with a white edge – a silver lining if you will. The name Melina, was written between two red hearts. On the back it read, “Thank you for loving me from heaven…and I love you. XO Melina.”
The next rock had a turquoise background with a colorful rainbow pattern that had three pink hearts on top. Vertical lines looked like a forest under the rainbow and the name Asher, was written in big pink letter. Below, in smaller green letters, were the initials, gpk. I assumed this to be Grandpa Ken. On the back it read, “Thank you for watching over us, love Asher. And for teaching my mommy so she can teach us.”
The third, and smallest rock, was perfectly round. It had what looked like two flowers on green stems. The word “Bing” was written in pink letters with a red and white heart to dot the i. I thought to myself. maybe those aren’t flowers; they’re Bing cherries. I turned the rock over and read the back: “Love you grandma Bing! XOXO Lisa Rose.”
Still on my knees in the wet grass in front of the marker, I smiled. “So that’s who you are.” I said to the angel. She stood behind me, looking over my shoulder as I gently placed each rock back exactly as I had found them. I stood up and thought about the three pine trees on the rocky island out in the lake, facing the rising sun to the east. “You have three beautiful granddaughters who sure love you a lot, Grandma Bing.”
I stood up and looked out to the lake. The sun was shining brightly. Even with cold, wet feet and knees, I suddenly felt very warm and content; completely at peace, but it wasn’t the sun that was warming me. I felt like I was being squeezed – in a good way. Grandma Bing was giving me a big hug. “Thank you for coming and having coffee with me this morning.” She said, “If you should see those three granddaughters of mine, you tell them I love them and I am watching over them. I will always be watching over them.” The squeeze lightened as she said, “I have to go now. Thank you again for coming by.” The breeze picked up lightly from the north, blowing toward the water. I could feel her departing; returning to the beach by the big lake.
I slowed the pace as I was finishing my walk on the treadmill. I recalled that morning on the beach with my new found spiritual friend. As well, I thought about all the fun Melissa and I had with our granddaughters on the beach that day; laughing, playing, splashing in the water, swimming and collecting rocks – we were making lifetime memories. I hope Nana Mac (Melissa) and I are creating as many good memories with our children and grandchildren as Grandma Bing did with hers.
It was just before eleven in the evening when I shut the treadmill off. During my walk, my mind was so full of thoughts and memories, I didn’t even notice the thunderstorm had ended. The angry clouds had moved out leaving thin wisps of clouds in the sky. The full moon was breaking through, rising above the silhouette of pine tree tops, lighting our yard brightly. The picture window again looked like a big screen TV playing the best show in town. I walked outside on the deck. A light breeze was blowing gently southward, toward the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
I have a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, with an extra lot adjacent to it. The property used to have a large, very deep ravine behind it, rendering most of the land unusable. Over a twenty-year span, we filled in the gorge and now have a house that sits on a rolling hillside, with a huge yard. I’ve owned it for many years, most of which it’s been a rental property - but I have lived there a couple times and some really good things happened while there.
We stayed there while Melissa and I were searching for just the right home to buy. We eventually found just the house we wanted, but we were still living in that rental house when we got a puppy and named her June. Since the day we met that cute little border collie-blue heeler mix, she has loved to play ball.
From the back porch, I could throw a tennis ball way out into the yard. Because the house sat much higher than the back of the lot, it appeared I was throwing the ball much farther than I am capable. It worked out well. I got to look like a pro athlete and June loved making those long runs to retrieve that ball.
One beautiful spring morning, Melissa stood in the kitchen window enjoying her coffee while overlooking the yard. The rising sun created beautiful colors and shadows across the lawn. “Come look,” she said softly, “Gus is in the back yard.” Having no idea who the heck Gus was, I joined her.
I didn’t see anybody in the back yard, but there was a very large groundhog sitting upright on his back feet, eating clover. He held the little round, white blooms in his front paws; his whiskers wiggled rapidly as he nibbled away the flower, stuffing it in his cheeks, then munched down the stem like people will do with spaghetti. The angle of the sun cast a long shadow from the marmot. “Look at the size of that groundhog!” I said, pointing him out to Melissa. She wrinkled her face and looked at me oddly.
“That’s Gus.” She said as if I should have known.
“Gus?” I repeated, “You named a groundhog Gus?”
“Yes. Gus.” She explained, “He’s out there every morning, so I named him.”
Doing the morning show at the radio station, I would leave the house (usually in a hurry) about four hours before Melissa had to be at work. In my haste, I’d never noticed a groundhog in the back yard. I did however, start noticing Gus in the yard when I drove by during the day and in the evenings, especially when I was mowing the lawn. It seemed he was always out there eating and he wasn’t bothered much by my lawn tractor.
Sometimes I would talk to him from the seat of my John Deere, “Hey Gus, if you’d eat more, I could mow less, but you are getting a bit portly there, big fella.” I’d laugh and keep riding by. Another time, I just couldn’t resist, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He shook his head, rolled his dark eyes and snatched another clover stalk.
One day Melissa and I were driving down the alley behind our house. Gus was in the yard eating as usual. “Gus is looking kind of thin,” I said with concern, “I wonder if he’s feeling okay?”
“That’s not Gus,” She said as if I should have known, “Gus is over there. That’s Millie.”
“Millie?” I repeated with a mischievous smile, “Gus has a lady friend? Atta boy, Gus, you da man!”
I drew a look of disapproval from my wife, “She’s not just a lady friend, she’s his better half. She is a proper lady and I’ll not have you speaking of her in that tone, thank you very much.” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
After moving into our new house, just a few blocks away, we would often go by the old house (once again a rental property) and we would see Gus and Millie. I also saw them every time I went to mow the big lawn. They would be out in the yard eating together; clover tops, daises and any other flowering weeds they came upon. Millie didn’t seem to mind the lawn tractor either. Gus must have told her the guy on the mower is safe; albeit a little annoying at times. They always seemed to watch out for one another.
One day while mowing, I passed Gus, “Hey Gus.” I called out in jest, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if…”
Millie stood up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt then interrupted me in mid-sentence, “Okay, give it a rest, lawn boy! We’ve heard that one a million times, alright?” We shared a good laugh about that, even though I knew I’d just been put in my place.
Gus and Millie never seemed to be very far apart. If they were spooked, they always ran away in the same direction. While Gus and Millie moved together in one direction, Melissa and I moved together in another.
Our long term plan was to relocate in Minnesota. We found our house on the north shore. Our youngest daughter would be heading off to college in the fall and I hired someone to mow the big lawn at the rental property. Things were falling into place nicely. The time was right for us to go.
At our new home in Minnesota, we have a lot more wildlife going through our yard. Deer and moose, bears, wolves, lynx, fox, martens and fishers. Of course, squirrels, rabbits, racoons and this one possessed chipmunk. We have all kinds of birds too, ravens and eagles, seagulls, hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and many more. But for all the wild things in our yard, we just don’t see many soulmates like Gus and Millie.
We did see a pair of pileated woodpeckers together in a tree, doing what I thought was a courting ritual – until someone explained they were both males. (how was I to know?) There’s also a lot of grouse courting that goes on in the springtime, under the apple tree. It’s easy to spot the male grouse. He’s the one that struts an awful lot like that swanky guy in a nightclub. I miss old Gus and Millie.
A couple weeks ago, I was back in Iowa. I drove down the alley behind our rental property, stopping to take a couple pictures of a large woodchuck in the yard behind the house. He was sitting on his hind legs, eating dandelions in our back yard. I smiled and wondered, “Could it be? Nah, it can’t be.” It has been almost six years since we moved away.
Less than a minute later, another woodchuck, a smaller one, lumbered across the alley, passing in front of my van. It kept going until it was within ten feet of the first, where she also started eating the bright yellow flowers tops of the dandelions.
Curious, I rolled down my window and called out softly, “Gus?” The bigger marmot stopped chewing for a moment and stared at me as if he knew me; he recognized my voice. I smiled, “Hey Gus, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” He rolled his big dark eyes and picked another dandelion. The other groundhog sat up on her hind legs, placing her paws on her hips. She gave me a stern look of contempt. I laughed, even though I knew I was about to be put in my place.
It’s a five-hundred-mile trip from our home on the Northshore of Lake Superior to the airport in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s an airport I am very familiar with after flying in and out of there for decades; both as a child with my Dad and as a pilot myself in my adult years. This would be a bittersweet trip.
You see, my very dear friend, Steve Black, and his family, had operated Ottumwa Flying Service at the airport for over 32 years. As a private pilot, I kept my airplane there and I also flew commercially as a charter pilot for OFS. Steve had recently passed away and today we were gathering there to celebrate his life. Of course, there would be tears, but many more moments of joy would be shared in remembering some really good times and seeing old friends.
Melissa and I moved to the Northshore in 2014, but I always made it back to Ottumwa on the third Sunday of June. For over twenty years, it became a tradition that Ottumwa Flying Service would offer airplane rides to the public on Father’s Day - and we flew a lot of them! One year we took almost seven hundred people up for rides in one day!
I wondered if I was stealing Father’s Day from my kids by flying all day, but they insisted it was my day to do what I wanted to do. My last flight of the day each year was reserved for my girls. We took a flight together, catching the setting sun, then went out to dinner.
Flying on Father's Day was special for me. Each year I met some new people, got to see some old friends, and most of all, enjoyed sharing the gift of flight with a lot of people. There is a great thrill that comes with taking a person up in an airplane for their first time as well as some people who hadn’t flown for many years.
I particularly enjoyed taking up older pilots who no longer met the physical and health requirements to hold a pilot’s medical certificate but never lost their love of aviation. One gentleman would come out each year to fly with me. Shortly after takeoff, I would tell him to take the controls, “It’s your plane.” I would say.
“I can’t fly this. I don’t have a medical anymore.” He would say.
I would jest, “What makes you think I have one?” We always shared a good laugh about that. “Level off at two-thousand feet, then head over the town.” He would take the controls, adjust the throttle and set the trim.
“Can we go up to three-thousand?” He asked.
“It’s your plane.” I’d say, then mimic the air traffic controller, “Nine-six Charlie, climb and maintain three thousand.” He advanced the throttle and climbed, leveling off at exactly three thousand feet. It was like watching him fly for the first time again as he turned to the left then back to the right. The look on his face was priceless as the airplane responded gracefully to his gentle touch. I wanted to let him keep flying, but after a bit, I told him, “We need to head back to the airfield now.” He seemed a little sad when I said that, but nodded and turned the plane. I didn’t have to tell him which direction, he knew the way.
He entered the downwind leg parallel to the runway, lowered the landing gear and gave her ten degrees of flaps. He added more flaps on the base leg then turned onto final. I made the radio calls for him, “Cessna nine-eight-nine-six Charlie is turning final for three-one, Ottumwa.
He lined the aircraft up perfectly with the runway and descended to about eight hundred feet above the ground. “You probably better take it from here.” He said.
I put my hands back on the controls, “Okay, it’s my plane.” I said and brought the airplane in for the landing. I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of flying with him every year and so very many others like him. But those days of Father’s Day airplane rides were long gone.
This Father’s Day weekend we were gathered to celebrate the life of our good friend, Steve Black, sharing memories and recalling stories. There would be only one airplane ride given this time.
Rich Wilkening, a longtime friend and pilot, would take Steve’s wife, Felicia, and his son, Schuyler, up for a ride over the Ottumwa airport. Steve passionately loved this airport, devoting over half his lifetime to Ottumwa Flying Service. They carried Steve’s cremains with them. The crowd began migrating from inside the hangar to the ramp to observe the flight.
Steve’s mom is almost 87 years old. She worked in the office at the flying service for all 32 years that Steve was there. She fully knew and understood his passion and commitment. I walked up to her, seated in her wheelchair, “Donna, do you want to go outside to watch the flight?” She said that she did. “Well, please allow me to give you a ride.” I felt honored to push her chair toward the walk door.
I had an idea. I leaned over, “Donna, would you like to go up in the plane with Schuyler and Felicia?”
“I don’t think they’ll have room.” She said, sounding sad. I assured her there was an open seat. “Tommy, I don’t think I can even get up into the airplane anymore.” She wasn’t sure about all of this but I could tell the thought of going along had her attention.
I pushed her across the ramp toward the airplane. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll go over to the airplane. You can decide when we get there if you want to go. If not, I’ll bring you right back.” When we got to the airplane, Donna looked through the open door, inside the cabin. I could feel her yearning to go fly with her son one last time. “What do you think? Do you want to go?” She again said she couldn’t get up into the airplane. “If you want to go, I will get you in the airplane.” She was thinking about it – she was tempted.
“Do you really think you can lift me into that airplane alone?” She challenged, almost as if she didn’t want to impose, but I knew what this would mean to her.
“Rich is here, he’ll help me and if the two of us can’t get it done – have you seen the size of your grandson, Schuyler?” We shared a laugh about that.
Donna thought hard for a moment, then as determined as I’ve ever heard her say anything, she said, “By God, I’m going with them.”
My chest was swelling. I was grinning, “Can you give me a hand, Rich? Donna is going to ride with you.” His smile shot from one ear to the other.
The doorway of Cessna 170 isn’t very wide; certainly not three people wide, and because the airplane is a tail dragger, the cabin sits a little higher. With Rich on her left, and me on the right, we each put an arm under hers and a hand under each knee. We easily lifted her in a sitting position, setting her feet on the floor inside the plane then moved her through the passenger door. Schuyler was inside the airplane and helped her the rest of the way into the back seat.
Standing outside the plane, I buckled Donna in with the seat belt. Felicia got in on the other side. Donna is very at ease in an airplane. With a smile so big and genuine, her excitement was radiating. I choked up a bit. “Have a good flight.” I said, then Schuyler and Rich climbed in and closed the doors.
When Rich started the engine, the propeller blew a gusty wind our way. A full crowd looked on as he taxied away from us toward runway three-one. Soon the little blue and white airplane was rolling down the runway. The tail raised and they picked up speed, now riding on the two main wheels. The wings lifted them gently off the ground. Rich held it about ten feet above the pavement. The crowd of people all waved with arms reaching into the air as they flew past us, straight down the runway before climbing out at an easy, steady pace.
The plane faded, becoming just a dot against the blue sky with bright white clouds behind them. People (non-pilots) pointed upward, “Is that them?” “I think they’re over there.” “That’s them right there, isn’t it?”
Soon the airplane appeared in the distance off the approach end of runway three-one. I pointed that direction, “Here they come.” All heads turned left. Rich brought the airplane down close to the ground for a low-level fly by in front of the crowd. Again, all arms waved in the air as they passed.
Rich came back around in the pattern, landed the airplane and taxied up to the ramp. Several of us greeted the airplane. He shut off the motor, coasted in then kicked the tail around before stopping. Schuyler opened the passenger door and hopped out. I slide the seat forward and looked at Donna in the back seat. “How was the flight, Donna?”
“It was wonderful, Tommy,” she said with tears welled up in her eyes, “absolutely wonderful.”
To keep from crying myself, I reached in the airplane, unfastened her seat belt and said, “Put your arms around my neck.” She did and I put my left arm around her waist and my right arm under legs, lifting her out of the plane. “Getting you in the airplane was free,” I said, “but getting you back out is $100.”
“Put it on my bill.” She said. We shared a good laugh about that, then I shed a tear or two of my own.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I landed my airplane and taxied into Ottumwa Flying Service. After the line guys fueled my airplane, they would come into the office where Donna and I were sitting, shooting the breeze. Donna would push a few buttons on the calculator then tell me how much I owed for the AV-gas. “Put it on my bill.” I would say.
Later that night, while driving back home, I had visions of Maverick buzzing the tower at Miramar, in San Diego. At an incredibly high rate of speed in his Navy F-18 Hornet, he caused Air Boss Johnson, to spill coffee on his uniform inside the tower. There’s a substantial difference between a military jet passing at close range doing nearly 350 miles per hour and a Cessna 170 plugging along ten feet over the runway a quarter mile away, doing about 80 miles per hour.
Although the fly-by may have been a little less dramatic, knowing Donna, Felicia and Schuyler were onboard taking one last airplane ride with their son, husband, father - and my very close friend, made this one of the most memorable fly-bys and Father’s Day flights of all time.
Until we fly together again, blue skies, Steve.
“To fly west, my friend, is a flight we all must take for a final check.” (Author unknown)
It was close to noon. We were ready to leave Iowa and head back home to Minnesota. Since both of us were hungry, we decided to stop for a sandwich before we got on the road. I pulled in line. There were several cars ahead of us at the double-lane drive thru. A yellow horizontal sign stretched across each drive thru lane advising: Caution! 9’ Clearance! Melissa noted the warning. “Will we clear that?” she asked. She seems to always ask that when we’re going through a drive up because we have a taller than normal van.
I’ve explained this before, but told her again, “The van is one hundred inches tall; that’s eight feet, four inches plus the roof vent which is another four inches, making us eight feet, eight inches tall. We have four inches to spare...”
“Is the roof vent open?” I wasn’t sure if she was asking me, or telling me.
“…Unless the roof vent is open,” I said, explaining, “at which point, we’re about nine feet, three inches tall.” With several cars still ahead of me, I put the van in park, slid my seat back, then walked to the rear of the van to close the roof vent. I hurried back to the driver’s seat, pulled the seat forward, fastened my seat belt, put the van in drive and held my foot on the brake. I was pretty proud of myself: I felt about nine feet tall for avoiding an accident. As the line started to move forward, I told my wife, “It’s a good thing I thought of that.” Melissa rolled her eyes.
I opted for the outside lane which had less tight corners to maneuver in a large vehicle. To my left was a black and white Dodge Charger – a city police car. At this point I would normally get the cop’s attention and ask them if they wanted to race. But we were pretty close together and being in a substantially taller vehicle, all I could see was the roof and lights of the patrol car. We simultaneously pulled up to the speakers in our respective lanes. I must have ordered faster because I beat the squad car off the line. As I was rounding the corner to the left, headed for the pick-up window, I rolled my window down. Knowing there was a cop behind us, Melissa said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you should just leave them alone.”
Hanging my head partially out the driver’s window, I gave the peace officer the peace sign. They responded with a weak, quick wave. “Oh no.” I said, “I don’t know if I had my fingers spread far enough apart. I hope it didn’t look like I was waving just one finger at that cop…”
…thinking I was flipping them off…the squad car followed me…the officer said…
For the rest of this story, visit our web site at (insert your web address here)
Melissa reminded me of her suggestion to leave them alone. “I don’t want them thinking I was flipping them off.” I said and leaned considerably further out the window. I spread my two fingers wide and made sure they were totally perpendicular as I waved again to the officer. This time they responded with a much more vigorous wave and returned the peace sign.
I pulled forward to the window. The man repeated my order and told me what I owed. I gave him my card, then he handed my card back wrapped in a receipt along with a paper sack of food, two drinks and thanked us for our business. I paused at the window and he asked if I needed anything else. “Yes,” I said, “I do. There’s a cop right behind me. I want to pay for their order as well.”
Not sure if I was serious or not, the man leaned out the drive-up window, looked behind my van and asked, “You want to buy lunch for the policeman behind you?”
“Yes, I do.” I said, then handed him my card again.
He ran my card and handed it to me folded inside another receipt. “That’s pretty nice of you guys to pay for their order,” he said, “especially these days.”
I smiled and said, “Please tell them we appreciate the work they do.” I could hear a sincerity in the cashier’s comments and that made me feel pretty good.
As we pulled away from the drive-up window, my wife said, “That was a really cool thing to do, Tom. I’m glad you did that.” We turned right out of the parking lot. The street paralleled the drive-up lane at the restaurant. As we drove past, we heard a horn honking a couple of times. The officer’s hand was waving at us out their passenger window.
At the corner we stopped for the red light, then turned right onto the four-lane street. By the next traffic light, I noticed the cop car was behind us again. A couple blocks later, we turned left onto the four-lane highway – the squad car followed me. They stayed behind us for about a mile, until we stopped again for a red light.
The officer pulled up alongside me and lowered their passenger window; I lowered my window as well. She had to lean our way to be able to see up into my van. “Hey, I just wanted to thank you, again.” She said. “That was a real nice surprise.”
I smiled and told her, “We just wanted you to know, not everyone is against you.”
“Man, it sure seems like it these days.” She replied, shaking her head.
I smiled at her and said, “Just remember the silent majority. The majority of people still support you and appreciate the work you do. I know we certainly do.” She thanked us again. I told her, “You have a nice day and be safe out there.” The light turned green and we both pulled away. We drove along behind her for awhile and then she sped away.
As the distance between our vehicles became greater, I wondered if she had time to eat her lunch? Or, did her lunch break get cut short to respond to a call? Was she rushing off to help someone in trouble or danger? I said a little prayer for her, that she would be fair to all in her line of work and that God would protect her and keep her safe.
It might have been the simple gesture of paying for her lunch; not just as a cop, but as another human being. Or, maybe the words of assurance we offered and sharing our appreciation for the work she does. Whatever it was, it seemed like we made her day a little better and that made me feel really good. As a matter of fact, I felt at least ten feet tall. I took a bite of my sandwich and smiled, thinking, “It’s a good thing we already had our lunch, because being ten feet tall, there is no way I would fit under that nine-foot clearance – whether the roof vent was up or not.”
My daughter was driving, headed back to her house. I was just a passenger looking out the window. In the distance there were areas of dark gray vertical streaks running from some rather ugly clouds to the ground; heavy rain showers embedded in isolated thunderstorms.
A few sprinkles fell on and off, then a few big raindrops hit the windshield. There was a loud boom of thunder. The big raindrops stopped for just a moment then began to fall again. Sydney hit the wipers to clear the glass. Getting bigger and coming down faster, it was as if the rain made a sneak attack upon us and before we knew it, the rain was coming down very heavy. She turned the wipers on low, then high.
The rubber blades slapped back and forth across the windshield, sloshing water in every direction. The wipers couldn’t keep up. It was getting hard to see as if the windshield was steaming over. I ran my finger over a small area of the glass. There was no moisture; it was just rain on the outside. Cars were shooting wakes of water from their tires like boats moving across a lake. A truck going the opposite direction hit a big puddle sending a solid sheet of water our way, crashing into the windshield with a bang.
Every bit as quickly as the heavy rains came up, they stopped again. There were more gray streaks in the area indicating the storms weren’t done yet. The remaining drive home was calm. As we turned into the driveway, the winds were kicking up again. Claps of thunder echoed through the Iowa skies. Sydney pushed the button for the automatic garage door opener. As we waited for the door to lift, more sporadic large raindrops hit the windshield. What happened next, happened very quickly, although it felt like everything was moving in slow motion.
The large blue recycling container on wheels, filled to the brim, sat just outside the garage door, waiting to go to the curb that evening. The wind was lifting and slamming the lid. It looked like one of those yellow Pac-Man guys eating dots in a video game. The barrel started to teeter. I had visions of an inflatable toy with sand in the bottom, trying to keep the calm by reminding me, Weebles Wobble, but they don’t fall down. I hoped the receptacle would stay upright. Sydney frantically prayed out loud. “Oh, dear Jesus, no! No!” I was already unfastening my seat belt, thinking I could save the day, but before Jesus or I could get there, the wind toppled the big container.
Pizza boxes, cardboard and newspaper, milk jugs and various plastic containers, tin and aluminum cans burst from the can and spewed across the lawn.
I got out of the van to chase the blowing debris. I jumped and twitched as every large rain drop that hit me sent a cold chill all the way to my bones. Sydney pulled her van into the garage and quickly secured the next-door neighbor’s recycling bin. She called out, “Just leave it, Dad. We’ll get it later.”
The rain started pouring down. In a matter of seconds, I was completely soaked as if I had been submerged in water. I was determined to gather the mess before it stretched out all across the neighborhood. The rain quickly saturated the carboard and newspaper making them stick to the lawn and sidewalk, but the plastic and aluminum cans continued to travel. Other debris blew into the yard from an upset can a few doors to the west. I was grabbing items as quickly as I could when a very sickening feeling hit me.
Last week, my cell phone died after going through the washing machine. I had a brand-new phone that I had picked up earlier that day in my pocket – my water-drenched pocket. The rain was blowing six or seven feet into the open garage. I set the wet phone on the rooftop of the red and yellow Little Tikes plastic car. I ran back outside to finish cleaning up.
My granddaughter came running outside. With her arms outstretched, her head tilted back, laughing, she turned several times in the rain, then started picking up trash with me. Her mother called her to come back inside, but it was no use; her words fell on deaf ears. The already soaking wet child called out, “I’m helping you Papa.” Indeed, she was.
The rain was cold and it started to hurt as it hit my numb cheeks and bare neck. I turned my back to the rain and kept working. Each raindrop felt like it was stabbing me. Oh my gosh, dime size hail was pelting us. “Addison, go in the garage!” I told her.
“But I need to help you, Papa.”
This was no time to debate, “You need to get in the garage now!” I said with a firm voice. The hail was starting to sting more. She didn’t argue as she retreated to shelter. I picked up the last couple of items, putting them in the can and pushed the load downward. I closed the top and turned the container with the hinge toward the wind so the lid wouldn’t blow open again.
Addison and I stood in the garage shivering for a couple moments, watching the weather outside, then closed the overhead door. We went inside where Addison’s mother wrapped her in a towel and took care of her. I took a quick shower, changed into dry clothes and walked out onto the front porch. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining again. It was hot. The rain-soaked sidewalks, driveways and streets were already half dry. The air was so thick with humidity it was almost hard to breath. Steam rolled up from the green grass and sections of pavement.
With such calm, one would never guess a strong isolated thunderstorm had rolled through just minutes before. It came in, quickly released its fury and moved on. It was very short lived, lasting only minutes, but it seemed like everything moved in slow motion just before all hail broke loose.
People come from near and far to enjoy this magical place. The outdoor activities are numerous; the terrain, scenery and wildlife are spectacular. The north shore of Lake Superior is magnetic, drawing many. Some will choose to stay and call this place home. For others it’s a special destination; a place for people to relax, recreate and unwind. A few days here allows folks to decompress, then go back to daily life refreshed; it’s like getting a clean start. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came to visit to get some rest.
She brought her bicycle to ride the paved trails along the lakeshore. When she got back to our house, she left her bicycle outside, alongside the front porch steps. We live on a quiet dead-end road in the country with only four houses on it. Still, I questioned her. “Are you crazy? Leaving your bike out there unsecured?”
“It’s not like anyone is going to steal it out here.” She justified.
“Where do you think circus bears come from? And where do you think they get their bicycles to learn to ride?” I responded.
We had a pretty good laugh about that as I imagined a black bear coming out of the woods, straddling her bike and riding off into the city to join the circus.
All in all, we had a real good visit. Sydney returned home relaxed; able to take on the next week with a clean start.
A week later, my brother-in-law and nephew came to visit. Jeff and Andy brought their new mini-bikes. They had a blast riding around our property and on some of the trails in the area. With the recent rains, they found some of the terrain quite wet. They were gone for a couple hours, returning to the house wet and covered with mud. “We went through areas where the mud and water were halfway up to our knees. We had to push and drag the bikes through. We nearly got stuck several times.” Jeff said.
Father and son took turns out in the yard spraying each other down with the garden hose. Melissa found them standing on the front porch in their boxer shorts holding their dripping wet clothes. They had a great time together. They were able to unwind and made some lifetime memories riding those mini-bikes out in the Northwoods.
But not all time up here is devoted to R-and-R. There is work to be done.
Andy, Jeff and I fired up the chainsaws to trim some of the pine trees around our yard, removing the dead branches from the bases. When we were done, Andy hauled some of the brittle branches to the yard where we enjoyed a relaxing fire in the fire ring. When the fire died down, we retired to the house.
At the back door, Melissa put her foot down, “You’re not coming in here covered with sawdust and dirt, smelling like exhaust fumes and smoke.” (She does keep a clean house.) She brought us a laundry basket. I stripped down to my boxer shorts on the back deck, dropped my dirty clothes in the laundry basket, then headed in for the shower.
After the other boys changed out of their work clothes, Melissa put our clothes in the washer for us. About an hour later, she called me to the basement. “Where is your cell phone?”
Logically I deduced, “Since you’re standing in front of the washing machine asking about my cell phone, it would be my assumption it’s in the washer.”
“Yes,” she said while presenting me with a perfectly clean flip phone, “and this time it went through the full cycle. I hope it’s not ruined.” Numerous times, I have made a frantic dash to the basement to retrieve my phone from the washer after leaving it in my pants pocket. It’s been wet, but never went through the full wash process.
I took the phone, removed the battery and gave the device a sniff. “It smells really good. Did you use that new Tide with Downy fabric softener?” She was trying to be serious while I was making light of the situation. “It’s been submerged in water at least six or eight times. This phone owes me nothing. I’ll let it dry for a couple days and if it works – that’s great. If it doesn’t – well, I’ve been talking about getting a new phone anyway. This is not a crisis.”
Melissa looked at the deceased flip phone in my hand. With a glimmer of hope she smiled and suggested, “Maybe a smart phone?” I snarled with disapproval and took my dead soldier upstairs. Opening and closing the phone, I noted how much smoother the hinge was working after a good cleaning. I also started wondering, what important text messages and photos I would lose if my phone was indeed…well, you know…finished; done for; kaput!
Just a couple weeks before, Melissa and I took a drive to the end of the Gunflint Trail to celebrate her birthday with a picnic. Our dog June rode between us in the middle of the bench seat as we rolled up the trail in our vintage Ford truck with the Alaskan Camper in the back. “I hope we get to see some wildlife today.” Melissa said.
June stood up. After turning two full circles on the seat (for no apparent reason) she sat down again. It was her way of telling us, “I’m all the wildlife you need.” Just then June stood up again to join us looking out the windshield at a beautiful fox. Trotting down the shoulder of the road, the full, bushy fox tail remained still as she kept an eye on us. “That tail is too big for her body.” June said with a bit of canine tail envy.
A little farther up the road, we stopped to watch a moose standing in water off the west side of the road. She dipped her head in the water pulling up another mouthful of delicious green water plants, paying no attention to us as she munched away.
At the end of the trail, we climbed to the top of a rock overlooking the beautiful blue waters below. A pair of eagles flew about chattering to one another. They carried talons full of sticks, obviously building or repairing a nest in the area. Two ravens flew by several times. Dancing and playing, they put on quite an aerial display of aviator skills as they were being chased by smaller birds.
We heard the song of a loon calling in the distance. A few minutes later, the pair swam into the water before us. They would dive below the surface, probably fishing, while Melissa and I took guesses at where they would resurface. They surprised us every time.
After our picnic, we picked up our things and began the short hike back down to the truck; June took the lead. Suddenly lunging ahead at something, she flushed up two grouse; one flew away while the other took refuge, landing on a tree branch right in front of us. Safely perched high above the predator at the bottom of the hill below, I’m not sure the bird noticed she was on eye level, and within arm’s reach of two humans. Or, perhaps she sensed we meant no harm to her. She posed while Melissa took several photos of our feathered friend.
June waited for us at the base of the hill. When we caught up to her, she was keeping watch over a rodent laying on the ground. It looked like a vole and it had fresh punctures in both sides of its body, probably from the talons of a bird. I’m not sure June ever saw the two grouse; I think she was chasing whatever had caught the vole and scared it away, causing the bird to leave its lunch and escape the potential dangers posed by a charging canine.
The three of us got into the truck and started on our journey home. As we rounded the sharp s-curves of the Gunflint Trail, we came upon a mother bear with three cubs! We stopped the truck, staying back a bit. The sow kept a close watch on us while growling commands to her young. The cubs, heeding her warning, ran across the road to a tree then looked back to their mama to see if she wanted them to climb the tree. The mother bear sensed we were not a danger to her babies and the four meandered off into the woods. What a treat to see them!
Just after I commented that we hadn’t seen any deer yet, Melissa said, “Look at that!” pointing to a doe with a very large, very round belly, she said “She has to be carrying twins – or even triplets!” I must admit, it was the most pregnant doe I’d ever seen.
After taking in the serenity of the Northwoods on a beautiful spring day, we felt truly blessed to see so much wildlife in their natural habitat while driving up and down the Gunflint Trail. We both felt refreshed. We would go home to welcome the new week with a worry-free, clean start.
I wasn’t too concerned over losing images of that day that were on my phone. Only God and Verizon know how many years I’d had that old flip phone. “Oh well,” I conceded, “the flip phone doesn’t take very good photos anyway and Melissa got plenty of good shots.” The irony caused me to laugh; apparently not everything comes out in the wash and even if my phone was destroyed, at least it would be going out as clean as it started.
One spring day about three years ago, in the early evening, Melissa and I were driving through Leadville, Colorado and saw something so cool I had to turn around to go back to check it out. An old Chevy Apache sat on the corner of a repair shop’s parking lot. The sun-beaten original turquoise paint was worn through on the hood and top of the cab. I chuckled. “Patina; a fancy word for rust.” From my driver’s seat, I gazed through the window at the old girl.
Her weathered look and character made me wonder what stories this truck could tell. The big heavy brows over the headlights invited me to come take a closer look. I got out of my car and walked around this classic. In the back of the truck was an old pickup camper.
The camper paint was chalky and worn thin but I could easily read the metal emblem: The Alaskan Camper. It Raises – It Lowers. I peeked through the glass window in the back door. “This is so cool.” While admiring the rig I began dreaming of adventures my wife and I could have traveling in such a vessel, “Oh the fun we would have…” I saw a lady walking near the building. She looked our way and kept going. I approached her, “That is really a cool truck.” I said, “Is it for sale?” She told me it was only there for repairs. We talked about it for a bit.
I knew she couldn’t tell me who owned it, but offered my contact information, asking if she would forward it to them – I wanted to inquire about buying the truck. “I can give it to him,” she said, “but you won’t get a call.” I assumed he had lots of offers. “The kid just got it,” She explained, “His grandfather bought the truck and camper brand new in 1962 and just recently gave it to him.” I smiled. This truck was clearly not for sale. I kept looking at the Apache in my rearview mirror as we drove into Leadville to find some place to eat dinner.
A few months later, in the summer, we were headed for the west coast – Washington. Melissa found an advertisement for an Alaskan camper, just like the one we saw in Colorado. It was in Bellingham; an hour north of our destination. I called the lady and she agreed to hold the camper until we could get there.
We really liked the camper and were comfortable with the price, but we were almost two thousand miles from home. It wouldn’t be feasible to run home to get my truck and come back. I couldn’t very well strap the camper to the luggage rack on top of my Subaru either. I drove to another town and bought a small trailer, five-feet-wide by eight-feet-long. With the trailer in tow, I went back, finished our paperwork and lowered our Alaskan Camper onto the little trailer hitched to my Subaru wagon. We sure got a lot of looks on our way home.
In western Montana, I took an excursion off the interstate. I wanted to cut down through Darby, in the Bitterroot Valley, then up through Wisdom and Wise River, coming back to I-90 just outside Butte, Montana. It’s a gorgeous drive.
Somewhere along the route, I saw something so cool, I had to turn around to go back to check it out.
There on a dealer’s lot was an old truck. I stood looking at the 1966 three-quarter ton, GMC truck. A livestock rack made of white wooden boards was mounted on the bed sides. The palomino tan paint still had a respectable shine - the truck was in good shape. It was a very similar style as the Chevy Apache we saw in Colorado – and here I sat with a vintage Alaskan camper. Thinking it was a sign from above, I went inside and talked to the dealer.
“The truck is on consignment.” He told me, “It’s only got fifty-six thousand original miles on it.” I asked if the mileage was verified. “Sure is,” he said, “the man bought it brand new to take his cattle to market. It’s a one-owner truck. He’s 97 years old now, not ranching anymore and figured it was time to sell it.” Melissa and I went out to test drive the old truck.
“Where are the seatbelts?” She asked. 1966 trucks didn’t come with seatbelts – I don’t know if they were even an option yet. It was hot outside, so we had the windows open as we cruised down the highway. The wind was blowing her long hair all about. “It’s pretty loud.” She said. I explained it was a farm truck and was geared really low to work. The truck seemed to be hitting top speed around fifty miles-per-hour. At sixty, the engine was really wound up.
“I like it.” I said, “I think we should buy it.”
“I’m not traveling in a pink truck.” She replied. Pink has never been her favorite color. She even told me once, “I can’t wear pink clothes; pink burns my skin.” Hmm. We went inside and I told the dealer we would think about it and get back to him.
As we walked back to the Subaru, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the truck. “It’s not pink,” I insisted, “It’s palomino tan. A very popular color in the fifties and sixties.”
At the car, she lowered her eyebrows, looked at me and adamantly said, “It’s pink.”
We got in the car. I kept gazing at the truck on the far end of the car lot. “Palomino tan is not pink.” I pouted as I started backing up. I gave the truck one long last look almost as if to say goodbye while admiring it. Just then I began hearing a noise – much like crunching sheet metal. “CRAP!” I blurted out, “Trailer!”
I had jackknifed the trailer, hitting the side of my car. We got out quickly. I let out a big sigh of relief. The steel railing on the trailer protected the camper. “Oh my gosh,” Melissa said, “look at the car.” I didn’t really care about the car so long as the Alaskan didn’t get hurt. We got back into the car and turned onto the highway, headed east toward Wisdom, Montana. Oh, the irony; I felt so stupid. How much wisdom can there be in staring at a truck while backing up and jackknifing a trailer behind my car. We were on our way home with our new camper – and a new dent in the car. Every time I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the damaged fender, I felt more foolish.
On the way home, we decided not to stay at motels. Instead, we would pull into a rest area, raise the top and sleep in the camper…on the trailer…behind our car. I couldn’t wait to find a vintage truck to carry our Alaskan.
The camper sat on the trailer in our driveway for the rest of the year until we wrapped it with tarps and put it away for the long winter ahead. All through the winter months both Melissa and I kept watch on eBay, Craigslist, Marketplace, and any place else we might possibly find the right vintage truck for our camper. We even had friends looking for us. We brought the Alaskan out in the spring with high hopes of finding the truck. We kept looking through the summer. We didn’t find anything so in the late fall, we wrapped it up in tarps and put it away for another long winter ahead. It seemed like all the trucks we would consider for the camper were either way out of our price range or needed too much work.
One day I was quickly flipping through ads for old trucks when I saw something so cool, I had to scroll back to check it out. A real clean 1971 Ford F-250 Camper Special with only fifty-six thousand miles on it. “No way.” I thought to myself. “That’s the same mileage that old ‘66 GMC in Montana had on it.” The price was really low, so I placed a bid, knowing full well the truck would end up selling for way more than we could afford.
I showed the listing to my wife. “I really like that shade of green,” She said looking at the photos, “it’s a lot better than that pink truck you liked out in Montana.”
I gave her a scornful look, insisting, “It wasn’t pink, it was palomino tan.” I was trying not to get too excited about the Ford. Sure enough, a few days before the auction ended, I was outbid. As the auction got closer to ending, I reconsidered the value of the truck and raised my maximum bid. Just a few minutes before the auction’s end, I was outbid again.
I was struggling with my decision. I said that was the most I would pay for the truck, but from everything we had seen online, it really was a good deal. With twenty seconds left, I was going to raise my bid by three-hundred dollars. I hesitated…watching the clock tick down, ten, nine, eight…I told myself I shouldn’t do this. Seven, six, five…well, maybe I should – I don’t know. Four, three…I hit enter. The screen changed very quickly – You’re the high bidder, then, CONGRATULATIONS!
I drove to Cincinnati, Ohio and pulled the Ford home on a rented U-Haul auto transporter. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Green Ford Camper Special, following me home, I got a little grin on my face. I backed the truck down the ramps and off the trailer then d parked it in our driveway.
When enough snow had melted, I went out back to retrieve the little trailer with the Alaskan camper from storage. We set the camper in the truck bed. Man, she looked good and fit like a glove. Melissa cleaned the inside with Murphy’s Oil Soap, then rubbed down all the wood with lemon oil polish. The luster defined the grain in the birch wood. It radiated with an absolutely beautiful amber glow.
I hooked up the LP gas tank and checked all the cooktop burners – they worked just fine. After changing one light bulb, all the interior lights worked. The shades rolled up and down freely. Even the fifty-year-old refrigerator came on and got cold. We were really smitten with our little Alaskan sitting in its new vintage ride.
It was still cold outside, but we drove the truck to Grand Marais, Minnesota, picked up a pizza from Sven and Ole’s, then parked along the shoreline of Lake Superior. I raised the top on the Alaskan. The wind was strong and pushed hard against the sides, rocking the truck and camper.
Melissa and I sat inside, grinning like fools and enjoying our pizza. On the other side of the big windows the lake sent waves rolling and crashing into the shore. Finally! After more than two years, we had a vintage truck to carry our vintage Alaskan camper. Let the adventures begin.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!