While doing some decluttering, I came across several cookbooks I'd acquired along the way. I thumbed through them to see if I could find or remember which recipe enticed me to keep the book. I never did find such a recipe, but some of the cookbook covers were quite interesting. Maybe that's what captured my curiosity. I laughed, "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Although I hadn't made one for years, looking through the pages stirred a strong urge within me to bake a cake. More specifically, a chocolate cake - from scratch. None of the recipes in the books were appealing to me. I remembered Mom having an excellent recipe for chocolate cake. I looked through my cookbook but couldn't find it. Instead, I drifted off reminiscing good times in the kitchen cooking with Mom. My laptop chimed with a new message, snapping me back to the moment.
The message was from Sonja Larsen, a longtime, dear friend of Mom's – the text was almost supernatural, considering what I was doing when it came in.
While I was decluttering, Sonja was going through "stuff." While I was going through books looking for something Mom gave me, Sonja found a book Mom gave her over forty years ago. She wrote, "I would like you to have it. I think it gives a special glimpse into her heart and why she would have bought that book for me." I immediately replied with my address. Perhaps the book would have the recipe I was trying to find. I would have to wait and see, but I needed to find that recipe for now.
I was trying to decide if I should keep or toss the cookbooks, I looked at the covers. I started thinking about the book I'm working on; how important is the front cover? I mean, the stories inside will be the same no matter what cover I use. I had an idea how to find out – using chocolate cake. I would work my project over ten or twelve days to keep from overloading the house with more cake than we could possibly eat.
I would bake a square cake, a layered cake, and cupcakes using the same recipe. Each was dark chocolate, with dark chocolate frosting. (metaphorically, the same story with three different covers) I posted photos of the three together on several social media sites, asking readers which they preferred. Nearly 300 people responded and I was surprised by the results.
The layered cake was the number one choice with more votes than all others combined. The number two choice was "all of them." In a distant third place were cupcakes, while the square cake was the least favorite. A lot of people said anything chocolate was good. One lady replied, "I would eat dirt if it had chocolate frosting." The research was fun; I gained weight doing it and learned the book cover is essential.
On the day I was making the layered cake a large envelope from Sonja arrived in the mail. I put the round cake pans in the oven, then sat down to open the package.
Inside was a thin, hardback book. The cover was beige with a grey tweed stipe down the left side, wrapping around to the back. In the beige field, tall plants sprang up from the grass; some looked like dill, other like young ferns – which I absolutely love. The book's title blended in with the blades of grass: To Those Who See-- The title alone reminded me of Mom in the way she shared wisdom.
I thumbed through the book, starting in the middle. The pages were various colors and textures to compliment the beautiful artwork. Some were on thick paper, and some were thin as parchment. Some of the page edges were cut smooth while other pages had tattered, worn edges, creating a comfortable feel, or mood, for the book. The soothing words caused me to meditate, allowing my mind to drift off to places – all good. I was at ease, content – at peace. I poured a cup of coffee and sat down to read the book, front to back.
On the fourth page, I found the author; words and block prints by Gwen Frostic. Before I finished the book, I decided the second page was my favorite.
On the second page was a blue jay with his wings spread, gliding through the air. It also had a diagonal, hand-written inscription from my mother: December 6, 1979. Dear Sonja – Happy St. Nicholas Day ~ We have another nice memory with dear friends. Love Bev.
Just below was a second hand-written note: October 31, 2020. Dear Tom, I pass this on with all the memories I shared with your Mom. This book gives us a glimpse into her heart and why she would have bought it for me. Love Sonja.
Together, the two short notes told a story of their own. It was a tale of friendship, love, and caring. It spoke of laughter and tears shared. Most importantly, it was a story of memories between best friends. A story that lasted a lifetime and beyond. The story will continue as one day, I, too, will write in the book and pass it along to my daughter.
It's easy to fall prey to judging a book by its cover. Although the cover is essential, and tells a lot, I found the real beauty; the whole story, on the second page.
When a friend boasts, “I lost ten pounds,” I rub my belly and reply, “I’m pretty sure I found it.” That line always gets a good laugh. Over the holidays, I found way too many pounds that other people lost.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore, because the only one I ever kept was: quit making New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’ll choose a thing or two at the beginning of each year to give a concentrated effort to change. This year on the list: 1) Going to church (not just virtual) every Sunday. 2) Losing some of the weight that found me.
I decided to stop conveniently eating out; staying out of the drive-through lane at burger and taco joints is a good start toward achieving the latter. When I dine out, I want it to be more meaningful – not rushed. With busy lives, that’s not always easy to do.
I had a lot to do that Sunday, including a trip to the Twin Ports to run various errands. Staying focused on my concentrated efforts, I left my house at six in the morning to make the 7:30 a.m. mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior. I enjoy Father Ricci’s sermons; his messages apply easily to everyday life; and since Wisconsin allows indoor dining, I could go someplace to sit down for bacon and eggs with a short stack on the side.
After mass, I headed to a restaurant that serves breakfast on the east side of town. While driving on Belknap Street, I passed Julie’s Family Restaurant. I prefer to eat at a local establishment rather than a big corporate chain restaurant. I turned around and went back to Julie’s.
Inside, I chose a booth by a window. The couple across from me immediately caught my attention. The waitress came by with a menu, tableware rolled in a napkin, and a glass of water. “Good morning. Can I get you anything to drink while you look at the menu?”
“Yes, I’d like a cup of black coffee, please,” I replied, then tipping my head sideways, “and I’d like to get the ticket for the people in that booth.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “The older couple right behind me?” I nodded, yes. “No problem. I’ll have them both coming right up.” I couldn’t quit looking over at the couple.
When I finished eating, the waitress brought both tickets to me. Before going to the register, I approached the table of the couple. “Is this your first date together?”
“Oh, heavens no.” She replied, while he confirmed, “It’s our first date this week.” We all shared a good laugh about that. His answer sounded like something my dad would say.
“I hope I wasn’t staring at you two,” I said, then told the man, “You look a lot like my dad.”
His wife didn’t miss a beat. As if sticking a feather in her hat, she asked, “Is he a handsome man, too?” She and I had another good laugh; he just blushed.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was – where do you think I got these good looks?” After another laugh, I said, “I just stopped by to make sure you weren’t him,” then addressing her, “because you don’t look anything like my mom, and that wouldn’t be good if he were my dad.” We shared another good laugh before I headed for the register with both of our checks.
Outside, I glanced at the man one more time through the window. The waitress was standing by their table. He had a confused look on his face. I could almost read his lips, “He did what? Well, why did he do that?” I smiled and walked to my truck.
The following Sunday, I had a lot to do. I left the house at six in the morning. Father Ricci gave another great sermon, addressing the question, “What are you looking for?” After mass, I was looking for some more bacon and eggs. I headed to Julie’s for the encore – I even sat at the same booth. The same waitress came with a menu, tableware, and water glass. “Good morning. Can I get you anything to drink while you look at the menu?” I was hoping to find the same couple sitting across the aisle, but the section was empty except for me.
Some people came and sat in the booth behind me, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. I was busy studying the menu. Should I repeat last week’s order? “Ooh, what’s this?” I ordered the homemade hash browns, loaded with diced green pepper, onion, ham and smothered with cheese, “And can I get two eggs over easy on top?” The waitress nodded as she scribbled on her ticket pad.
Shortly after my food arrived, the waitress, along with an entourage, passed by with a plate of flaming breakfast – it might have been cherries jubilee flambe, I don’t know, I was too busy devouring my loaded hash browns. When the ladies started singing happy birthday, I came up for a breath of air and turned around to watch.
The wait staff was no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but they weren’t bad either. Most importantly, a little blonde three-year-old boy was grinning from ear to ear; his sparkling eyes were nearly as big as the silver dollar pancakes in front of him. His grandmother, who brought him to breakfast, was looking on, smiling just as wide.
Sitting on his knees, he was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the table. “Make a wish, Johnny.” He took a deep breath and blew hard, blowing out the candle and relocating some of the whipped cream from his flapjacks to the tabletop. What fun to watch, and did I mention his priceless smile?
When the waitress came around with the coffee pot, I asked if I could get the ticket for the table behind me. “It’s already gone,” she said, “the staff all chipped in to buy their breakfast.” How cool is that? She topped my cup, laid my ticket face down, and moved on to the next table. The little boy was soft-spoken, but I smiled when she said, “Oh no, Johnny. You can’t eat the candle. Candles aren’t edible.” I had to wonder, whoever came up with the idea of putting flaming wax sticks on top of food?
Before I left, I turned around to wish Johnny a happy birthday. The waitress was back, not with the coffee pot, but a big can of whipped-topping. She added another swirling burst to each cake. “Wow, we didn’t get extra whipped cream on our pancakes when I was a kid. You must be pretty special.” Johnny laughed.
Walking to the truck, I rubbed my full belly. “This is not staying focused on your concentrated efforts, Thomas.” But man, was it good. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I again questioned, “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?”
I ran my errands and drove home, reflecting on Father Ricci’s sermon. He started by saying, “I am fascinated to see people on fire…” I wondered if there was a connection; his reference to fire and the flames on Johnny’s candles. Of course, Father was speaking of someone’s passion for what they do, and Johnny was passionate about those flaming pancakes. I wanted to listen to his message again, but first, I wanted to quench that nagging question about birthday candles.
When I opened my tablet, I swear I heard a voice ask, “What are you looking for?” I typed into the search bar: the origin of birthday candles. As I looked at the myriad of results that popped up, I muttered, “I’ll bet Jesus never told anyone: Google it.”
"Hey old buddy, do you want to help me move a piano?" If you've ever volunteered or been conned into help move one, you're probably trying to forget the whole incident. Counseling and chiropractic care can help. Okay, I jest; it's really not that bad.
Selling or even giving away a piano isn't easy. It's not that people don't want them; they love pianos – they don't want to move them. They're big, heavy, and cumbersome.
I've always had a piano. When we moved to Minnesota, we found one we liked, and it was free, but we had to move it. We brought the antique upright home and placed it in our dining room. Recently my wife bought an antique buffet, which will sit where the piano is. Our piano had to go.
There were a lot of listings online for cheap and even free pianos. Some had been listed for up to twenty weeks, and more. Common to every advertisement was: you move it, you haul it, or bring your own helpers. I realized it might be more challenging than I thought to give away a piano.
My years of radio advertising and marketing experience came into play to be creative with my ad, making it stand out from the others. A lightbulb lit up over my head. I smiled and started typing. "The Best FREE Piano Offer Ever" was my title line. That would spark a reader's curiosity. I continued typing.
"There are a lot of free pianos available; what makes this offer better is I will help you move it to your home." I included some stipulations, "I can't move it alone; you'll have to provide helpers and possibly rental equipment."
People like pictures, so I posted several along with a video link of my wife playing. With the sheet music panel removed, the motion of the hammers was mesmerizing to watch. The relaxing melody and beautiful tone and sound of the piano made me question giving it away. "I better upload this ad before I change my mind," I said, clicking the post button.
Within five minutes, I received the first message. Someone wanted it delivered to southern Iowa. "Five hundred miles is too far away," I replied. I had a delivery range in the ad. Still, I thought of another potential issue that could arise and quickly edited the script to include a disclaimer: "Offer to help move the piano is dependent on where it's going. Third-floor apartments with narrow staircases aren't going to work."
I had several more inquiries and four solid offers from people who wanted the piano. Overwhelmed by the response, within three hours of posting, I marked the ad as pending. I committed to Natasha's offer, who has five daughters and wants them all to learn to play. They lived outside my delivery range, but I knew this was the right family for our piano and we began making arrangements.
I could put the piano in the back of my pickup, or her husband, Derek, could come to get it with his flatbed trailer. Either vehicle would require lifting and lowering the piano about thirty inches to the ground – that's a lot for something so heavy. They lived about sixty miles away; it would be better to transport the piano inside an enclosed trailer. Natasha said Derek would have no problems lifting, but they would have to arrange for more guys to help.
I suggested using a U-haul trailer that sits low to the ground. With only one step going into the house, Derek and I could move it alone. Natasha said they would gladly pay for the trailer and gas if I would do that. I told her we had a deal and I would be up the next afternoon.
The issue now was at my house. Out the front door, we have eight steps. Going through the basement and garage involves twelve stairs. The back deck has no steps but sits five feet in the air. Not a problem. I called my neighbor Steve, who has a Bobcat.
Steve carefully pushed his forks under the piano. The machine easily lifted the heavy object, lowering it from the deck. He moved it around the house to the driveway, where the two of us slid it into the trailer. (That's also how we got it in the house) With the piano secured, I drove to Ely.
Derek met me in the driveway to show me where the piano was going. A few inches of snow had fallen the day before and he had the gravel driveway cleared. What little snow remained would create a challenge for me, backing the trailer up the slight incline to the house. Trying to move slow, the tires on my two-wheel-drive van slipped. Without good traction, I had no control over the trailer. With my first attempt being unsuccessful, I pulled forward and tried again with a tad more speed. Finally, on the second (or fifth or sixth) attempt, I had the trailer positioned where I wanted it.
With relatively little effort, Derek and I moved the piano from the trailer onto a concrete slab. We lifted it over the one step into the porch and put a flat cart under it. Their girls watched with excitement and anticipation as we rolled their new piano into the house. When the work was done, Natasha offered me a cup of coffee and a cookie. I gladly accepted.
Having five children in this day and age is a big family. Having come from a very large family myself, I could relate and enjoyed watching them interact. Their girls were well behaved and polite. One asked, "Mom, may I have a cookie." Soon we were all enjoying homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The oldest daughter held the baby on her hip while mom made the coffee and served treats. That reminded me of growing up. The kids in my family all pitched in to take care of the little ones.
In our conversation, I learned they home school the girls. The family raises chickens and other livestock. They hunt to put meat in the freezer and grow their own vegetables in a garden. Not because they have to – they prefer to. They're teaching their children how to provide for themselves and others. I really admire that.
Derek said they used to raise many more birds each year, trading the excess with a neighbor - chickens for beef. Raising the birds, cleaning, preparing, and freezing them is a big job. "It's a lot easier to just buy the beef from my neighbor." I'll bet it is.
It reminded me of the old days. A time when neighbors would barter their goods and services; a doctor would accept a chicken, a pig, or whatever you had as payment. I think it would have been fun to have lived back then.
I loved their house. They'd been restoring and remodeling the old two-story structure themselves, making it their home. Derek and Natasha explained how they stripped layer after layer from the walls to expose the original cut logs. "Every time we peeled a layer away, it seemed there was another one under it." As they spoke, they remembered all the work and the mess. Their effort showed; the walls were impressive, and they were rightfully proud of their accomplishment.
Natasha handed me some cash for delivering the piano, but she gave me too much money. "I told you I'd be happy if you just covered the trailer rental," I said, keeping a twenty and handing the rest back to her.
She tried giving it back to me, reasoning, "But your time and the drive all the way up here…"
"The piano was advertised free. I can't take your money." The truth is, I was thrilled it was going to such an appreciative family where it would be well used and enjoyed.
"Okay," she insisted, "but you did say you would let us pay for your gas." I wasn't going to win this, so I humbly accepted another twenty for the fuel and thanked her.
While we were talking, one of the other girls came in the back door with a frozen bird. Her dad said, "Honey, that's a turkey. Can you go put that back and bring in one of the smaller birds? Those are the chickens." Without fuss, she said okay and went to exchange the bird.
I glanced at the time and was almost embarrassed for staying so long. I was infringing at supper time. Although I enjoyed our time together, I needed to head home, leaving the family to prepare their evening meal.
Their daughter returned with another frozen bird and handed it to Derek. He, in turn, offered it to me. "Would you like to take a chicken home with you?" Are you kidding? Of course, I would. I tried to refuse their cash, but heck yes, I would take a chicken!
Derek said something to Natasha, but I didn't make out what he said. She left for a moment then returned, handing me a sealed canning jar. "This is maple syrup we made by tapping our own trees." This was getting better all the time!
After saying our farewells, I took my chicken and maple syrup to the van. I sat the bird in the passenger seat, fastening the belt for safety. To protect the glass jar, I wrapped it inside a packing blanket from the piano. At the end of the driveway, I gave two toots on the horn as I pulled onto the road.
"The best FREE piano offer ever." I looked at my chicken, smiled, and told him, "I made out like a bandit, dude." I felt like I just sold the free piano for a million dollars. Not too shabby, considering I got free myself.
When I got home, I showed Melissa the chicken and the syrup and began telling her my story. She was well pleased with the generosity of the Brekke family. I put the bird in the refrigerator. In a couple of days, it would be thawed and ready to roast.
"I know I shouldn't show you this right now, but…" She pulled up a listing for an antique, mission style, Baldwin player piano. I looked at the pictures. It was beautiful.
"Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, is over one hundred fifty miles from here," I told her.
The ad read, "Free Piano – you haul it." I smiled at her. Pianos really aren't that difficult to move.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s has always seemed awkward for me. On the one hand, it's too many days to waste, but on the other hand, why start any new projects when we're headed right back into another holiday – and there's usually a weekend in there to boot.
Everyone's focus shifts toward the new year, reflecting on the last twelve months of good memories and events. 2020 is different. People talk about how bad it was, saying they wish to put it behind them and never look back.
While trying to find some good in 2020, I recalled a conversation with an elderly friend. We talked about getting caught up, trying to salvage a lost situation. He said, "You have to recognize when you can fix something and when it's time to let go and start over." I listened intensely to his words of wisdom as he continued, "You can't polish a turd." He said, then shaking his head, added, "Try as you may, you'll never get it to shine." I nearly died laughing. He smiled at my laughter, "You’ve never heard that?" I admitted I had not. "You've got a lot to learn, Tom."
I thought of his words and conceded, "Yep, that pretty much sums up the year 2020." It was time to move on.
Our girls were here for Christmas. They started a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas evening. One thousand pieces with an image that would be difficult to assemble. Delaney and Annie had to return home for work, but Sydney was able to stay the week. She and Melissa have been making slow but steady progress on the puzzle.
I heard them talking, accusing our dog, June, of eating a piece from the puzzle. Defending my trusty friend, I insisted, "You cannot convict the canine until you've completed the puzzle. As of now, you don't even know if any pieces are missing." They knew I was right; still, I got glaring looks and was informed June's breath smelled like puzzle pieces. "Circumstantial evidence won't hold up in court." I declared and hurried June off to the other room for her safety.
Speaking of pieces, Sydney had been searching a long time for a single piece that would complete the area on which she'd been working. "If I could just find this one piece..."
Hearing this, her seven-year-old daughter, Addison, approached the table. Glancing over hundreds of loose pieces, she picked one up and pressed it in place. "You can quit looking, Mom." She smiled and walked away, smugly. Addison was now an admired hero.
Speaking of heroes, I didn't really want to work on a puzzle. It had snowed overnight, leaving about six inches of fluffy stuff. Clearing the driveway would give me something else to do. I told my granddaughters, "I'm going to snow blow the driveway. Do you want to come with me?"
Dressed in frilly white ballet outfits with shiny tinsel and glitter, they informed me princesses do not shovel snow. "Princesses?" I challenged, "You look like snowflakes to me, and I'm going to pile all the snowflakes on the side of the driveway."
I went into my bedroom and put on my navy blue long johns and matching long sleeve thermal shirt. I pulled my white tube socks up over the legs about halfway to my knees to keep my long underwear from riding up when I put my pants on. When I picked up my jeans, I spotted something that gave me an idea; a light blue bath towel hanging on the towel bar. I laughed an evil laugh.
Today I intended to make snow blowing more fun than usual – even memorable. Over my socks, I put on my new dark blue knit slippers. I tucked the bath towel into my collar on the back of my shirt and wore my blue, white, and orange ski mask. With only an oval opening for my eyes and an extended neck, it looked like a helmet. I put on my camping head lantern and a pair of sunglasses. Oh, I also added blue latex gloves to cover the rest of my flesh, complimenting the goofy blue theme.
With my headlamp set on the flashing mode, I ran down the hall to the living room – my towel, I mean cape, waving behind me. The girls screamed and laughed. Melissa rolled her eyes. "Oh my gosh," Sydney exclaimed, "Who are you supposed to be?"
I turned my head slightly, lifting my chin with dignity. In my best French accent, I announced. "I am a north shore superhero. My name is Long John Jerry. (pronounced Lawn Jawn Jair-ee) I am here to pile all zee snowflakes on zee side of zee driveway!" The two little girls, dressed in white, screamed and ran. I began chasing the snowflakes around the house. "I am Long John Jerry! I shall pile you in zee snowbanks! Mwahaha!"
After a couple of laps around the living room, Addison pulled my towel away – I mean my cape. "You're not Long John Jerry – you're Papa." She laughed.
"Oh, no!" I declared, "Everyone knows a superhero is powerless without his cape." I quickly snatched the towel – I mean my cape, from her hands and retreated.
After clearing the drive, I drove into Silver Bay looking for a snowman or snowflake cookie cutter so the girls and I could bake and decorate cookies. There were none to be found. Before heading home, I thought I would check the Dilly Dally Shop – maybe they would have one. They didn't, but I found something even better.
The Dilly Shop had an old-fashioned Tupperware popsicle maker. It was complete with all six cups, handles, lids, and the tray with six slots to hold the popsicles upright while they're in the freezer. Everything was on sale – 75% off, so it only cost me 67 cents with tax!
Addison, Evelyn, and I filled the molds with pineapple/orange juice then added a little grenadine for color. We pushed the handles through the slots in the lids. "What are we making, Papa?" They asked.
After I snapped the lids on, the girls placed each container in the tray. I lifted Evelyn and she set the tray of unfrozen treats on the freezer's top shelf. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out," I said, setting her down and closing the door.
Early the next morning, something happened that hasn't happened for about twenty-five years. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came into my bedroom whispering, "Dad? Dad, wake up, it's…" I opened my eyes briefly then drifted off. It was still dark out. I wasn't yet coherent and mumbled something about waiting until the morning. "Dad, just come look at this." She pleaded with urgency, tapping on my arm.
I pulled myself from under the toasty covers, put on my slippers, then followed her down the dark hallway. I thought she would show me some deer or wolves in the bright moonlit yard, but she stopped at the thermostat. "It's freezing in here," she said, pointing to the temperature.
I squinted my eyes to see, "Sixty degrees is not freezing." I replied.
"But it's set at sixty-nine. I don't think the furnace is working." She was more concerned than I.
"The furnace is only five years old." I explained, "I want to sleep a few more hours; then I'll get up and look into it."
I checked the time and temperature; 6:34 a.m. and minus twelve degrees outside. "Twelve below?" That made me shiver; I was awake now. "Are the girls in your room?" I asked. She said they woke up cold and came to bed with her. "Okay, I'll look at it now. You go back to bed and keep them warm."
I checked the breaker and the fuse at the furnace. I made sure the filter was clean and had not been sucked into the fan. It all was good. I shut everything off to reset the unit. The lights came on, but not the furnace. Next, I put on my coat, hat, and boots; I went outside to check the air intake and exhaust with my flashlight. Both were clear. We had just filled the LP tank, but I trudged through the snow across the yard to check it anyway. It was full.
Back inside, I lit a burner on the stove to make sure gas was getting to the house. It was. I even changed the batteries in the thermostat; nothing. It was still before 7:00. I called the furnace repairman, leaving a message to get my name on his list, then started a fire in the woodstove.
I heated corn bags in the microwave for each of the girls and my wife. Putting my coat and boots back on, I went to get more firewood. Knowing my furnace was on the fritz and having no idea when the repairman would be able to get here made it seem even colder outside.
I knelt and grumbled as I set each log in the cradle of my arm. "Twelve below zero, a full tank of gas, and my new furnace isn't working. Screw you 2020." I stood up with a heavy armload and banged my head on an overhead beam. I cursed, rubbed my head, and started walking back to the house. "At least I cleared a path to the woodpile yesterday." I smiled, "Well, actually, Long John Jerry cleared the way."
In the house, I crawled back into bed and tried to snuggle up to my warm wife. She woke up, shocked. "Are you crazy?" she asked, shoving me away. "You're freezing!"
"Fine!" I said, grabbing my pillow. "Come on, June, we'll go sleep on the couch."
"I don't think so, Dad. I'm not cuddling up with your frozen bones." June said, curled up in her warm dog bed.
Our black cat, Edgar Allen, rubbed against my leg as we passed in the hallway. "Meow, meow."
"Are you coming to sleep with me?" I asked him.
"No way, man. You're too cold for me." He explained, "But as long as you're up, how would you feel about putting some crunchies in my bowl?" Humph. I gave him his food, then I laid on the couch with my pillow and an afghan in front of the fire. Ahh. It wasn't too long before Edgar was purring next to my chest and June curled up behind my knees.
Around 8:30, I got up, put some more wood on the fire, then turned the oven to 450. The heat would be welcome in the house and homemade biscuits and gravy would be perfect on such a cold morning.
After breakfast, I went to the freezer, pulling out the tray. My granddaughters were excited to see what we made. I pulled them from the forms and handed one to each child. "Popsicles!" They were well pleased with the fruits of our labor.
While washing the breakfast pots and pans, I got a text. I dried my hands and picked up my phone. "This is Denny. I'll get there in the afternoon." I took a deep breath and exhaled. Just knowing he was coming took a ton of weight off my shoulders.
Denny looked at the furnace. "I'm going to have to order a blower motor," he said, "with the holidays, it may take a few days to get." He assured me he would be back as soon as he had it.
After he left, we all got dressed in warm clothes to go outside. Seeing me in my blue thermals, Addie called out, "Evelyn, it's Long John Jerry." Her French accent is cute.
"No, no." I said, "He only comes out with the snowblower."
Sydney brought her saucer sleds. It was time to prove septic mounds have more than one use. Romping and diving through the powdery snow, June retrieved sleds for the kids, carrying them up the hill in her mouth like they were frisbees. The only problem was trying to get the sled back from June at the top of the mound.
After sledding, we came back into the house. Melissa put more wood on the fire while I turned on the burner. I made a batch of hot cocoa, just like Mom used to make. The girls got marshmallows with theirs while the adults got a splash of peppermint schnapps. Mmmm. I drank mine while sitting on the hearth in front of the fire.
The girls began dancing and singing, "Hot, hot, hot. Hot chocolate." Melissa put Polar Express on the TV. I cleaned up in the kitchen, pouring the extra hot cocoa into the Tupperware molds, and setting them in the freezer.
After the movie, Addison, Evelyn, and I went to work in the kitchen. For Christmas, we gave them a pop-up book: Stone Soup, along with a handwritten recipe. Melissa happened to have a perfect soup stone that came from the shores of Lake Superior. I rounded up some ingredients, and we soon established an order.
Addison was the head chef; Evelyn, the sous chef. I was the prep cook while Melissa and Sydney were assigned wait staff to prepare the dining room.
The girls poured four cups of water into a pot, then added the soup stone. Next, they added chopped onions, carrots, celery, and diced potatoes. They stirred in some seasonings, peas, green beans, corn… Everybody helped and in about thirty minutes, we gathered at the table to feast on a full pot of delicious stone soup. Yum!
After supper, I put another log on the fire. My wife and daughter proudly announced the completion of their big jigsaw puzzle – except for that one piece on the bottom edge that was missing and one other piece that was pretty mushy from being chewed and spit out on the floor. I gave June a rub on the head and whispered in her ear, "The jury is back. You might want to go hide out in the other room for a little while."
The next morning, before dawn, Sydney stood next to my bed, "Dad, the fire is out, and it's cold in here." I got up, rekindled the fire, then went outside to get more wood. When I came back inside, I was cold and anxious to return to my warm bed.
Edgar was sleeping soundly by my wife. From the motionless lump under the covers on the far side of the bed, a voice spoke out, "Don't even think about it." Humph. I thought she was asleep.
I grabbed my pillow. "June?" She shifted in her cozy dog bed and let out a sigh. "Never mind," I said and went to sleep on the couch in front of the fire. A certain dog and cat soon joined me, but I'm not one to drop names.
The next day we had homemade fudgesicles. The girls loved them. That 67 cents was definitely money well spent. We got dressed to go sledding on the big hill at the golf course. It was a blast!
On New Year's Eve, the wall clock chimed twelve times. I got up and opened the back door to let the old year out, while Melissa opened the front door to let in the new year. We toasted the new year, then danced in front of the fire to Guy Lombardo's Auld Lang Syne. After throwing a couple more logs in the woodstove, we sat on the couch and watched the flames.
I gave up trying to tally the ugly events of 2020. Instead, I focused on the previous few days – just those awkward days between Christmas and New Year's. Was my furnace dying in subzero weather a curse or a blessing? I have a good woodstove and plenty of wood. Many people don't have the luxury of a backup source for heat. It also gave me cause to remember what's truly important; time spent with my wife, children, and grandchildren, making memories that will last a lifetime for all of us.
Considering all the good things that happened over these last few days, the furnace going out seemed pretty menial.
I often think about that conversation long ago with my elderly friend. It wasn't the best year, and you can't polish a turd. But still, there was too much good in 2020 for me to write it off as a turd. He was right in saying I had a lot to learn, and I have learned much since then. Now I am blessed to still be here with yet more learning to do.
Welcome, 2021. Let's see what you've got.
The other day I picked up fresh tomatoes at the grocery store for our salad. The tomatoes were the best you’re going to find this time of year on the north shore – but they were no match for the tomatoes I used to grow in my garden.
I held the overly firm orb in my hand. Having just past the winter solstice, I sang a line from an old Guy Clark song called, Homegrown Tomatoes: “Plant 'em in the spring, eat 'em in the summer, all winter without 'em's a culinary bummer.” So true. Placing them in my basket, I thought they may not taste as good as homegrown, but the bright red tomato wedges against the dark green lettuce will look nice for Christmas dinner.
I often ponder another line from the same song: “Only two things that money can't buy, that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Again, so true. If you go to a farmer’s market in the summer and purchase locally grown tomatoes, they might be farm fresh tomatoes but they are not technically homegrown tomatoes because you didn’t grow them. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here, but that’s how I feel.
Just before dinner, I called out, “Who all wants tomatoes on their salad?” One by one came the replies; No thank you. None for me. I don’t like tomatoes, but thanks anyway. Not one person wanted them. I wasn’t going to cut a whole tomato just for my salad – I’ll save it for tacos later this week.
After dinner we gathered in the living room to open Christmas presents. I handed my wife the last package; it was a gift for the two of us that would also solve a household issue; annoying shuffling of the feet. (specifically, my feet)
Our floors are all hardwood, so we don’t wear shoes in the house. The kitchen and bathroom floors are ceramic tile which can be cold in the winter. We wear house slippers to keep our keep warm. I always tell guests coming to stay with us, “This is a slippers house – bring ‘em if you want ‘em.”
I’ve not found the right slippers for me. The problem is they tend to have hard rubber soles that slap against the floor when I walk. As the tops of new slippers stretch a little and become loose, I find myself dragging my soles across the floor to keep them from falling off my feet. This creates a shuffling noise that my wife finds more annoying than fingernails being dragged over a chalkboard. Ew!
When I was little, Mom would hand me a few tin cans; a coffee can and a couple of old cookie tins with metal lids. Each was filled with miscellaneous buttons. Mom never threw away a worn-out jacket or article of clothing without first removing the buttons and good, re-usable zippers. “Here, find me a few pairs of matching buttons.” She would say as she sat on the couch with her legs pulled up under her and her feet tucked in between the cushions.
Below her on the floor was a wicker basket with balls of yarn in various colors. Mom would carry on a conversation as her hands moved methodically. Strands coming from the basket were wrapped through and around her fingers to feed the tips of two long knitting needles. Sometimes she would be pulling different colors of yarn from multiple balls at the same time.
I would pour the buttons on the floor to look for matching pairs. “I need buttons with large holes this time.” She would say, while knitting away and I started poking through the little plastic discs.
Mom would knit sweaters, scarves, stocking hats and mittens – she could knit anything. Some things were one solid color and others were multiple colors with neat patterns and designs. When it was the right size, she’d remove the piece from her knitting needles. She’d thread the eye of a big needle with the same color yarn and start stitching the pieces together. “Hand me those two dark blue buttons.” She would say, then fasten them at the front of the foot opening. “Here, try on these slippers.” She handed them to me, “Can you find another big red button like that for me?” She said, while pointing to a button in the pile with her long knitting needle. I put the slippers on my feet and started looking through the pile. Another big red button should be easy to find.
My feet always felt nice and warm in a pair of mom’s homemade slippers and I don’t ever recall them making any shuffling noises when I walked. If a pair had holes in the toe, Mom would stitch them up. When a pair had holes worn in the heels, we cut the buttons off and put them back in the can. Then we threw the slippers away and Mom would make a new pair.
I did some looking online and smiled when I found hand-knit slippers for sale. I bought dark blue slippers for myself and a pair for Melissa in sage green yarn.
After she opened the package, I immediately put on my new slippers and pranced around the room. “Look! No slapping on the floor and no shuffling noises. They’re stealth, silent slippers.” I ran across the room then slid across the smooth oak floors like a kid sliding on the ice. Wheee!
I walked around more in the slippers. They were nice, but not quite as comfortable as Mom’s. Maybe they were made with a different yarn, I don’t know – they just weren’t the same.
I walked in my new slippers to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to get a glass of eggnog. There sat that whole tomato. I smiled. There is a difference between someone else’s homegrown tomatoes and tomatoes you grow yourself. There is also a difference between hand knit slippers and homemade slippers that mom knitted for you.
I was looking about as shaggy as could be and still be recognized. Man, I really needed a haircut. Having several other errands to run, I figured it would be a good day to make a trip to Duluth. Maybe along the way, I would be able to get in someplace for a trim.
Everything seemed to be going my way; I was getting a lot accomplished. I felt like there were a couple more things I needed from Duluth, but they weren't on my list, and today I was determined to stick to my plan. The only thing I had left to do was get groceries, which would be my last stop on the way home - and to take care of the mophead.
I found a salon that could get me in in thirty minutes. I didn't want to wait but considered Christmas coming this week. There would be photos taken for sure, and I wanted to look good. I wanted people to look at the pictures and say, "Oh, that's Tom," not to question, "Did the Palen's get an Old English Sheep Dog?" I decided to take their offer and waited in my truck. After a quick haircut, I thanked the lady. In the spirit of the holiday season, I left her a nice tip, and I was on my way – behind schedule, of course, but I always am. Groceries next and then home.
I walked into the store with my list and a pen to cross off items as I placed them in the cart. A little voice in my head said, "Remember, Tom, stick to the list today." The last time we went to the grocery store, we ended up buying five family-size boxes of cereal. That's what happens when your stray from your list.
Right inside the front door, they had raspberries and blueberries, two pints for five dollars. I put them in my cart. A little voice in my head said, "Those aren't on the list, Tom." I put them back and reminded myself; the store always has two of the four berries needed for a mixed-berry pie on sale. The other two berries will be regular price – expensive.
I selected five Granny Smith apples, put them in a bag, and crossed them off the list. Turning around, I ran into another fruit display. Wow! Blackberries and strawberries were also on sale! It was too much to resist. I put a pint of each in my cart. The little voice reminded me these items were not on the list. "Hush yourself, you fun hater," I said to the little voice and moved along.
I put two loaves in my cart and crossed bread off the list. The next item was a space heater. "A space heater?" I scanned the rest of the list. "Ribbons and bows. Milk. An Ice Scrapper. Eggs. A boot tray. Those little bottles of peppermint schnapps…Uh-huh. Here's the rest of the Duluth list." I sighed. "Why were these written on the grocery list." I looked at it again, to see who did this. "My handwriting. Huh. Well, we'll just have to do without them."
I stopped a man who works at the store and explained I had ordered a couple of special cuts of meat. I gave him my name, and he went to retrieve them. He came out the swinging aluminum door between the meat counters. "I couldn't find anything back there with your name, Mr. Palen, and the meat department guys have all gone home." That's what I get for taking time to get a haircut that was not on my list of things to do.
"Not a problem," I told the young man, "I can come back tomorrow." On my way home from the store, well after dark, I saw a wolf along Highway 61. "Man. He is pretty!" I said as I slowed down. There was no other traffic, so I made a U-turn to go back and see if I could get a second look. Sure enough, he was still there. I stayed back away on the shoulder and watched him in my headlights – and he watched me. As soon as he determined I was no threat, he turned and continued trotting southbound down the ditch. I watched until he disappeared in the brown grass around him.
"Brown grass." I said aloud, shaking my head, "This is going to be our first Christmas without snow since we moved to the north shore." I made another U-turn and headed for home, singing, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…"
The next morning, I looked outside and smiled. I didn't recall snow being in the forecast, but we had a few inches, and it was still coming down at a pretty good rate. I had a lot to do, and clearing out the driveway was not on the list, but I would have to make time.
I went to get ready for the day. In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. "I must be seeing things," I said, putting on my glasses and turning on the lights over the vanity. "I'm not seeing things." My hair was cut uneven on each side. There were patches where it was really short while others were longer. Differing lengths created a diagonal line ran from above my temple, over the top, and behind my right ear. "If I put a carpenter's pencil there, no one will notice the line."
I used my iPad and the mirror to see the back of my head. It looked like the stylist put a bowl on my head, cut it, then used a ruler to draw a straight line and cut it again – a full inch above my natural hairline and at least an inch behind each ear! "Well, at least I don't look like an Old English Sheep Dog, anymore. Now I looked like a stray dog - with mange!"
I thought to myself, "This is the worst haircut I've ever had." Then I recalled getting a haircut a few years ago, out of town. It's now known as The Alabama Butcher Shop Incident. In that case, I actually told the stylist to put down her scissors and just stop cutting – but that's a different story. Not sure what to do about my hair, I decided when I go back to Duluth today, I would look for a festive Christmas hat and wear it in all the photos.
I watched the snowplow go past our house. By the time I took the trash out, we had about five inches of new snow. The plow left a good berm at the road. I really didn't have time to get the snowblower out, but I hate to drive through it and pack down the snow at the end of the driveway.
Back in the house, while I finished getting ready, I heard a motor running outside. I looked out the bay window to see my neighbor with his tractor and big snowblower, cleaning out my driveway. That certainly made me smile. I started humming, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…
Today is December 21st – the winter solstice. Tonight, Jupiter and Saturn will line up. I read somewhere this will be the closest they've come in hundreds of years. Appearing as one, they will be very bright, together creating the Christmas Star. A white Christmas, here on the north shore, is certain now, so I started humming, "It came upon a midnight clear…Peace on the Earth, goodwill toward men…"
Welcome to winter, and Merry Christmas to all.
For several years, I was the emcee for an annual radio auction. Five radio stations participated. Starting in January, we went on the air weeknights at five p.m. We sold furniture, cars, implements, appliances, lawn equipment, dinners, agricultural item, vacation packages – you name it, and we probably sold it at one time or another. The radio auction is where I met my friends Dick and Jan Allen.
I would announce and describe the item up for sale, then Dick, the auctioneer, took over and started his rhythmic chant. Listeners would call in and place their bids through Jan, and a cast of operators who would call out their offers. If an item wasn't drawing enough interest, the auctioneer would take a break; I would talk more about it, allowing time for more bidders to call in – just like they do at an in-person auction.
We were doing more than just selling merchandise; it was an evening of entertainment for the listeners. We told jokes and stories and just had a grand ole time on the air. After each night's program, the auction crew would meet at a local restaurant for dinner.
We seemed to choose a lot of establishments that offered a smorgasbord. "I've never met a buffet I didn't like." Dick used to tell us. I reminded him of a couple that weren't so good. Dick defended them, "No matter how bad the food is, I always say, 'as long as they have gravy, everything is going to be okay.'"
I've always remembered his line and used it many times metaphorically - especially during times of frustration. "As long as there's gravy…"
A couple of weeks ago, I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I had my side dishes ready to go in the oven as soon as the turkey came out. I took a final inventory, "Sweet potatoes, stuffing, spicey corn, green bean casserole - where's the…?" Dang! I forgot to make it, and you cannot serve Thanksgiving dinner without green bean casserole – I'm pretty sure that's illegal in all fifty states.
I quickly grabbed six cans of beans and two of cream of mushroom soup. I bought a large can of French's fried onions – everyone loves lots of crunchies on top. I drained the beans, picked up a brand new 9X13" yellow baking dish. We bought it for our daughter Delaney's birthday. It's her favorite color, and the green beans would look quite appealing against the yellow. I emptied the first can of beans and grabbed another but needed more countertop space to work.
My hands were wet, but I was in a hurry. With a can in my left hand, I lifted the glass dish with my right. As I turned to set it on the other counter, I was losing my grip. I tried to set it down but it slipped away and smacked the edge of the surface. We have quartz countertops, which are beautiful but very unforgiving. The heavy Dish broke in two, with half crashing to the floor.
I had no idea one can of green beans could cover so much floor. "Darn!" I yelled, or something like that. My dog came running to help; she loves green beans. "No, June!" I shouted, shooing her away before she got into the shards of glass. I cleaned up the mess, took out another pan, and finished prepping the casserole – now with five cans of green beans.
While the oven was full of sides, I put the roasted bird in a different pan and began to whisk flour into the turkey drippings to make a roux. I was still fuming over breaking Delaney's new dish. I added milk to the mixture and some black pepper. As I stirred the gravy, I could hear Dick Allen saying, "As long as you have gravy, it's going to be okay."
I took a small spoon and tasted the creamy sauce. "Oh my, that is good!" I smiled, "It's not just gravy, Dick, this is good gravy." Dick was right. We had gravy, and everything turned out just fine as we enjoyed a delicious turkey dinner.
The girls went home, and a couple of weeks passed, bringing us to yesterday.
Saturday morning, I went out to get the mail. I wasn't wearing my glasses, but I could read the large, bold letters on the outside of the envelope: "Official Court Business – Response Required." I had a strong hunch about what it was and hoped it would be addressed to my wife, the dog, or the cat. I would even be happy if it was for a neighbor but accidentally delivered to our house.
At the kitchen table, I put my glasses on and read: Lake County District Courts – Jury Summons Processing Center…to Thomas Palen. "Dang!" I blurted out – or something like that. I know a lot of people who have never been on jury duty, and this will be my fifth time. "Why me? Why can't they pick someone else who hasn't served?" I even moved to a different state to hide from the Iowa courts. Maybe they called Minnesota and said, "Call Palen – he loves jury duty." I'll bet they all had a good laugh about that.
In four of my previous terms, I was selected for two trials – both times as an alternate juror. I had to sit through the whole trail but was never able to vote on the outcome. "Always the bridesmaid - never the bride."
In highlighted, bold letters, it said to submit my response within ten days. I looked at the calendar; December 12. The notice inside said the summons was mailed on November 27. "That was fifteen days ago. How am I supposed to respond within ten days?" I checked the outside of the envelope, "It wasn't even postmarked until December 2." I complained out loud, "How can it take 15 days to get a letter mailed within the same county?"
I started filling out the questionnaire – grumbling all the way through it. "I'll probably end up going to jail for not responding on time." I checked a few more boxes, "I don't even look good in an orange jumpsuit." I scribbled my signature on the bottom, folded the paper, and slid it in the return envelope. I licked the edge and ran my finger over the flap to seal it.
I turned it over to write my return address when I notice the little box in the top right corner. "Are you kidding me? Postage required?" I muttered as I dug through the drawer looking for a stamp. "Maybe I won't write my return address. I'll just mail it in with no postage."
I chuckled, imagining the reaction of a judge getting my summons – postage due. I stopped laughing when I envisioned that judge slamming their gavel, "Thirty days! Take him away, bailiff." I saw myself in handcuffs and shackles, shuffling my feet while being escorted to the dungeon.
I wondered what they serve for dinner in the Lake County Pokey. Whatever it was, I was sure I wouldn't like it. I started laughing again as I could almost hear Dick Allen assuring me, "Don't worry. As long as they have gravy, everything is going to be okay."
Before music was on a CD or programmed into a digital device, we had records made of vinyl. They were simpler times but had more challenges.
I'd lift the tonearm, swing it over and set the needle on the vinyl disc. With the turntable shut off and the pod level (volume) turned down, I would manually spin the record forward until the sound started in the cue speaker, then give it about a half turn backward. It's called "cueing a record," and it had to be just right.
If it was cued too tight, the audience would hear the turntable picking up speed. Too loose, and you'd end up with a one or two-second delay. Neither was good and would cause the inevitable phone call from the program director telling you, "Get it together, tighten up your show! Do I need to come to teach you how to cue up a record?" Blah, blah, blah.
Then, there was always the DJ who would rapidly move the record back and forth repeatedly right at the beginning of the audio, resulting in "cue burn." An unpleasant scratchy sound at the beginning of the song.
I had side 1-A ready to go. Right at noon, I pushed the button to start the front turntable. You'd play track one. A few songs would play, the guy would talk about each, telling a story. Some theme music played, there was a national commercial, then a break.
I cued the second track while playing a couple of local ads. After the second track finished, I'd give the weather forecast, read a public service announcement to promote a local organization's upcoming event, and then start the back turntable with side 1-B. Next, turning the front record over, on the flip side, was segment 2-A, ready to be cued up.
After starting each segment, I would sit back, listen to the music, pick up a magazine, or work on a commercial I was writing. Sometimes, I would look at the record, estimating the amount of time left on the segment, and decide to make a run to the bathroom. Inevitably, from the back of the building, I would hear the theme music that ended the segment. Dang!
A foot race ensued to see if I could get back to the studio before the turntable rolled into the next segment, or worse yet, made that scratchy, clicking noise when the needle reached the end of the record.
Desperately trying to reach the control board before any dead air happened, I would trip over the rack on the floor, the rack of cartridges which recorded commercials. Carts crashed about the room. I knocked over my cup of coffee, and line two on the telephone was flashing. Yep, the program director heard it.
While I was getting chewed out, my mind would wander: Whose bright idea was it to put the studios in the front of the radio station and the bathrooms in the back - one hundred feet away? How stupid is that? If I ever build a radio station, the john is going to be right outside the studio!
Line three, the request line, would ring. "Can you play..." "Sorry, we're not talking request right now; you can call back after 4:00. Thanks for listening! "
I hung up, then looked at the phone as if I was still talking to the caller, "Are you even listening to your radio? Geesh! We're in the middle of the weekly countdown."
After playing all four albums, front and back, the announcer came on with some closing comments and a teaser for next week's show, then said, "...until next week, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars! I'm Casey Kasem, and this is the American Top Forty."
After the theme music ended, I opened the microphone: "You've been listening to Casey Kasem's American Top Forty, on K-98, and now here's..." Line two lit up on the phone. It was the program director.
"He just said you were listening to the American Top Forty; you don't need to repeat it. You're supposed to play a station liner and start the next song..." Blah, blah, blah.
Times would change. We stayed on the cutting edge of programming - who was the most popular, the hottest show running. Our weekly countdown changed from Casey Kasem to Scott Shannon, then to Rick Dees. The countdown show changed, but I didn't. I still made the same mistakes - on purpose sometimes, to rile up the program director.
Years later, I bought the radio stations and relocated them to a different building. I designed the new layout, and you can bet your last dollar, I put the studios upfront and the bathrooms in the back...one hundred feet away. Why should these new young DJs have it any easier than I did when I started? Besides, what better way to entertain the program director on their day off?
One Sunday afternoon, I picked the phone up and dialed 682-8712 - line two. "Come on, Chad, pay attention! Plan your bathroom breaks better, and don't be writing commercials during your air shift. You know the rules. There's just no excuse for dead air!"
While I was chewing him out, he probably was drifting off, thinking, "Who puts the studios in the front of the building and the bathrooms in the back, one hundred feet away?" Blah, blah, blah...
When the program's theme music ended, Chad opened his mic. "You've been listening to Rick Dee's Weekly Top-Forty countdown on KOTM, and now here's..." I picked the phone up and dialed 6-8-2-8-7-1-2... I swear he did that just to rile me up.
Albeit more challenging, radio was a lot more fun when every station had vinyl records and real-live disc jockeys working the studio - especially DJs who had not perfected to 100' dash.
I decided to get ahead on my stockpile of firewood for the next heating season. I tried to buy it in May, but, for many reasons, it just didn't happen. I kept telling myself, "I'll stay on it and get it done early this year. I'm not waiting until the last minute, like last year…and the year before." I did make several more calls but didn't find the right deal yet.
It was now early October. We'd already had a few fires in the woodstove when I stood looking at my woodpile, taking inventory, if you will. "About a cord and a half, split, stacked, and seasoned." We usually burn about five face cords per year, but we plan to be home more this season, and I wanted at least seven or eight. I shook my head and walked to the house, "I'm just not ready."
I found a man selling split, seasoned hardwood. We talked over the course of ten days or so and finally made arrangements to pick up a load the next Sunday, around noon, right after church. I drove my old dump truck to mass. She's not much of a looker and she's pretty loud, but back in her prime, she was both a beauty and a beast. I would park at the way back of the church parking lot to be less conspicuous.
On my way into town, I was aware the bright red leaves on the maple trees had all fallen. Glowing gold leaves of the birch had blown away in the wind. The spectacular fall colors of the north shore had come and gone. Barren birch looked like vertical white logs with spindly empty branches scattered among the deep green pine trees. I thought how nice it would be to have some of those trees in my stack of firewood at home.
We had already had a decent snowfall, six or seven inches, that melted nearly as fast as it came. The grass on the side of the road had turned brown. Where they could find sparse patches of grass that were still green, jittery deer gathered on the sides of the road, ever vigilant of passing cars.
Further ahead on the shoulder, near the edge of the ditch, I saw the silhouette of something. Was it a deer that would jump in front of me? It was too short. Maybe it was a wolf or a fox. It could also be a big dog. Or, a bear! Yes! It was probably a bear that was late to hibernate.
Always eager for a bear sighting, I will admit to being deceived more than once. When you really want to spot a bear, a trash barrel, mailbox, tree stump, or even a rock can look like a bear from a distance. I slowed down. Whatever it was, I didn't want to hit it should it run into my lane.
As I got closer, the shape became more defined – and odd. It had a short body, a broad flat back, and a long neck. It must have been sitting or lying down because it didn't appear to have legs. When I finally reached it, it was obviously...uh...a chair? Yes, a chair sitting perfectly at the side of the road.
It was a rather handsome chair, even elegant. Gold in color, I felt like the chair had a rich history. Shorter than most, I assumed it was older – people were smaller back then, so furniture was more petite as well. The seat top had rolls and tucked pleats that rounded over the front edge; like a bear claw pastry. The pleats continued, lined up perfectly with those in the gold skirting below. A horizontal band between them, like the cummerbund on a tuxedo, defines the line between a man's shirt and his trousers. The fabric was still taut, even on the crescent-shaped back.
I wondered if it fell from someone's truck or trailer. Except for a couple of abrasions from tumbling on the pavement, it was in perfect condition. It was undoubtedly, too good to be going to the landfill. It was placed neatly, right at the edge of the gravel shoulder and the ditch. Its legs on the line, like athletes in a sports game. I imagined someone stopped to position the chair like this, making it easy for the owner to find when they returned, looking for it.
Perhaps, someone intentionally set it on the road hoping another person would take the chair home. No. It sat just past Olson road, on the opposite side of Highway 61, away from any houses. All alone on the shoulder - like an orphan, I felt sorry for the chair. I had thoughts of adopting it. I would put it in the back of my truck and take it home, "Look, honey! Look what I brought home to put in the three seasons room." Anticipating my wife's reaction, I felt it was best not to take it home, lest I should be placed alongside the highway, sitting in that very chair, holding a cardboard sign: "FREE to a good home. Husband. Comes with his own gold chair."
I was torn. If I didn't take the chair, eventually, the highway people would haul it away. As I slowly drove past, the chair called out to me: "Please, sir, take me with you. I'll be a good chair. I'm not ready for the landfill yet." Suddenly, remembering my mission, I decided to load my firewood and see how full the truck was on the way home. I drove on toward church.
After mass, I called the man. I told him I was going to grab a burger and would be on my way. Then, I noticed I had a low tire – actually, two of them. I stopped to fill the tire with one of those C-store air compressors. Man, they are slow, and the valve stems on a dual wheel are hard to reach. It took almost 40 minutes to bring each of the four back tires up to 80 pounds and add some power steering fluid to my old truck. At 2:00, I called again, "I'm on my way."
"Are you sure this time?" He laughed.
Not knowing how much wood the truck would hold, we loaded two cords. I told him, "I'll run this home, stack it and come back for another load tomorrow if that's okay."
"This is all I have left right now." He told me, "Could've sold this wood ten times over, but you kept saying you were coming, so I've been holding these two cords for you." I appreciated that. I paid the man and started for home. I now had three and a half cords of firewood. I'm still not ready yet.
I drove home, considering how cold it was getting. We were now into the first week of November, and I was about four cords short on firewood for the winter. As I got closer to home, I noticed something in my headlights on the left side of the road. It had a short fat body and a long neck, "Is that a big turkey?" I slowed down in case it ran onto the road ahead of me. I leaned my head closer to the windshield and squinted my eyes. The headlights made it look orange, like a giant pumpkin. Leaning back in my seat, I relaxed and laughed. "It's that chair again." I kept going.
Over the next several days, I drove back and forth along Highway 61 almost daily. Each time the chair was still there, and each time thoughts of taking it home returned – along with visions of being placed on the roadside with it. Finally, one day on my way to get more firewood, I pulled over just past the chair.
I sat in the chair on the shoulder of the road on a beautiful fall morning. My trusty but beat-up old truck sat rumbling to my left. The air was chilly, but the sun warmed the gold fabric. Albeit a little short for me, it was actually quite comfortable. I tried to give a spin with my legs to see if she swiveled. Nope. I looked under the skirt to check out the legs. They were in good condition. I was startled and blushed when someone, unbeknownst to me, spoke up. "Do you need help lifting that chair back up into your truck?"
I straightened the skirt and got up off my knees to greet the stranger. "No, it's not my chair. I just stopped to look at it." I thanked him for stopping. He drove away, and I sat back in the chair.
I pondered the trees, bare of their leaves; they had taken on a new beauty – a look of the winter to come. I watched as cars passed, a few honked. Ravens flew overhead, squawking, talking to each other: "Look at that man down there in the chair. Should we stop and see what he's doing?" The other answered, "We don't have time. There's a fresh deer just past Palisade Head. I want to get there before a crowd shows up."
I slipped into a daydream. One day I am going to build myself a writing cabin out in my woods. Maybe ten by twelve, the place will have a small potbellied wood stove for heat, and my furnishings will all be humble treasures I have found along the way. This chair would be perfect for my cabin.
Lost in the moment, I was startled when some asked, "Do you need help getting that chair in your truck?" I laughed. I didn't even hear the car pull over. Sitting comfortably in the chair, I explained it wasn't mine; I had just stopped to look at it. The lady said, "It's been sitting out here for quite a while. It looks like it's in good shape. You should take it home – you must really like it, to be sitting here on the side of a highway." I smiled and waved, still sitting in the chair, as she pulled away in her car. People sure are friendly along the north shore.
I stood up, giving the chair one last look; I grabbed my iPad from the truck to take a couple of pictures. It was sad; I watched the chair disappear in my rearview mirror as I drove away.
The next morning, driving into town, I didn't see the chair. I made a U-turn driving back to Olson Road. Indeed, I was in the right place. The chair was gone. I wondered if the highway crew took it or if someone else appreciated her beauty as I did and brought it home. I guess I'll never know.
I drove into town, second-guessing myself. Maybe I should have brought the chair home for the little cabin I'm going to build someday. I'm just not ready.
I spotted something ahead on the side of the road. Was it a bear that was late to hibernate? I slowed down in case it should run into my path. My spirits began to rise, "Could it be the chair?" If it was, I was definitely taking it home this time. My smile faded - my hopes dashed. It was just a trash barrel lying on the side of the road at the end of someone's driveway.
I have a friend whose idea of a nice business suit is a camouflage shirt, pants, jacket, and a matching hat. On the best business days, his outfit will include enough orange to be safe. His ideal office has a view, preferably from a deer or turkey stand or looking out from a duck blind. He writes a weekly column: Water Scott's Outdoors. As the title implies, he writes about the great outdoors. Whether it's a recent adventure he was on or just sitting and observing nature; his column is always fun to read. This week he wrote about the challenges that come with running a local newspaper during a pandemic.
Walter closed the offices of his newspaper. He and his staff all work from home now. He dedicated a downstairs room in his house for his office. The office window looks out over his countryside property, including the lake, the rolling hillsides, and into the woods. He wrote, after some adjustments, the transition has been pretty smooth. I wondered how a guy like Walter would get any work done with that view!
He wrote in his column that the biggest problem working from home had been the scenery. When something outside is more interesting, like two bucks sparring on the dam, it distracts him, taking his attention away from his work. It is a blessing to have such a problem. Walter wrote of more significant issues in the home office setting.
The other day, through his window, he spotted the largest buck he had seen in years. It was well within bow range, and he had his deer tags in his pocket. The problem was his bow. It was in the garage.
While planning how to sneak to the garage without disturbing the buck, Walter's mind got ahead of him. He had visions of his new deer mount proudly hung on the office wall. He envisioned a freezer full of venison and probably a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. But Walter had more problems than bow separation anxiety.
Billie, the designated office guard dog, was on duty. Sensing an imminent invasion, the poodle sounded off. The buck heard the dog. Fearing what sounded like a pack of wolves hunting, he hightailed it over the crest of the hill and out of sight. I can only imagine the look of disgust Walter gave his comrade, Billie.
Walter took steps to correct the problem. For the next few days, he kept Billie upstairs should the buck return, and his bow next to his desk with all the other office equipment necessary to publish a newspaper. True outdoorsmen can be fanatical like that. The sportsmen of northern Minnesota are every bit as enthusiastic.
Every opening day is an event treated like a national holiday. Men and women will take time off work for the fishing season's opening day, bear season, hockey, and such - deer season included. Although I don't hunt anymore, I listened with interest, hearing people talking a week or so in advance about their opening day plans.
They told stories of a huge buck they've seen on the trail cam, a specific group of does moving together, bedding spots, and wolves. Occasionally someone will ask, "Where did you see that?" The answer is always specific: "Out there in the woods." Hunter's discuss their equipment, the terrain, different weather scenarios, all in anticipation of Saturday, opening day.
It was just a few minutes after eight in the morning when I heard the first gunshots. Someone filled their tag early. All-day long, I saw pickups and SUVs along the roadside, many pulling trailers with four wheelers and side-by-sides to retrieve their game from the woods.
Hunters in camouflage with proper orange markings gathered at the side of the road. Some were getting ready to head into the woods. Unsuccessful hunters discussed what area they would try next, while a successful hunter boasted details on how they took down the buck tied to the rack on their ATV. Others were taking a break, enjoying a cup of coffee. All the activity tapers off at sunset when the hunters go home - well, most of them. I was just getting started. Hunting deer after dark is illegal, but that's when I went.
I was driving into town when a large doe came sprinting out of the woods across the highway. "Oh darn," I said out loud, or something like that. I hit the brakes hard. I could hear everything in the bed of my truck slamming forward. It looked like I was going to miss her, but BAM! I got her in the hindquarter. "Son of a gun," I yelled, or something like that. Thrown by the impact, the doe spun in the air before going down on the shoulder of the road. I quickly thought, "At least I can fill the freezer."
I envisioned my deep-freeze filled with packages, neatly wrapped in the white butcher paper, and a steak on the table, a baked potato with melting butter and sour cream, a side of buttered carrots, a dinner roll, and a slice of warm apple pie – ala mode. I imagined the kids asking, what's for dinner, Dad? "Roadkill." I would tell them.
I quickly turned the truck around just in time to see her get up, shake off the injury, and bound off through the ditch. "Are you kidding me?" I asked her as she disappeared into the woods. I cursed the deer, "Hunting after dark is illegal, but so is fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run accident!" I laughed to myself. Usually, when an outdoorsman tells about the one that got away, they're talking about fishing.
Next came that sinking feeling in my gut, wondering the extent of the damage done. Maybe I got lucky, and it would be minimal since I barely got the doe. The headlight was still on but pointing downward, toward the road. I pulled under the lights at the gas station to assess the damages.
"Darn it!" I said, or something like that. "A wrinkled fender, a broken headlight, and all for naught – no meat for my freezer!" There's no sense in crying over spilled milk. It is what it is. I tried to find some humor in the situation by asking myself, "What's the penalty for taking one doe after dark? About twenty-five hundred bucks," I chuckled, wishing I had someone with whom to share my quick wit.
Just like Walter, I had been thinking ahead of myself. Now when the kids ask, what's for dinner, I'll sarcastically tell them, " Just eat your mac-n-cheese, and I'll nuke some hotdogs."
I looked out the window across the driveway at my damaged Dodge pickup. I cringed a little, and then I looked at my old dump truck parked next to it. Not everything was terrible. Behind it, I stacked a load of split firewood about twenty feet long and six feet high. There were logs scatted on the ground. "Hmm. I thought I had put it all up." The top two feet of my stack was toppled over. "Wow." I said, "we must have had some pretty strong winds while we were gone this past weekend."
It was then I noticed a bird under the old Ford's dump box. A grouse, if you're an Iowan; a partridge, here in Minnesota. The hen looked like an inflated balloon with her feathers thoroughly roughed. Then I saw a second bird behind the truck by the spilled firewood, and then a third! They were pecking at seeds or something in the grass.
Suddenly, it occurred to me; I parked the truck and stacked the wood right where those birds frequently gather. The wind didn't blow that pile over – it was those grouse. They knocked my woodpile down! And Walter thought he had problems? Between the deer that boogered-up my truck and grouse that vandalized my woodpile - Geesh!
It is a blessing to live amongst all this wildlife, but maybe it'd be best to let Walter write about it in his Outdoors column. On a brighter note: Hey Walter. I got a deer on opening day. How'd you do?
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!