a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!
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Our house in Winona, Minnesota, sat on the corner of Baker and Broadway streets. The house was brown with darker brown trim. Unfortunately, the houses on either side and several more places nearby were also the same color. So boring! There must have been a sale on brown house paint when all this happened.
The old brown paint was faded, chipped and peeling. We planned to give the house a whole new look that would stand out in the neighborhood. When people drove past, they would say, "Now that's a beautiful home." But, unfortunately, before repainting, we decided to sell the house.
Brenda, our realtor, raved about the home's interior; its soft, warm colors and beautiful hardwood floors were inviting to all who entered. "What are you going to do with the outside of the house," she asked?
It was almost September, nearing the end of the house buying season, and my schedule was full. I didn't see where I would find time to paint the house. I told Brenda, "We'll give the buyers a five-thousand-dollar painting allowance; they can have it painted whatever color they'd like."
"That's not a good idea," Brenda said, then explained, "The interior of the house is beautiful, but I can't sell the house if I can't get prospective buyers inside."
"We'll leave the curtains open," I replied in jest. But, having just met Brenda, she wasn't sure how to take my sense of humor.
"First impressions and curb appeal are everything," Brenda said. "The exterior paint will drive potential buyers away. People want a house where everything's finished and ready to move in." I tried to reason that the interior was ready to move in, but my wife sided with the realtor.
Brenda and Melissa started talking about colors. Meanwhile, I started trying to figure out how I would make time to paint the house in the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a professional house painter on such short notice, but I still made a few calls.
A day later, I got a call from a painting company. He had a job cancellation and could start our house on Saturday. Unfortunately, we'd be out of town that day. "No problem," he assured, "Just pick your colors, and we'll take it from there. Perfect! We gave him a deposit and shook hands.
We chose a soft, buttery shade of yellow at the paint store. With white trim, it would look great, and it would be the only yellow house in the neighborhood. So, with that decision made, we loaded the car and headed out for the weekend.
While we were driving home Sunday, Brenda called. "I just drove by your house," she said. "Please tell me you're not painting your house that color." Melissa and I were taken aback by her comment. We thought it was a pretty color. We told Brenda we'd get back to her.
It was nearing sunset when we turned north onto Baker Street. As we got closer to home, we were nearly blinded by the extremely bright sun in front of us. "Wait a minute; we're going north; the sun sets in the west." I was confused.
Melissa, also blinded by the same intense phenomenon before us, blurted out, "Good Lord! That's our house!" We were shocked. "They must have got the wrong color paint!"
Before us was an obnoxiously bright, neon yellow house, like lemon-twist yellow, but worse! The sight of it made my mouth pucker as if I'd been sucking on a lemon slice.
Melissa called Brenda to assure her this was not the color we ordered. I called the painter and told him to stop painting until we talked. Monday morning, I met Ray.
Ray was an old hippy who worked for the contractor. He had a laid-back demeanor and an appreciation for everything in life. I liked him right away and he was very knowledgeable about painting. Unfortunately, the three-quarter by two-inch sample didn't represent its final appearance when applied to a house.
Ray was an artist who also painted houses for the past fifty-plus years. "House painting pays the bills," he said. "Art is hit and miss. I gotta eat, man. You know what I mean?"
Considering his wisdom, I had to ask: "Ray, when you saw the color of this paint, did it occur to you to call the homeowner and make sure this is what they wanted?"
"No way, man. I never question anyone's taste," he said. Ray moved his open hand through the air, making an arch. "The rainbow's hues are infinite, brother; there's someone who loves every shade in the spectrum." He looked at me as if I should feel what he said rather than hear his words.
Still, I challenged Ray, "But lemon-twist yellow? That didn't raise any red flags?"
Ray looked deep, "I think this color is pretty, man. You don't like it?" I assured him we did not, at least not on the house. I told him we'd be changing the color, knowing it would understandably cost us more. "Whatever you want, man. I just swing the brush. You know what I mean?"
Being gun-shy of anything yellow, Melissa and I opted for a new color scheme: Cavern Moss Green with Adobe White trim. The problem was that I now couldn't get ahold of the contractor.
A few days later, I ran into Ray in a store. I told him I couldn't get ahold of his boss, "He's not returning my phone calls."
"He's an old friend of mine," Ray said, "but he can be kind of shady, too. If I don't get paid at the end of the day, I don't come back tomorrow. You get me, brother?" I asked Ray if he would paint the house if I paid him. "No way, man. I was just trying to help my friend. I'm getting too old to be painting two-story houses."
Ray gave me some advice. "If you want your house painted before it snows, you better get on the ladder and do it yourself. You know what I mean, man?" I fully understood everything Ray was saying. I had to change many things at work, but the house painting was complete about a week later.
Brenda stood on the sidewalk with a realtor's yard sign. "Now, this is a beautiful home." Brenda had the house sold in a couple of weeks.
Before I set out to paint the house myself, I ran into an old friend and artist, Richard Dutton.
Richard was an art history instructor at Indian Hills Community College. He also taught painting, drawing, and other art-related courses. He was an amazing artist – his watercolors were spectacular.
I told him about my issue, "I can't believe Ray didn't call to make sure we wanted that wild color."
Richard was wearing a fiddler's cap, an open collar shirt, and a tweed sports coat. He smiled, "Why would he call you? It was the color you picked, right?" He had me there. Richard explained, "There are a lot of colors in the rainbow; there's somebody out there to love each one of them."
I asked Richard if he was still painting. "Yes, sir," he replied. I wondered if he would like to come to Minnesota to paint my house. "I'm not a house painter," he said. But I argued in jest, insisting he was.
"You painted Mom and Dad's house." (In 1983, Mom commissioned Richard to paint our farmhouse, which became a famous painting within our family.)
Richard smiled, "Thomas, I did that painting because I liked your mom. There's a big difference between painting a house and a painting OF a house. Besides, watercolors don't hold up well in the weather – especially Minnesota's harsh weather." We shared a good laugh about that.
Years later, Melissa and I had moved to northern Minnesota, where we bought a house to remodel – inside and out. One day I called Richard, "How would you like to paint my house for me?"
"Are we really going to have that conversation again," he asked, laughing. I explained that I had planned to have our house done by Melissa's birthday. But unfortunately, I had overestimated my ability and was so far behind schedule there was no way it would happen.
I explained, "I commissioned a local artist to paint a picture of our house as it would be when finished. They had six months to do it and kept assuring me they would have it done on time. Then, three days before Melissa's birthday, they bailed on the project, saying, 'I can't visualize what I'm supposed to be painting.'" I asked Richard if he could help me out.
Richard liked Melissa, referring to her as one of his many favorite students. I knew she also held him in the highest regard. "Richard, I don't think a twenty-dollar Walmart gift certificate would mean as much to Melissa as having a Richard Dutton painting of our home." I was really buttering him up.
Richard had questions: "When's her birthday?"
"May twelfth," I replied.
"That's in three days," he said. "Why can't you have the house painted by then?"
"Because it's still snowing here in May," I justified.
"Tom, I've told you before, I'm not a house painter," Richard said, then sighed. "But I'll do this because I like your bride." We shared a good laugh about that then discussed the details.
I emailed Richard a photo of the house from the angle I wanted. The picture showed an absolute construction zone. The house covered in white house rap lacked a front door, and there was no siding. The yard and driveway were a muddy mess. "This is what you want me to paint," he questioned? "Would you like me to fix the ruts in the driveway?"
"Yes," I replied, "But I also need you to install the front door and the siding. Then, put in the new garage doors, and landscape the yard." Richard kept laughing. "While you're at it, build the steps on the front porch, and can you pour a concrete driveway and sidewalk?"
"Now I have to finish building the house, too?" Richard chuckled sarcastically, "I'll see what I can do." I felt better knowing he was on the job. "What color is the house going to be," he asked.
"Cavern Moss Green with Adobe White trim." I sent him a photo of our Winona house. "It's the same colors I wanted you to paint our house a few years ago." We shared another laugh about that.
A couple of weeks later, the painting arrived. I planned a special dinner that night and presented the framed artwork to Melissa. She loved it. Her face really lit up when she saw in the bottom right corner, 'R. Dutton.' "Mr. Dutton painted this?" I knew right then I had given her the best birthday present. Even though it was belated, she hung it on the wall of our (unfinished) north shore home and would treasure this for years to come, as the house progressed around it.
For my sixtieth birthday, Melissa contacted Richard and purchased a painting called Lake Wapello Trail. Although he painted this award-winning piece in southern Iowa, the scene looks very similar to a road near Devilfish Lake, out on the Arrowhead Trail near Hovland. One of our favorite camping and canoeing spots.
I suspect other people along the north shore may have some of Richard's paintings, too, as he's participated in Plein Air events in Grand Marais.
I was saddened to learn that Richard had recently passed away. I cannot fathom how many lives he's touched as a teacher, an artist, and a friend. Let alone as a husband, father, and grandfather.
Although he will be dearly missed by so many, I will always envision his round glasses, mustache, and mischievous grin. He would want us to remember him and smile rather than mourn. Richard would encourage us to always seek joy and beauty in life.
When sunlight reflects through raindrops, it creates a beautiful rainbow; therefore, it must be watercolors. Whenever I see one, I will look for the end of the rainbow; not seeking a pot of gold, but to see if I might find a signature: R. Dutton.
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I was installing the oak trim boards in my house. I purchased unfinished wood, so each board and trim stick had to be clear-coated with the polyurethane finish – hand-sanded between layers.
Each day, I'd calculate the amount of wood I would need for the next day and make sure I had plenty of boards finished, dried, and ready to go to avoid a work stoppage.
After midnight Monday morning, I finished applying the second coat of varnish on the trim boards I would need for the day's work. Then, I cleaned up my brushes and headed for the shower.
Before getting in the shower, I decided to go ahead and toss my work clothes in the washer so I would have clean clothes to wear. I don't wash my work clothes with any other regular laundry.
I lifted the lid on the washer to make sure it was empty. Then, I set the dial to the "regular" cycle and pulled the knob. Water began flowing into the washtub. I added a small amount of liquid detergent to the water then removed my t-shirt and jeans, tossing them in with the rest of the work clothes. "I might as well wash my socks too," I said.
Standing barefoot on the concrete basement floor, wearing only my boxer shorts, I shivered. "It's chilly down here." I tossed the socks in with the load, closed the lid, and went upstairs.
Sunday had been a long day. I worked late. I was cold, tired, and my body hurt. So, the shower felt especially good. After I washed up, I decided to stay in the shower longer. I stood under the stream of hot water, letting it soothe my aches and pains. Besides, I had to wait on the washing machine.
I shut off the water, toweled off, and put on clean pajamas. I had every intention of staying awake long enough to put my clothes in the dryer, but that didn't happen. While sitting on the couch, listening for the washer to complete its cycle, I fell asleep.
A few minutes after waking in the morning, I remembered my wet clothes were still in the washer, and I had no other clean work jeans to wear. "Dang! Not having work clothes is going to throw my whole day off schedule."
I had to first coat the wood I needed for Tuesday to be dry and ready for sanding and the second coat in the evening. I wasn't going to chance getting varnish on a pair of good jeans, and varnishing boards in boxer shorts just didn't seem right! "What if a neighbor comes knocking on my door? What would the dog think?"
My dog June followed me down the steps. "If I can remodel an entire house alone, I should certainly be capable of handling a simple load of laundry on my own, right?"
Although I spoke rhetorically, June answered anyway. "Apparently not." Smart-aleck dog!
Surrendering to the notion that I was just going to be behind schedule, I put my clothes in the dryer then went upstairs to have breakfast while they tumbled to dry.
With my right foot on the first step, a lightbulb lit up over my head; I had an idea. I turned around quickly, nearly tripping over the dog. I walked back to the dryer with June at my heels. I turned the heat setting to high. "That'll make my jeans dry faster." I gave June a rub on the head, "I am a genius."
June gladly accepted my gesture of affection but continued looking on with skepticism. "Are you supposed to do that?"
"Why not? It won't hurt anything." I replied.
June warned, "Mom never uses the high heat setting when she does laundry."
I justified, "Well, mom's not here now, is she?" I could see the doubt in June's eyes. "Look, this will speed the drying process, getting me on the job closer to on schedule." I didn't want to hear any more from the dog.
Changing the subject, I announced, "Hey, this is Monday."
I slipped on my snow boots to take the trash to the curb wearing my pajamas. June ran off to the yard to do her morning business. I grabbed the mail on my way back to the house.
By the time I fed the dog, ate my oatmeal, and brushed my teeth, I heard the dryer's buzzer sound off. So, I hurried downstairs; June followed.
When I bent over and opened the dryer door, a blast of hot, dry air hit me in the face. I reached inside to grab my clothes. "Ouch!" My forearm touched the zipper and metal button on my jeans, and they were hot!
Upstairs, I tossed the clean clothes on the bed to fold later. Next, I took a T-shirt, shook it in the air a few times to cool it down, then put it on. It was still warm and felt good. Next, I grabbed my jeans, putting my left leg in first, then my right leg. I tried to pull them up. “Holy crikey! I must have put a pair of my wife's jeans in the washer with mine. Oh, this could be bad.”
I quickly removed the jeans, inspecting up and down the pant legs. "This is not good, not good at all!" I came across numerous dots of dried varnish on the denim fabric. I thought I had ruined a pair of her jeans...until I came upon a leather patch embossed "Wrangle." Confused, I looked the jeans over again. Yep. They were mine.
I put them on again and pulled them up. I struggled with the button. I took a very deep breath and sucked my stomach in as much as I could. I still couldn't fasten the button. "How in the heck do girls wear those skinny jeans?" I tried a trick I had seen women do on TV shows,
I laid on the bed, getting psyched up, then counted, "One, two, three, GO!" I simultaneously inhaled, arched my back, and sucked in my gut while trying to pull my waistband together. I was so close I couldn't give up. I held my breath, giving one final tug; I managed to fasten the button.
I was afraid to exhale, fearing I would blow the metal button off my jeans. I imagined it would pop off with such force it would shoot right through the newly finished sheetrock ceiling. Trying to avert any damage, I thought, "Hurry Tom, get the zipper up."
June looked on with merciless glee as I wiggled about, tugging on the metal tab to close my fly. Finally, finally, I had fastened my jeans. I laid there for a moment to rest.
When I stood up, I inhaled against my will, gasping. I think I shrieked a little too. "Ay, Yi, Yi!" I'd learned a whole new meaning of the term sung! "How could they be so tight?" I wondered. "They fit perfectly last night."
June was laughing. "Do you suppose this is why Mom never uses the high heat setting?" I gave her a snarling look of disapproval for her "I told you so" attitude.
"Not to worry, my little canine critic. I've got this." Jeans are always a little tight coming out of the dryer. I placed my outstretched leg on the edge of the bed then began reaching for my toes. An exercise regimen of bends and stretches should do the trick. I felt the jeans were loosening up, but not enough.
Maybe some squats. That'll stretch them out! I began the first squat. "Ouchy! Ouchy! Ouch!" Another not-so-good idea. Things got pinched that aren't meant to be!
June was laughing even harder. "Why don't you try the splits next? That might help!"
I had had an actual situation on my hands...or should I say, on my legs. To complicate matters, I wasn't sure I could get them off. I was determined to avoid calling 911 and was able to wiggle free.
Using common logic and obvious reasoning, I deduced: "Now, if these jeans got this tight by drying them on high heat, putting them back in the dryer on "cool down" should reverse the damage.
June looked at me with repeated concern, "Mom never does that when she's doing laundry."
"Well, Mom isn't here right now, is she?"
Another failure. The "cool down" setting didn't help; it just consumed more of my valuable time. I managed to squeeze back into the ill-fitting britches. The thought of trying a different pair of jeans hadn't even occurred to me. "I guess I'm just going to move a little more cautiously until the denim stretches back out."
While walking down the hallway with a window casing in my hands, I peered through a doorway. June was lying there sprawled out on the bed. "Get down! You know Mom doesn't want you on the bed!"
June didn't even raise her head; she just answered, "Well, Mom isn't here now, is she?" Smart-aleck dog.
I suppose I had been working for about a half-hour when I finally got some relief. First, the distressed denim gave way while I bent over to pick up some more boards. Then, when I felt the cool breeze, I realized I had ripped out the crotch of my pants.
I couldn't have cared less how ridiculous I looked. It didn't feel too bad, and the jeans seemed to fit better, so I kept working.
Then, I thought, "What if a neighbor comes knocking on my door. What would the dog think? Maybe I should change my pants." And so, I did. Fortunately, the next pair of jeans went on without such a fight.
Although I didn't get started on my work when I wanted to, it had been an educational morning. First, I learned the importance of proper heat settings. Additionally, I now understand what girls go through putting on those skinny jeans. But I have to say; there is no way a girl can know how a guy feels when he wears those skinny jeans. Yikes!
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Everyone knows that Yogi is smarter than your average bear. When he was about to get in trouble, his companion Boo-Boo would intervene to keep Yogi from getting into trouble with Ranger Smith. Yogi's problem always seemed to involve a picnic basket.
Ranger Smith placed the "Do not feed the bears" signs around Jellystone Park. Still, visitors would leave their baskets unattended, and the bears would find them. Probably because Yogi was known to use a pencil to cross out the word "not," making the sign read "Do Feed the Bears." Yogi was always on the lookout for a "pic-a-nic basket" and just couldn't resist stealing one at every opportunity. I loved watching those cartoons of Yogi Bea and Boo-Boor when I was growing up.
I grew up, did a lot of camping where bears live, and eventually moved to the north woods. I learned the importance of not only not feeding the bears but the necessity of proper food storage to keep your camp, or picnic site, bear-proof. Bears and people just don't make good partners when sharing the same food basket. Still, I inadvertently feed the bears and other animals.
We put out hummingbird feeders in the spring in anticipation of their return. Bird feeders with different seeds draw various birds that are fun to watch year-round. But unfortunately, keeping squirrels and raccoons out of the bird feeders is an ongoing quest, and in reality, a lost cause.
The birds and squirrels will spill and drop seeds. But nothing goes to waste around here; the deer and the bears gladly come around to clean up the ground below the feeders.
Although we have had bears in our yard in the past, we don't see them anymore. This is because June has well-marked our yard, keeping the bears at bay. (Dogs and bears do not get along and will keep their distance from one another.) We still see bears in our neighbors' yards, but they don't have dogs. Our neighbors tell me they also see bears going through our yard from time to time, but way outback. So the bears stay clear of our house - June's territory.
The bears will stay clear of June's area, but the deer come right up to the house for the treats under the feeders, all the while keeping a vigilant watch for that dog. I've even seen hoof prints in the snow ON our front porch a couple of times. The deer can't reach the feeders hanging on the porch railings from the ground. So, one deer was brave enough to come up attempting to rob the sunflower seeds on the porch! We enjoy the wildlife around our home and welcome all the animals.
When I am cooking and have carrot, potato, or apple peelings, I'll put them in the yard for the deer. If I have fresh fruits or vegetables that have aged, I put them out as well. The grouse are particularly fond of apples.
There are different theories on feeding wild animals. Some say you shouldn't; others say it's okay; each has logical reasons to support their position. But, this story is not to debate the issue.
Every fall, we have mice and voles that seek winter nesting inside our garage. I put food out for them too. Of course, the seed I set out for critters in the garage is inside a live trap. When I catch mice, I release them near the creek down the road. They can find new places for suitable nesting or become part of the food chain, the circle of life. We've been feeding the mice for a long time.
When Melissa and I were dating, she lived in a cute little cottage house in the country. One day, she went into her kitchen, where she saw a mouse run across the floor, taking shelter behind the refrigerator. Expressing no desire to be roommates with a mouse, she told me she would buy a trap.
I assumed she would get a typical mouse trap – a rectangular piece of pine with a very sensitive latch and a wire that held a spring-loaded copper-colored bar. It's the kind of trap that makes a very distinct snapping noise when it goes off; and hurts like the dickens if it trips in your hand while setting it. I'm not afraid to admit I was always (and still am) a little scared when arming one of those old mouse traps.
The basic mouse trap came in a two-pack for a dollar nineteen. Instead, Melissa bought a clear plastic live trap. I questioned her, "You paid almost twenty bucks for a mousetrap."
"I don't want to hurt him," she justified. "I just want him of my house." The same day she placed the trap next to the refrigerator, she caught the mouse.
It was a grey mouse with a short, fat little body with a relatively short tail. His head seemed too big for his body, but I suppose it had to be. The mouse had huge dark eyes, big, perky ears, and long whiskers on his fat little cheeks. Melissa took the trap about ten feet outside the back door to release him. She had more mice in the house than she knew.
Every morning when she woke, she had another mouse in the trap. Then, there would be another when she came home from work in the evening. There'd also be yet another mouse in the clear plastic box if Melissa came home for lunch. Each time, she'd set the rodent free and put more bait in the trap. It was interesting that she only ever caught one mouse at a time, in a trap that would accommodate several.
After about a week or so of this, I finally spoke up. "You do realize that's the same mouse you're catching over and over again." She adamantly denied it. "For Pete's sake, you catch him, then release him just a few feet outside the door, and he comes right back in." She claimed I had no training or knowledge on mousology.
"Come on, Melissa. Look at his body. Look at his face: the big eyes, giant ears, long whiskers. It's the same darn mouse every time." She continued to deny my claim. "Why don't you stop setting the trap and just put some food out if you're just going to keep feeding him?"
Her response was sharp and to the point. "Why don't you mind your own business? This is my house, and I will take care of the mouse problem as I see fit. I don't need your help." Wow. She really put me in my place and continued to set me straight, "Besides, Beans needs to eat, too."
"Beans?" I was taken back.
"Yes, his name is Beans, and he'll quit coming back when he wants to. Now, why don't you mind your own business."
From that instance on, anytime I would see Melissa setting Beans free in the yard, I would roll my eyes or shake my head – but I knew better than to say a word about it/him. In truth, I admired the compassion and affection she showed to a simple field mouse. It was just another reason I fell in love with this girl.
Eventually, Beans stopped coming around. Melissa moved to a different house. We got married and moved together to northern Minnesota. Beans will come up in conversation from time to time, and to this day, she gets a little defensive should I poke fun at that situation.
Just the other day, actually, a few weeks ago, I noticed something strange in the kitchen. "What on earth is a live Asian beetle doing crawling across the counter in January?" I was baffled, "They usually go away for the winter." So I took a small paper towel to pick him up carefully, to avoid squishing him. (They stink bad if you squish them.) I was going to wrap him in the paper and dispose of him by way of flushing. Lord knows there's probably a massive colony of Asian beetles in our septic tank.
Melissa came running into the kitchen, "No! No! Don't hurt him." Once again, I was puzzled. Melissa approached the counter, pushing away my hand of devastation. "Watch this."
She opened a sealed container, pinched off a crumb from a Harvest Glory Muffin I had baked, and set it on the counter about an inch away from the bug. The beetle made its way, climbing on top of the morsel. I must admit I was a bit amazed as I witnessed the tiny bug consume the entire crumb but still complained, "This is why I make muffins?"
"Just be quiet, so you don't scare him." Melissa watched, too, as the small, round bright orange bug with black dots enjoyed the meal. "Now watch this," she said when the bug had finished eating.
Melissa took a toothpick, dipped it in water, placing a tiny speck on the counter. The Asian beetle crawled to the water and drank it all until no sign of water remained on the surface. "That is amazing," I said.
With affection, Melissa reported, "He's been coming around for a few days now." I could tell she's been feeding him daily and had become attached to the beetle. Like a little kid who found a puppy on the way home from school, I was almost expecting her to ask, "Can we keep him." But, she doesn't need my permission to keep a pet pest in the house.
I started to speak, "You do realize…." My wife gave me a firm, cold glare. "Never mind," I said, retreating to the bedroom. I needed to pack for a trip that June and I were taking.
While I was on the road, Melissa called one day to report concerning news. "The beetle showed up for breakfast this morning. He's moving kind of slow. I'm worried about him."
"Melissa, you realize…never mind." I quickly changed the subject. "How are the deer doing."
Melissa was excited to report, "There's a baby buck that started coming around. I can't wait for you to see him when you get home." Each day, she updates me on the birds, the squirrels, the grouse, the deer, the beetle, and the new young buck.
This morning I sent Melissa a text: "Did you name the Asian Beetle?"
I received an immediate response, "I'm not telling you."
Yes, from Beans on – we feed the wildlife.
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It had been one of those nights when I slept so well I awoke before the alarm went off. I put on my robe then went to the kitchen. The LED lights on the humidifier glowed, illuminating my path down the hallway. The dim lights seemed a little brighter because my eyes were dilated; still, the soft green light was easy on my eyes.
My dog slept peacefully on her bed next to ours. June didn't wake nor follow me down the hall. That was very unusual as she's always is excited about her first visit to the yard in the morning, breakfast, and perhaps the prospect of someone throwing her toy to play catch, even in the dark.
No, today I walked down the hall alone. I wondered how cold it was outside. I knew the temperature was supposed to drop below zero, and the winds were forecast to provide us a bitter wind chill. The house was chilly, so I pulled the collar of my robe, closing it more snuggly.
The stillness of the morning was gentle. Outside I heard the metallic sound of something moving; it almost sounded like rusty hinges on an old sign swaying back and forth in the winds. But there are no signs near here. Maybe it was coming from the neighbor's sawmill just down the road.
I stopped in the hallway to listen. It was like sweet music with an easy rhythm trying to lure me back into a slumber. But, it would remain a mystery from where the noise came. I was not interested in finding its source – just its song.
Although my steps were silent, my bare feet were getting cold. I adjusted my robe again and went back to the bedroom for my slippers. Each step I took produced a soft clacking noise as the heel of my slippers contacted the wooden floor. It's a sound that annoys my wife, and I didn't want to wake her, so I continued, tip-toeing to the kitchen. At least for a few steps until I was distracted, then returned to my usual step.
I heard the boiler kick on in the basement. Then, the radiators sounded off a moment later as the hot water ran through the cold pipes, changing their temperature. It makes a crackling sound, like wood burning in a campfire. It is a beautiful sound that fills the soul with comfort and warmth; it's a sound of assurance that heat is on the way.
Down the hall and across the living room, I could see a brightness coming in the windows. The grey clouds had cleared during the night, letting the moon shine brightly, casting her light over the frigid north woods and into my house.
In the kitchen, there was something odd about the windows. They were moonlit but with darker areas shading parts of them. I could see it from the end of the hallway in the living room windows as well. The illusions were very distinct in the large bay window, where it almost looked like cobwebs had filled the corners. But too much area was affected, and the lines were much too coarse to be cobwebs.
I realized I was seeing shadows cast from trees and branches in our yard by a very bright moon in the dark sky. The Light bounced off the white snow bed in the yard, making the morning brilliant.
The brightness coming into the house created framed squares on the oak floor. Each is like a painting with a unique pattern of moonlight and shadows. It was simply amazing.
From the kitchen window, I looked over the backyard. The shadows from the pine and birch trees were so vivid they were almost surreal. Even the birdbath, topped with its mound of snow, cloned its own image from the light.
I turned to the window and noticed my silhouette cast over the kitchen floor, again framed in the moonlight. Walking room to room, my shadow was there, in every window I stood before as if it was following me. I began to question if I was awake or was I dreaming.
The sign, the wind, the boiler, the pipes, my slippers touching the floor blended to create a symphony. I wanted to dance with so much music, but everyone was still fast asleep; I didn't have a partner. That's never stopped me before. It was all too much for me to try keeping my feet still. So I started softly singing with the orchestra, an old Cat Stevens song: "I'm being followed by a moon shadow. Moon shadow, moon shadow."
I danced, but I was not alone. My own shadow became my partner, keeping perfectly n step with me. We danced our way toward the kitchen. Once I stepped out of the framed moonlight, my shadow left me, returning to the darkness. As I moved into each new frame, my partner rejoined me. "Leaping and hopping on a moon shadow. Moon shadow, moon shadow."
I would make some oatmeal for breakfast. Opting not to disturb the magical darkness, I didn't turn any lights on. Without wearing my contacts, I would have to squint to set the timer on the microwave.
I felt pretty proud of myself; Going to bed early, getting such a good rest through the night, and waking to a morning outpouring with serenity and solitude. I became curious just how much time I had until my alarm would go off and looked at the clock on the stove. The clock was wrong, but the microwave and coffee machine clocks read the same. Perhaps we had lost power for a while.
I picked up my cell phone. The cell phone is independent of the power grid and always has the correct time. "Oh my! It really is 1:27 in the morning." There is something special about getting up, preparing to start your day, and then realizing you can go back to sleep for another three and a half hours.
Not wanting to wake anyone, I tip-toed back to the bedroom. In the moonlight, I could see my wife's face. She was so beautiful and content. Our two cats, Salem and Eve, were fast asleep on her pillow, resting against the top of Melissa's head. I carefully climbed back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin. June, sleeping next to our bed, took a big breath, relaxing as she let the air flow back out from deep within her.
I turned on my side, facing my wife. I held her hand, and she took a deep breath, Salem and Eve both started purring, and I smiled, "Cats. Cat Stevens." I gazed at my wife until I lulled myself back to sleep, softly singing in my mind, "I'm being followed by a moon shadow. Moon shadow, moon shadow."
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June and I were on our way to Massachusetts when I received a text from my daughter Annie, "How is your Wednesday?"
I replied, "Good. On my way to Masschusettes, which most people can't even spell, let alone point out on a map. Lol." I was laughing about my text, then re-read what I'd written. "Oh no!" I gasped, then quickly sent Annie another text, "Guess I should spell check myself before mouthing off. Bahahaha." (I had to write 'Bahahaha, as my flip phone doesn't send emojis or, obviously spell check.)
Annie is a school teacher; surely, she would catch the typo. So, to prove I knew how to spell the state correctly, I fired off another text, "Massachusetts. M-A-S-S-A-C-H-U-S-E-T-T-S. Massachusetts. Would you like me to use it in a sentence?"
Annie wrote back, "Hahahahaha, yeah, you'd better be careful about your spelling." (She had to spell out, 'Hahahahaha' because my flip phone doesn't get emojis either.) Although we were hundreds of miles apart, I knew we were sharing a good laugh about that.
One of my blessings is my ability to travel around this great country; meet people in far-away regions, and communicate despite our language difference. Even though we may both be speaking English, the different dialects are most interesting.
People often tell me Minnesota people talk funny, meaning they have an accent. Not so. Like everyone else, we spell our state with only one o; pronounced, Minnesoota, as if it had two long o's. The same is true with the word 'hoome' and others.
When we first moved here, I would ask where something, or someplace was. They might answer, "A boot ten miles from here." It took me a while to understand that people were not referring to winter footwear when saying a boot. (Spelled, a-b-o-u-t)
In other states around the country, I hear people pronouncing words differently, and sometimes they phrase a sentence differently than we did when living in Iowa. We've lived in Minnesota for seven years now, and I've still not adjusted to some terminology. For example, if a person drives a semi, I'd call them a truck driver; one who drives children to school is a bus driver. But, in Minnesota, people will say, "She drives bus, or he drives truck." And it could be me; a couple of months ago, I heard someone use these same terms in Oklahoma.
Although I truly enjoy the different dialects around the country, I don't think I can ever get used to Minnesotans and northern Wisconsinites calling tater-tot casserole, tater-tot hotdish. It’s casserole (to me anyway).
A big terminology difference I noticed involves carbonated beverages. In the mid-west, we call such a drink pop. Other parts of the country call it soda or cola. In the south, it's all coke.
Years ago, at a café down south, I ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke. I thought the waitress was poking fun at me when she asked, "What kind of coke do you want." I asked what kinds of coke they offered? "We have Coca-Cola, Pepsi coke, orange coke, strawberry coke, or lemon-lime coke (7-Up). We also have diet coke (TAB in the pink can; diet Coca-Cola didn't come out until the early eighties), and root beer." When I told her I just wanted a regular coke, she asked, "What flavor."
I also enjoy the way people will spell and use a word the same but pronounce it differently. For example, this morning in the mail, I received a gift of handmade pecan pralines from a friend in Texas. I know of at least two ways to say the word pecan and four ways to pronounce pralines; one must say it correctly according to the region you’re in, lest ye be labeled a tourist.
Regional terms are also fun; in some areas, 'you guys' refers to a group of people regardless of gender. If I understand southern English correctly, y'all can mean one person, or two people. But when addressing a group, a southerner will say, all y'alls.
Last week in Massachusetts, I overheard a conversation among a group of men having coffee in a restaurant. The man who caught my attention had an accent; I would guess he was from New Jersey.
He kept referring to an adomaduh. It made no sense to me, so I listened more keenly. I swear it sounded like he was trying to say "Mah-na Mah-na."
Do you remember the Sesame Street Character Mahna Mahna? He was a purple Muppet with the wild orange hair that wore a fuzzy green tunic and yellow sunglasses. The only words he ever said were his name. He sang a song with the two pink Snowths with long eyelashes, horns, and yellow lips? I thought the guy was saying his name, Mahna Mahna.
As the man in the cafe continued talking, I figured out he was talking about a crooked car dealer. "It's just wrong when someone tampas with an adomaduh."
When I got up to leave, I stopped at the man's table and asked if he was talking about an odometer. "That's what I said. The crook tampas with adomaduhs." I started laughing, but I was the only one, so I awkwardly exited stage left and out to my car. Driving the rest of the day, I kept singing, "Mahna Mahna. Do doo be-do-do. Mahna Mahna. Do do-do do.
Although I could not get that song out of my head for the life of me, I do love the various accents, dialects, and terminology used around America. But, let's be honest, if we all spoke proper English as it was initially written, life would be far less exciting.
After the road trip to Massachusetts, it was good to be back home where everyone speaks a language I understand. I brought a load from the car into the house while June ran out into the yard.
Our black cat Edgar Allan, standing on the back of the couch next to the front door, gave me a head butt and greeted me. "Did you bring that rotten dog home with you," he asked? Now, Melissa and I will sometimes refer to them as "that rotten dog" or "that rotten cat." But only in a loving manner when one of them has done something naughty or mischievous.
I set down the bags that I was carrying. "Edgar, you are not allowed to call June a rotten dog. That term is reserved for people use only. Besides, June is not a rotten dog; you, on the other hand, can certainly be a rotten cat," I said as I gave him a scratch behind the ears. I had a good laugh about that, but I was the only one laughing.
Edgar defended himself, "Yeah, but June is more rottener than me."
"Edgar, your grammar is atrocious in so many ways, in any region…and you call yourself Edgar Allan." I shook my head, laughing, but I was the only one laughing, so I went outside.
So, there I was, correcting the grammar used by a cat; me – the same guy who misspelled 'Massachusettes' while poking fun at people who can’t spell Massachusetts.
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I went to an estate auction just to see what was there. It was July, and it was hot. A couple of items interested me, but I wasn't sure I wanted to wait for them to come up for bid in the heat. So, I went inside the house to see what was there, but mostly I was hoping to find some air conditioning to escape the hot weather.
I fell in love the very moment I saw it on the east wall in the living room. I knew it would probably sell cheap because people don't want these big old things. Most folks consider them an albatross; they just want to buy the bench or the stool. So, I decided to stay and wait for it.
A few hours later, the auctioneer said, "What we have here is an antique piano and bench. We'll be selling them separately, starting with the bench. Whoever buys the bench can have the piano if they want it; if not, we'll sell the piano next."
The piano was gorgeous, an antique upright-grand. The unique rounded corners made of dark quarter-sawn oak, the wood carvings on the sheet music boards, the sculpted legs, and hand-carved beading on the edges made this a breathtaking piano. The center keys had been replaced with modern plastic, but the original ivory keys remained on high and low notes.
The piano bench was nothing special; a late sixties piece of furniture that did not match the piano. Jim, the auctioneer, asked, "Who'll give me two hundred to open." Auctioneer's always start high. He chanted a few seconds, then asked for one hundred. A man called out a bid of two dollars and fifty cents. "We've got two and a half; who'll give me five?" I raised my hand. The other bidder rapidly went seven-fifty; I raised my hand for ten. He took twelve and a half, and I nodded my head for fifteen. The other man bidding, looked at me and said something obscene, then walked away; it shocked me that he said it. No one else was bidding; Jim paused his auction cry, glanced over the crowd, then announced, "Sold for fifteen dollars," I held up my card, "to number one-seventeen." Then he addressed me, "Tom, do you want the piano or just the bench?"
I laughed; Jim knows me, "All I wanted was the piano, but I'll take both."
The other man who was bidding approached me, asking if I wanted to sell the bench. "Sure, twenty-five bucks," I said with a smug tone.
I could tell he was annoyed with me, "You only paid fifteen."
"Yeah," I replied, "but then you said what you said to me, and if that isn't worth ten bucks, I don't know what is." The man glared at me briefly, then repeated his rude comment. "The price just went up to fifty," I said to him as he turned away; in the spirit of a live auction, I added, "Do I hear more?"
I bought several cool items that day – the piano was the prized treasure among them. When I got home, I told my wife I had purchased a baker's cabinet, some other things and then told her about the piano. "It's going to look great with that antique piano bench you bought in Winona." She asked where I would store it since we were still finishing the remodeling of our home. "Oh yeah," I casually mentioned, "I bought the house, too. I'll keep it there for now." (That's another story that didn't end as well.)
The piano sat in the house for a few months; I wanted to move it to our home, ready to play before Christmas. So, I called a man named Paul Kennedy, a piano tuner. I was told Paul was a real enthusiast for old pianos. "I'll come right over," he said. I explained the house didn't have any utilities connected, and it was dark. "I have a flashlight on my phone," he said, determined to come that evening, "I can be there in ten minutes."
"You better give me thirty minutes," I told him and hung up the phone. When I got to the house, Paul was pacing on the front porch. After a brief introduction, I unlocked the door.
Paul rushed right in to look at the piano. "Holy cow, this is amazing," were his first words. He ran his hands over the top and the sides. "I can't believe this," he said, then opened the keyboard and played a few notes. "It's not far out of tune," he said, then pulled the piano forward to look at the soundboard, "Do you have any idea how cool it is to find this complete? I usually find pianos like this in pieces in boxes and baskets." Now, I was in love with this piano at the very first sight, but Paul's excitement made my affection seem like puppy love.
"You need to get this moved into a warm space; the cold, dry air isn't good for it," Paul said. He wrote down a few notes, including the serial number, and promised to be in touch soon.
Less than an hour passed when I received a call from Paul. I barely said hello, when he started, "Your piano is a 1906 Ellington, upright grand. Ellington is an upscale piano built by Baldwin in Chicago…." Paul finally took a breath and asked, "Can I come to see it again in the daylight on Thursday." Of course, I agreed and told him to call first.
By Thursday, the piano had already been moved into our house, having a couple of days to acclimate. Paul sat down and started playing lightly. "It's really held its tune well." As he played, I could see the dust floating in the sunlight coming through the front windows. Finally, he stood up, "Can I ask what you paid for the piano?"
"I gave fifteen dollars for the bench; the piano was free," I told him.
"This piano, restored, is worth about twenty-six thousand dollars on the west coast when sold by a reputable dealer." Paul handed me a card, "This is a friend of mine; he's a collector and a dealer. He'll give you six thousand for it, sight unseen, based on what I've told him – but now that I've seen it in the daylight, he'll give you at least eight."
"The piano isn't for sale," I told him, "It has a history here in Ottumwa, and I'm going to keep it." Then I told Paul I wanted him to clean it up and tune it. It was terribly dusty inside.
Paul made a clicking noise and pointed at me, "That's what I wanted to hear." Before I knew it, he removed the movement and keyboard from the piano cabinet and carried them out to his car.
"Wait a minute," I said with concern. "How much is this going to cost me?"
Paul just laughed, "It'll be very reasonable. Trust me; I am more interested in seeing this Ellington play again than a paycheck. I'll be back on Monday – say three in the afternoon?"
Paul returned on Monday bringing in the keyboard first; he had removed the white plastic tops from the center keys and replaced them with natural ivory from other antique pianos he'd collected for parts. Then he pulled the toe board, got down on his hands and knees, and started cleaning with tiny brushes and a vacuum.
When he finished cleaning, he reassembled the piano, sat on the bench, and began to strike keys. Next, he used a tool to turn pegs, tuning the piano. Then, when he finished, Paul started playing the piano with enthusiasm and spirit – It was magnificent!
When I remodeled our house, I removed all the carpet and refinished the hardwood floors. Any floors that weren't wooden were ceramic tile. The entire house became part of the instrument with all the hard floors. The sound resonated from room to room; it was music unlike any I'd ever heard from a piano before. I was absolutely in awe at the sound and the tone of this piano that was over one hundred years old. Then I told Paul some of the Ellington's history.
"Delilah was the name of the lady who owned the piano. I talked to her sister, Dorothea, who lived next door, and she told me a lot of stories:
"It's a fabulous instrument, an upright grand, you know." I smiled and continued listening. "The piano came from the Ottumwa Opera House; they bought it new. Then, in the early twenties, they traded it in for a full-sized grand piano at that music store next to the South Side Drug. Dad bought the piano, used, for Delilah to learn to play. She was pretty young then.
“The piano company delivered it and set it up on the west wall. Dad insisted the piano be kept perfectly tuned, so he had the tuner come by once a month to check it. Everyone in our family was a musician, so when Dad saw the tuner walking down the sidewalk with his case, he called for Mom and us girls to come to the living room. A few neighbors and friends would see him coming, and they came to the house with their instruments too. After the tuner looked over the piano, we all started playing. It became a regular event for people to gather at our house on Sunday evening for a music jam once a month. Other people came just to listen. The piano never seemed to need much tuning; we figured Dad just wanted folks to get together for the music. I think the piano tuner wanted the same thing because he never charged Dad to tune the piano.
"Several years back, I was over visiting Delilah; she said to me, 'help me move this piano to the other side of the room.' I told her I would not; I said, 'Dad had them put that piano on the west wall. It's been there for over eighty-five years, and that's where it's going to stay.' Well, a while later, I was back at the house, and I'll be darned if that piano hadn't been moved to the east wall. So I asked Delilah, 'who moved that for you.' I kept a close watch on my sister. I didn't see anyone going in or out of her house. Finally, Delilah told me she moved it herself, a few inches at a time until it was on the east wall. Can you imagine that? That woman, at ninety-one years old, moved that piano across the rug no less until it was where she wanted it."
Dorothea's eyes were welling, and she changed her tone of voice, "Well, I suppose that's just stubbornness for ya." She went on to say, "Dad built that house in 1917 – my sister and I were just babies when we moved in. I suppose Delilah was about six years old when Dad bought the piano." Dorothea paused as she reminisced. "She lived there her whole life and never did marry; that piano was her love." Her eyes were welling up thinking about her sister; Dorothea said, "You best be going now; I need to fix some supper."
When Paul had finished tuning and playing the piano, he stood up, motioning for me to take the bench, "Sit down, play it; tell me what you think."
I blushed, "I don't play the piano; I always wanted to, but I don't."
"Oh, your wife plays?" I told him she did not. "Do your kids play?" I said they do not. Paul seemed confused, "If no one in your family plays, why do you want a piano?"
"Because I like to cook," I answered, leaving Paul more baffled.
"How do you cook with a piano?"
"I don't cook with the piano," I replied. "I cook a nice meal and invite people who can play to come to dinner. Then, when we've finished eating, I hand them a ticket and tell them, 'Pay or play – nobody eats for free.'" We shared a good laugh about that. We said our farewells, and Paul went on his way.
One day, I decided to go through the piano bench. I knew there was some sheet music and such in there; I wanted to clean it out and probably get rid of the bench. I found several pieces of music that Delilah had composed. "Maybe I'll keep these with the piano," I thought. Next, I found a couple of letters addressed to Delilah from John; each letter had a military return address.
I opened the first letter; it was handwritten: "My dear, sweet Delilah…." My heart melted at the greeting. The letter went on; "I tested out in the military, so they'll be teaching me a trade. When I get home from the war, I'll have a skill, so I can get a good job to provide for you, if you’ll marry me one day, and start a family." His letters were the sweetest love letters I'd ever read.
I took the letter to Dorothea, asking if she wanted them. "No, they should stay with the piano." Maybe she had seen the letters before. She went on to tell me, "Johnny never came home from Germany. Delilah never married, never even courted. The piano would be my sister's only love for the rest of her life." The story moved me very much; enough to go home and start planning.
I called a friend of mine, a wonderfully talented pianist, to invite him and his wife, Marta, to a dinner party. I told Michael, "Be sure to bring cash or a good variety of sheet music to play; nobody eats free around here."
I also invited Dorothea, arranging to pick her up and drive her back home. She seemed excited to come for dinner and hear the piano being played again. I was looking forward to hearing more of her stories.
The day before our dinner, Dorothea called me, "I'm afraid I can't make it tomorrow evening." I offered to postpone the event for her, but she declined. "I just can't..." she paused. "I just can't hear it played by anyone else. I'm sorry." That was the last time I spoke to Dorothea. I tried several times to call her but only got the answering machine. Dorothea passed away within a few years of her sister.
It was a difficult decision, but we left the piano in Ottumwa when Melissa and I moved to the north shore. We sold it to a young man who had a sincere interest in Ottumwa and the area's history. With his strong appreciation for the piano and its history, we were confident we left the piano with the right person.
Every time I look at a picture of the Ellington, I recall all of the love stories it holds. The love from their dad, the piano tuner, the neighbors, and friends. I feel the love between Dorothea and he sister, Delilah. I feel the love and hope in Johnny's letters, and I share Delilah's pain when Johnny didn't return from the war. I understand her true passion for the piano that became her lifetime love. I also feel the love, joy, and appreciation of the young man who owns it now.
For well over one hundred years, every note of every song played on that piano has entertained and comforted many. There is no doubt in my mind it will continue to do so for another hundred years.
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"My gosh, how old is she? Isn't she nine or ten?" my cousin Sarah guessed in awe.
I tossed the ball again, "She's eleven and a half," I replied as June emerged victoriously from the stairwell with Sully in close pursuit. She set the ball, covered with dog slobber, in my hand.
"Woof, woof," June spoke with excitement, "Throw the ball again, Dad, I'm ready" I tossed the ball down the stairwell to the lower level of the house. June and Sully both took off chasing the ball; June was two full strides in the lead.
This game of catch had been going on for nearly four hours, with only short breaks. Sarah shook her head, "I think June is wearing Sully out."
Sully is a two-and-a-half-year-old, handsome Golden Retriever. His picture-perfect appearance is typical of his breed. He has those big, brown puppy dog eyes that will melt your heart. His soft reddish-brown coat is wavy and features stylish cowlicks. Whisps of longer blonde hair trail on each of his lanky legs, flowing down to his toes. When Sully wags his tail, the longer hair flows like the groomed mane of a show horse, cantering through the breeze.
Sully stands half again taller than June; he weighs thirty pounds more and is physically fit. June, nine years his senior, still carries the girlish figure of her youth; she refuses to act like a dog in her senior years.
Age consideration aside, the two dogs get along well. June will often yield way to the larger canine; not because of the size difference; June just plays smarter. You might say she chooses her battles wisely - unless there's a tennis ball involved. Both dogs love to chase and catch the ball and become quite competitive when the yellow fuzzy sphere appears.
I threw the ball down the stairs again, June took off in the lead, Sully followed close behind. June was just getting ready to start down the steps. Trying to turn the corner while running, Sully slipped on the ceramic tile floor. He went sliding by, feet first, like a baseball player trying to beat the ball to home plate. Sully crashed into June's rump as he passed. June was launched down the steps like the runner who crashed into the catcher. She tumbled for a bit before regaining her footing. Sully quickly caught up, and the two charged across the family room.
One of the dogs bumped the ball with their nose. The ball ricocheted off the stone fireplace and bounced down another set of steps going to the lowest level in the house. Sully was in the lead but slammed on his brakes, stopping short, allowing June to fly by, down the steps. June returned to the living room with the ball.
At the top of those steps was a white round disc on the floor; I thought it was a smoke detector that had been removed for some reason. My cousin Andy explained, "The cat food dish is down there, and he'll clean it out every chance he gets. If Sully gets too close to the disc, he gets a little tickle from his collar, so he doesn't go near those steps."
I learn new things every day. That also explains the smoke detector on top of the cat box upstairs; all this time, I thought their cats must eat some bad things if Andy felt it necessary to mount a smoke detector on the litter box.
Although June came upstairs with the ball, Sully had the ball a minute later. He held it between his teeth, making a lump under his lip; he looked like a baseball pitcher with a big wad of chew tucked in his cheek.
June turned to me with despair, "Sully has my ball."
"Well, how did he get it from you?" I explained like a coach, "You have to protect the ball, cover it up; you can't let your opponent take it away like that. It's his ball now; possession is everything in any game using a ball."
Sully laid down, gnawing on the ball, unwilling to give it up. Sully is bigger, but June plays smarter. What she did next amazed me!
While Sully laid with the ball in his mouth, June went to his pile, bringing me one of Sully's favorite toys. I tossed the object into the dining room. June flinched, stomping her front feet as if she was going for the toy. Sully dropped the ball and ran to retrieve the toy before June got there. As soon as he ran, June calmly walked over, picked up the tennis ball, bringing it to me. I laughed but was indeed amazed at her thought process.
At first, I thought June's ploy was just coincidental until she did it again and again! The next time June baited Sully, Sarah also witnessed it. "Come on, Sully! June is bluffing for Pete's sake, and you fall for it every time!" Sarah shook her head, "Sully, you’re so gullible." I was proud of my crafty little girl.
The following day, June and Sully were looking at my computer screen while I went for a refill of coffee. I had started writing a story titled 'June and Sully.'
"Why is your name listed first," Sully demanded to know? June pushed a few keys on the laptop, bringing up a different page I had opened.
"Look here, Sully," June explained, pointing her paw at the screen. "According to the American Kennel Club, Golden Retrievers are the fourth smartest breed of dogs. Do you know which is the smartest?" June pressed another key, scrolling the screen, "It says here, Border Collies are the smartest breed." June gloated to her playmate, "That's why my name is listed first."
June went to find a ball; Sully climbed on the couch to nap in the warm sunlight coming through the front window. Watching this exchange between the dogs, I said, "June, that's not exactly correct."
"I know," June said, smiling, "You obviously listed the names in alphabetical order." Then she presented a tennis ball covered with dog slobber, "Can you throw this for me, Dad?"
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Dozens of people have sent me the same picture; it's a signboard that reads: "Say what you will about the south, but no one retires and moves north." It still humors me. Although I'm not a big fan of the heat associated with the south, that's not the most significant flaw I find in the message. I always have to tell these people, “I'm not retired; I'm just between jobs."
Admittedly, while between jobs, I did move to northern Minnesota, where I enjoy the cooler climate. We don't get sweltering temperatures in the summer, and I love the cold and snowy winters. But this type of winter is not for everyone, especially people who say they hate snow. I read a social media post that might help these poor misguided souls.
"If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow." That's profound. I wish I were the one who wrote that, but I'm not, so I will quote it as 'author unknown.'
I've always lived where five months of the year came with cold weather and snow; in a word, winter: Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and now Minnesota. I like snow and always have.
As a kid, we'd listen intensely to the radio station impatiently waiting for the morning disc jockey to speak those four glorious words: "School is canceled today." When he finally said it, we'd jump up and down celebrating. Cheers echoed through the house as the word spread, "There's no school today." It was as if our favorite team had just won the championship game in overtime against a detested rival.
With this news, some of my brothers and sisters went back to bed, while others scrambled to find boots, hats, scarves, gloves, and of course, extra socks.
Mom had a large wicker basket of mis-matched socks. If we didn't have snow boots, we'd put on two pairs of socks, then slip a plastic bread bag over our foot, followed by another sock, then the shoe. Even though our shoes would get wet, the plastic kept our feet dry so that we could stay outside longer.
When gloves or mittens weren't available, a pair (or two) of socks on your hands worked just as well.
There was a lot to be done on a snow day:
The neighborhood kids would gather and roll big snowballs to build snowmen and snow forts to take cover from fast-flying snow projectiles. We always started off with teams, but inevitably teammates would turn on one another, and it became a free-for-all. The walls of the snow fortress no longer offered protection as many snowballs came from a teammate within the same fort!
Snowball fights weren't my favorite thing to do because, frankly, I wasn't that good; it’s hard to throw a snowball with socks on your hands, but I still participated. Sooner or later, someone was going to get hit a little too hard. Then, tempers flared, and warm tears rolled down cold cheeks. Some of the kids stomped away angry to their houses, but always came back out.
Inside the house, we'd toss our wet clothes in the dryer. Boots and shoes made a thundering racket tumbling inside the drum! Socks, gloves, and hats were set on top of heat registers to dry, along with cold hands to be warmed. When our clothes were dry enough, we'd get dressed again and make our way to a nearby hill for snow sledding. Sleds with steel rails were only good when the snow was packed down.
To prepare the sledding site, we'd go screaming down the hill on a saucer or rolled up plastic sled; they were the fastest. School lunch trays that were "borrowed" from the cafeteria, were also great for sledding. A cookie sheet or a turkey roasting pan would work for the smaller kids - even a big piece of cardboard would do. As long as it was smooth on the bottom, it was a potential for sledding. Of course, the more we packed down the snowy hill, the faster the sleds went.
Albeit dangerous, bumper skiing was an exciting event where skiers soon learned the hazards of a dry patch on the road. Unfortunately, the sport resulted in headaches, not from hitting the pavement but crouching down behind a running car right next to the tailpipe. Just a couple of runs in this event always left me queasy and nauseous. Bumper skiing wasn't the only risky thing we did in the snow.
In Iowa, we would pull a saucer sled or an inner tube tied to a long rope behind Dad's red and grey Ford 8N tractor. On the tube, you'd hold on for dear life when the tractor picked up speed, then suddenly turned sharply. The sled whipped on the end of the rope, crossing perpendicular over the plowed rows of a snow-covered cornfield. Wiping out hurt, and much like bull riding, there was no stopping the tractor until the rider had been launched. I'm still amazed that we never broke any arms or legs doing this. Still, pulling sleds behind a tractor wasn't the most dangerous thing I did.
When I was fifteen years old, my older brother Gerard and I bought identical motorcycles at Jerry Smith's Cycle Ranch; – bright blue Kawasaki KZ400s, with a gold and black stripe. Mine sat in the garage (as far as Dad knew), waiting for me to turn sixteen to get my driver's license. My birthday is in November, so being one who loved the cold and snow anyway, as soon as I had my license, I rode the motorcycle all winter long.
One day, riding in fresh snow, I was stopped at a red light, heading south on Highway 63. A car was coming up behind me, and I knew it wasn't going to get stopped, so I tried to get moving. Unfortunately, the car slid into my rear tire, shooting me through the intersection like a rock coming out of a sling-shot. I shot right between two cars coming off the cross street. Woodland Avenue. Fortunately, I didn't get hurt.
The guy who hit me had a pipe-wrench and helped me pull my bent fender away from the rear tire so I could ride home. "You shouldn't be riding that thing in the snow!" He warned me.
I probably sounded like a smart-aleck teenager when I replied, "Would it have made a difference if I was in my car? You still would have hit me; you need to slow down." The man gave me a dirty look and his information, saying he would pay for the fender. I did partially heed his advice; "From now on, if it's snowing, I'll stay off the highway."
A week later, I rode my motorcycle in the snow heading south on North Court Street, which parallels Highway 63. A car was approaching the stop sign on Woodland Avenue. I could tell she wasn't going to get stopped, and oncoming traffic kept me from trying to swerve around her. The car slid through the stop sign; I hit the front left fender and flew over my handlebars, smacking my mirror with my knee! I bounced off her hood, then tumbled and skidded across the snow-covered street.
The lady jumped out of her car and came running to see if I was hurt. I got up from the pavement, trying to remove the snow that packed into my helmet and was freezing my cheek. "Are you okay," she asked, quite shaken herself. "I couldn't get stopped, and it just happened so fast, and…"
"I'm okay, just a little banged up," I said while brushing snow off my chest and pants. "Is my motorcycle okay," I asked while limping back to the other side of her car to check it out.
A police car pulled up with his lights on; Ron Tolle was the officer; I knew him. I had never been in an accident before, and his presence made me feel more at ease. "Is anyone hurt," he asked? "Tom, are you okay? Do you want me to call an ambulance?" I assured him I was okay.
Officer Tolle helped me lift the broken bike lying on its side, back up on its wheels, and put down the kickstand. The headlight was still on, but the motor wasn't running; I turned the key off, then assessed the damages. Ron walked around the bike with me. The front forks were bent and pushed inward to the frame, the left turn signal had broken off, and one mirror was knocked loose. "Did someone hit you from behind, too," he asked? "How did your back fender get smashed up?"
"That happened last week," I pointed down the street, "on the other end of Woodland Avenue. A car hit me from behind on the highway."
The officer shook his head, "You shouldn't be riding this thing in the snow!" He warned me. I turned the key on, pulled in the clutch, and pushed the button - the motor fired right up. Ron must have read my mind, "You can't ride this home Tom, I’ve already called a wrecker to tow it."
The tow truck arrived and Bill Carr got out. "Are you alright," he asked while putting on his gloves. I told him I was, then he said, "You shouldn't be riding this thing in the snow. Does your dad know you're riding a motorcycle in the snow?" I stood there quietly as he lifted my bike with his wench. He read the side of the gas tank, "Kawasaki. Do you want me to take it out to Jerry Smith's or drop it off at your folks' house?"
When Jerry Smith saw the motorcycle, in his soft, always gentle voice, he said, "You know Tom, you shouldn't be riding this on snowy roads; it's not the right type of bike for that."
With time, I got smarter, I still rode my motorcycle all winter, but when it was snowing, I drove my car instead. What a thrill it was (and still is) cutting cookies in a parking lot covered with fresh snow in my car.
A few things have changed as I got a little older and had a little more money: I prefer a snowblower over a shovel, I bought a six-foot toboggan, but I think I would still ride a sheet of cardboard down the hill. I have warm boots and gloves now, and my aim has improved - I like throwing snowballs at my wife, daughters, and grandkids.
I don't think that will ever change for me; I still love the cold and snow. With hot cocoa, and wood fires in the stove, winter isn't just a season – it's a special feeling.
It is true, "If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow." Author unknown.
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With Thanksgiving upon us, there's always plenty for which to be thankful. But, this year, I have a little more; some extraordinary things – things money cannot buy.
While helping my brother with a remodeling project in Missouri, I promised him an apple pie. We were busy working, but I finally baked the pie the night before I left for home. I returned to Missouri a few weeks late to help again. Dan dropped a subtle hint by placing ten Granny Smith apples on the counter for me to find when I arrived.
When I saw them, I said, "Good Lord, Danny! There are enough apples here to bake two pies."
Danny laughed and said, "I know." Unfortunately, Dan had to leave a day before me, and I didn't get around to making the pies; but I wouldn't let the apples go to waste either.
I made two apple pies thinking I would drive five hours farther south to Oklahoma City. I could visit several family members, give them each a slice of pie, then head home to Minnesota. I called my wife and told her my plans, "Will you save a slice of pie for me," she asked? I promised her I would.
Before leaving Missouri, I learned of a friend in Iowa who was having health issues. I started thinking about how many people in Iowa I'd promised to visit. The list was getting longer, and many of these people are getting up there in years. I changed plans again. I would take the pies to Ottumwa and visit several friends, leaving each with a slice of pie. I called my wife and told her of the new plan. "Okay," she said, "Will you still be able to save a slice of pie for me?" I assured her I would, then started driving north.
My first stop would be to visit my friend Dale; he's a resident in a memory care facility. I called his daughter Becky first to make sure it would be okay to stop and see him. Becky gave me some tips, "Tell him who you are, and don't get hurt if he doesn't remember you."
A staff member showed me to his room. I started to remove my face covering, "Hi Dale; it's Tom…" Dale interrupted me.
"Tom Palen, what the heck are you doing here?" It made me feel good that he knew me.
"I'm bringing you a slice of apple pie; what else would I be doing here?" We shared a good laugh about that. I honestly had planned to stay for only fifteen or twenty minutes, but an hour and a half later, we wrapped up our visit.
During that time, we shared a lot of old stories and some new ones. Dale told me about the day he met his wife, Joann. I couldn't understand what he was saying as far as where they were, but the gist of the story was more important. "I had seen her a couple of times before but didn't pay any attention to her. Then one day at a social, I noticed her standing across the lawn and thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen." I could see in Dale's eyes that he was reliving that day. "I was standing with some buddies and pointed her out. I told them, 'Boys, I'm going to marry that gal over there.' Anyway, I bought her lunch." I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but he kept talking, and I kept listening.
"When fall came, some things changed in the bus routes, anyway, I was riding the bus to school. The driver stopped to let some more kids on. When the door opened, the most beautiful girl in the world climbed the steps into the bus. I moved over and asked her if she'd like to share the seat with me. She sat down to my right side, and she's been in the right seat next to me ever since then.
"She's still the prettiest woman I've ever seen, and she's the only woman I ever loved; she the only woman I could ever love." Dale looked around the room and got a little teary-eyed. "The hardest part of living here is going to bed at night without Joann by my side." Feeling the love and emotion in Dale's voice caused my eyes to well up also.
When I talked to Dale's daughter before the visit, I told her I would leave a slice of pie for her mom too. "You're leaving a piece of apple pie for mom, with my dad?" I asked her if that would be okay. "Mom will never get it," she said laughing, then suggested, "Why don't you take the piece to mom yourself." I hadn't seen Joann for at least a few years. So, I told Becky I would visit her mom, too.
Dale and I talked about many things during our visit; then, I told him I would visit Joann next; to take a slice of pie to her. "You could leave her pie here, and I'll give it to her when I see her." We shared a good laugh about that. "I'll bet she'll be happy to see you," Dale said to me, Then while giving me a very heartfelt hug. "You be sure to tell Joann that I love her."
"I will, Dale. I promise."
Joann greeted me at the door, welcoming me. "It's so good to see you; come in, sit down." She offered a glass of ice-cold water with mint. It was very refreshing. I honestly had planned to stay for only fifteen or twenty minutes but stayed for about two hours.
During that time, we shared some old stories and some new ones. I asked Joann where she had met Dale. "At a box social," she told me, "The girls would decorate boxes, then make a lunch to inside. The boys would buy a box, then get to eat lunch with the girl who made it. Dale bought my box lunch." It was fun listening to Joann, as she recalled that day. Then with strong suspicion, she said, "The boxes were supposed to be anonymous, but I think those boys had a way of finding out who made which box."
I told Joann what Dale had told me, "He was saying it was some sort of social, but I didn't understand what type, and I didn't want to interrupt his story." I told her that Dale said she was the only woman he ever loved or could ever love. "Dale said you were, and still are, the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. Joann started to blush a little.
"Did he really say that," she asked?
"Absolutely, word for word," I assured.
After a moment, I asked Joann, "What was it like when you had to make the decision to have Dale stay at the facility?"
At first, it seemed my question caught Joann off guard, then she began telling me the story and the reasons it was necessary, "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and he was so angry about it; angry with me." As she spoke, I could see a distance in her eyes and hear the pain in her voice. "He's probably going to be mad at me for the rest of my life."
I thought about the way Dale hugged me before I left him that day and when he said, "You be sure to tell Joann that I love her." I needed to share more about my visit with Dale that day.
I placed my hand on top of Joann's and said, "Dale is not mad at you." The way she looked at me, I could tell she wanted to believe me but had doubts. "I want to share a story Dale told me today:"
"Palen, does God ever talk to you? I mean, talk to you in a way that makes things really plain to understand," Dale asked?
"Yes, He does – quite often," I answered.
Dale went on: "When God is talking to me, He sends one of those…I can't remember what you call them; they write things in the sky."
"Do you mean an airplane, like a sky-writer?" I offered.
"Yes, that's it, a sky-writer," Dale said, then continued, "When I first got here, I was mad. Mad at everybody, everything, and everyone. I asked Joann, 'Why the hell did you bring me out here?' I spent a lot of time being mad. Even though they treated me pretty well here, I was still mad. Then one day, I was lying in bed because I didn't feel like getting up. I knew I should get up, but I was mad, and I didn't want to." Dale went deeper into his story.
"As I laid in bed sulking, staring at the ceiling, that little airplane appeared and started writing: 'You belong here.' It might sound crazy, but I knew it was God talking to me; that's how He's always talked to me my whole life – with that sky-writer." Dale took a long pause.
"I was mad when I got here, at everyone – even Joann, but now I understand that it was selfish of me to think she could keep taking care of me alone at home. I should never have got mad at her; she was just doing what had to be done." Then Dale looked at me and said, "The hardest part of living here is going to bed at night without Joann by my side."
I asked Dale, "Have you told Joann that you're not mad anymore; have you told her about the message?"
"I don't know how," Dale replied.
"Well, that sounds like you're just being a stubborn German! You should tell her."
Dale broke the deep conversation, changing the mood in his usual style - with humor. "Well, I'm not staying here forever," he said, "I'm eighty-nine years old, and when I turn ninety, I'm breaking out of here and going home."
I laughed, "I'm with you, brother. Should I start looking for a get-away car?"
"Yes, and make it a fast one," Dale said. We shared a good laugh about that; then it was time for me to go.
Joann's eyes had well up. "He's not mad at you, Joann. He's more in love with you today than the day he saw you at the box social; he told me so. He's just not sure how to tell you. I feel like God wanted me to come to share that with you." We shared a few tears; then I had to go.
I left Joann with a slice of apple pie, "I was going to leave this with Dale, but Becky said you would never get it, so I wanted to deliver it personally." Joann agreed with Becky. We shared a good laugh about that, then said our farewells before I left to visit more friends.
I got in my van, smiling as I backed out of the driveway. I thought about our visit and thought I finally figured out why God redirected me from Oklahoma to Ottumwa.
I went to visit my friends Donna and Skip. Each visit was only supposed to be fifteen or twenty minutes, but I guess I talked more than I thought. It was getting late. I would have to wait until the next day to visit my friend Jerry.
I showed up at Jerry's house around three in the afternoon. I had planned to stay for only twenty minutes, but you know how that goes. I hadn't seen Jerry for about four or five years. He greeted me at the door, "Palen, you, old son-of-a-gun, how are you?"
In his kitchen, I opened the plastic grocery sack I was carrying. I handed Jerry a plate with a slice of apple pie. He sniffed the pie and smiled, "Oh boy," he said, "that is going to be a big part of my supper tonight. Do you have some time? Come in and sit down." I set the grocery sack on the counter and followed Jerry to the living room.
Jerry Strunk had operated Midwest Aviation at the Ottumwa Airport; MWA, pronounced mah-wah, by Jerry and all who were close. I got my instruction, training, and my pilot's license at MWA. Now eighty-two years old, Jerry was one of the best and highest time pilots I'd ever known. After logging tens of thousands of hours flying airplanes, Jerry told me, "I hung up my goggles and headphones when I turned eighty. I figured if flying airplanes hadn't killed me yet, I wasn't going to let it happen now." We shared a good laugh about that.
We shared stories and laughter; talked about the past and the future. For example, in the 1970s, Jerry brought the Navy, Blue Angels, and Airforce Thunderbirds to perform at airshows in a small town in Iowa – nobody thought that could happen. Jerry accomplished many great things and touched many lives in the world of aviation; still, it wasn't the most important thing in his life.
Jerry was most passionate when speaking about his wife, Jo Ellen. I remember calling him right after she had passed away; he was devastated and heartbroken. Time had passed, but time did not heal all wounds. Jerry was doing okay, but his loneliness without Jo Ellen was still very real. Jerry smiled, "She waiting for me, you know. The first thing I'm going to do is give her a big kiss, then take her for an airplane ride – just like the old days," he said with a sparkle in his eye.
I looked at the clock, "Good Lord, I've been here almost three hours," I said, "I've got to get going."
"What's the rush?" Jerry questioned.
"I'm going back to Silver Bay, Minnesota tonight. I've got almost nine hours of driving ahead of me."
Jerry shook his head, "That would be only a few hours in an airplane." We shared a good laugh about that. "It was really good to see you and spend some time catching up, Palen," Jerry said, then hugged me. "Feel free to come back again – as long as you bring a pie with you." We had another good laugh; then, I headed for my van.
I was on the road for forty-five minutes when I looked at the empty passenger seat next to me. I called Jerry, "Strunk, did I leave a white plastic grocery sack on your kitchen counter?"
Jerry walked to the kitchen, "Yeah, you did. What's in it? Anything dangerous?"
"It's the last slice of apple pie. I was supposed to take it home for my wife," I replied.
"Are you coming back for it," Jerry asked?
"No, I'm already past Pella. It looks like you get the last slice of apple pie."
"Well, it won't go to waste here," Jerry said, and we shared a good laugh about that.
I often think about that trip and how good it was to get back to visit some dear people, friends I'd been putting off going to see. I am grateful for these people who are a part of my life and that brief moment when God told me to go to Ottumwa, not Oklahoma.
You see, just ten weeks after that visit, my good friend Jerry Strunk passed away. Although I will obviously miss him, this is not a story of sadness; rather, it is a story of happiness and joy. I laugh as I envision Jerry carrying Jo Ellen in his arms, across the clouds to an airplane waiting on heavens ramp.
I am happy for those few hours, I had to visit Jerry one more time, and I am thrilled that Jerry got the last slice of apple pie.
I count this trip among my many blessings. I wish for you to know many blessings as well. Peace, my friends, and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
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It was just after three in the afternoon when I went to pick up the payroll. The accountant's office was just a few blocks down from the high school, so instead of trying to squeeze into heavy traffic on Fourth Street, I decided to take the back alley to go back to the radio station.
On the corner of the accountant's driveway and the alley, there's a vacant lot with a foundation in the hillside from an old garage or barn torn down years ago. The foundation's three walls are in disrepair, leaning outward, with gaps and spaces between the carved blocks of limestone. The cement floor is cracked and separated near the back wall; an opening that tapers to about four inches wide, with a hollow space under the floor, seems like a great place for small critters to dwell. Still, the structure was stable enough; tenants from a nearby apartment building used the space for parking. I've passed the ruins hundreds of times but never given them much attention until that day. Something moved and caught my eye. Rather than turning left toward the radio station, I turned right.
I smiled when a tiny kitten sprang up from the opening in the floor. Its orange tiger-striped coat stood out in contrast next to the grey concrete floor. The kitten ran, being chased by another small gray striped cat that soon pounced. The two rolled about the floor. One would get free, then spring back to re-engage. Soon a third gray kitten joined the fun, then a fourth. They entertained me, to say the least. I shifted my truck into park and walked toward the kittens. "Hey, you guys, what are you doing out here? Does your mom know where you are?"
The cats froze, skeptical of an intruder. The orange tiger-stripe was bravely curious and walked my way, brushing against my ankle. I bent over, giving him a welcome rub on the head, then spoke softly and started to pick him up. "How are you doing, little guy." When I began to lift him, his three siblings scurried, retreating to their shelter. The orange kitten jumped from my hand and sprinted off to join them. His sharp little claws left thin red scratch marks on my palm. I wanted to know more about the kittens; they seemed barely old enough to be away from their mother.
Getting down on my hands and knees, I peered into the opening on the floor. I could only briefly see the little orange cat; then, it ran back deeper into the hollow area. I walked down the slope to the face of the foundation wall and looked into an opening. In the daylight coming through the crack in the floor above, I could see the kittens playing with the mama cat in the back. "Hello, beautiful," I said, "Now I see where your babies get their stripes." She didn't growl at me but didn't take her eyes off me either.
As I continued peering through the opening, my eyes adjusted, allowing me to get a better look at the mother cat. She was thin, looked tired and hungry, and had plenty of battle scars on her face. "I'll go get you something to eat," I said, "wait here."
A man came out from the yellow house adjacent to the empty lot. He saw me looking into the hole. "What are you doing," he asked with a gruff tone of voice.
"There's a mother cat in here with four kittens." I explained, "She wouldn't happen to belong to you, would she?" He adamantly assured me it was not his cat. "She looks hungry," I said, "I'm going to get her something to eat."
The man shook his head. "She's a stray, and she's mean. She fights with other cats all the time. I wish someone would get rid of her."
"Well, I'm going to try to help her. If nothing else, maybe I could get her to the animal shelter."
The man shook his head, "You would be best to leave that cat alone," he advised, then went back inside his house.
I drove to the radio station, not far away. Some company promoting a new cat food had sent us sample packages of their product to give away on the air. I grabbed a couple of the foil pouches and a long-handled cooking spoon from the drawer in the breakroom.
My daughter Delaney was at the radio station. "Do you want to come to help me," I asked? Delaney was hesitant to answer. This question usually led to being roped into working on some project of which she wanted no part. "I'm going to rescue a mother cat with four kittens," I explained.
She responded with excitement, "Heck ya, I'll go with you!" Being a big cat lover, Delaney was thrilled with the prospect of seeing some kittens. On the way to my truck, I grabbed an empty box. My daughter, Annie, also rode along with us.
At the foundation, I put a few pieces of food on the spoon, lowering it through the crack in the floor. The grey tiger-striped kitten came and took them immediately. I scattered a few more on the concrete floor, attempting to lure her out into the open. The kitten came right out, and I handed it to Delaney, who snuggled it with enthusiasm.
One by one, I lured the other three kittens from the cave, handing each to Delaney. With their sharp little claws, they started climbing on her shirt, up her arms, and onto her shoulder. Delaney was the playground to the four active kittens. I had her put them inside the truck. We sprinkled food in the box, and all four cats began wolfing down the nuggets; they were starving. Annie sat with them while Delaney and I went for the mother cat.
The older, street-wise feline wanted nothing to do with the dry cat food; I moved on to plan B.
There was a drive-in restaurant just two blocks away. I gave Delaney a few dollars and my truck keys. "Go to Sonic, and buy a cooked hamburger patty, no bun or cheese, just a cooked burger. I should be able to get the mama cat to come out for that." Meanwhile, I kept talking to mama.
Delaney returned. "What took you so long," I asked? "Sonic is only two blocks away."
Delany presented the bait wrapped in sandwich paper. "It was kind of a weird request, Dad. I had to explain what we were doing." I broke off two small pieces of meat, placed them on the spoon, and reached inside the opening on the foundation wall. The mother cat approached cautiously and ate them both. I offered another piece on the spoon, which she eagerly took. It was time to up my game, so to speak.
I offered the next morsel of meat on my open hand; the mama cat took it. After hand feeding her another piece, I slowly took my hand to give her a rub on the chin. She pushed her cheek into my hand, then let me rub her ear. While I was massaging her, the mother cat turned her head so that I could rub the other ear too. Feeling I had now earned her trust, I tried to coax her out, but she retreated back farther into the hole. The burger wasn't working; it was time to move on to plan C.
"Delaney, go to the truck and bring out the loudest kitten." We would use her crying baby to lure the mother cat. Surely, she would come out and tend to her baby. I had Delaney set the kitten in the grass, about ten feet or so in front of the wall. The mother watched her young with great concern but stayed well inside her safe harbor, out of my reach. It was time to move on to plan D.
I moved to the top, on the concrete floor. I had Delaney place the loud kitten right next to the wall. The mother cat would have to lean out to see the crying offspring. When she did, I would grab her from above, lifting her by the nape of her neck – just like she carries her babies. In one quick sweeping motion, I would rescue the mama cat, reuniting her with her litter, and everyone would live happily ever after – right? It seemed to be my best idea yet, and it worked!
Delaney positioned the meowing kitten. The mother cat peeked out from the opening to locate her young. I reached down to grab the mama cat's nape – but something went horribly wrong.
At the last second, the cat looked up, seeing me. I was already in motion and couldn't stop. The plan did not include an option to retreat. Rather than grabbing the nape, when the cat turned, I inadvertently grabbed around her neck. The cat simultaneously sank her teeth, with a death grip, into my pinky finger.
As I pulled her from the opening, the angry cat dug her left front claws into the back of my left hand, bringing her other front paw up to secure my right. Then, in a split second, she dug her rear claws into my left and right forearms. I quickly stood upright on the concrete floor. There was a lot of hissing, cursing, and growling going on.
Delaney pleaded, "Let her go, Dad!"
"I don't think you understand," I confessed, "It's not me who has her – it is her who has me!" It was a serious situation that called for immediate action. How would I free myself from this cat without her shredding my limbs?
I got on my hands and knees, placing the cat between my knees. I called Delaney to assist me. "Put your hand behind her paw on her right leg, and push her foot forward, so she can't tear my flesh." We did the same with the left hind leg, and I held the cat's back end firmly with my knees. Delaney did the same with the two front paws. "Now, I need you to get that kitchen spoon."
My daughter protested, "I'm not going to club the cat!"
"Just get the spoon," I snapped. While I held the cat, I had Delaney press the thin round shaft of the handle between my finger and the cat's lower jaw. The cat reaffirmed her biting hold, allowing Delaney to slip the steel shaft inside the feline's mouth and across her bottom jaw. "Now, push her jaw down to her chest, and I'll be able to get my finger out of her mouth without her taking a chunk of flesh."
Once freed of the cat's grip, I held her legs tightly, pressing the cat to the ground. "Get in the bed of the truck, Delaney. I have no idea what this cat's going to do when I let her go."
With Delany in a safe position, and Annie in the cab of the truck, I held the cat's body, then in a single motion, I released the pressure on my legs and lunged the cat away from me. The feral cat ran off so fast; I didn't even see where she went.
My arms were throbbing with pain, keeping rhythm with my racing pulse. "All in all, it's not too bad, considering what that cat could have done to me!" I stood up and examined my wounds and realized this Tomcat was no match for that alley cat!
This particular part of town is overrun with feral cats, so we decided to take the kittens with us. We would find good homes for them. I dropped the girls and kittens off at the house while I went to seek medical attention.
This turned out to be the beginning of a long-running health care relationship with Cynthia at the new Get Well Clinic.
The nurse practitioner walked into the exam room, seeming like she already knew me. But, admittedly, she did look familiar. "Your younger brother used to date my daughter."
With a nervous shakiness, I laughed the way Shaggy did when he and Scooby-Doo met the bad guy. Then, I muttered under my breath, "Why should I be nervous?" I hoped my younger brother and the daughter parted on good terms. I had already tangled with the scorned mother of four kittens today; I wasn't sure I could handle another.
Cynthia directed me to a sink, "First, you need to wash your hands." I rinsed my hands carefully, keeping the water out of the open wounds. I reached for a paper towel and started to walk away. Cynthia led me back to the sink, "With soap this time."
Imaging the burning sting, I protested, "With Soap? Are you crazy?"
Cynthia turned on the water, "Am I crazy," she repeated my question, "I'm not the one who was trying to catch a feral cat. Here's the Soap right here."
In time, my hand healed after a round of antibiotics. Unfortunately, I never did catch the mama cat. However, I would see the mother cat sometimes when I would get the payroll. We soon found good homes for all the kittens, including the little grey cat Delaney named Bella.