Grasp: Making Sense of Science and Spirituality by Jim Trainor (2010. UpNorth Press. ISBN 9781456354084)
This is second of three books given to me by my evangelical friend, Vicky. All of the books, two novels and this nonfiction treatise examining the intersection of faith and fact, were written by physicist-turned-Episcopal-priest, James Trainor. My review of Trainor’s relationship novel, The Sand People, may be found under the “Reviews” tab above as an archived item.
Trainor is a good writer. His prose is succinct and to the point. It’s never flat and it certainly isn’t flowery, which, given the subject matter, hits just the right mark. Structurally, the author concentrates on the history of the “battle” between science and the church, recalling for us the conflict between Galileo and Roman Catholicism concerning the meaning of the orbital movements of planets, including Earth, around the sun. Remember that the science of Galileo’s day supported the notion that, due to humankind’s uniqueness in God’s universe, the Earth was stationary, the center of it all. This notion was disputed heatedly by Galileo and later proven false but, at one time, this human-centric “fact” was indeed not only faith, it was the science of the day. Trainor uses this example to launch a discussion of key modern day principles of physics, including the theory of relativity, the big bang theory, and quantum mechanics to reinforce his thesis that science, rather than being rooted in ultimate, inflexible truth, is sometimes a moving target. Changes in scientific theory and principles happen over time and thinking people of faith, regardless of their belief system, need to understand the relationship between science and religion as the two disciplines, are not, according to Trainor, necessarily mutually exclusive.
I found the writing and editing very nicely done for a Create Space (Amazon.com) book. The cover is a bit simple yet eye catching and Trainor’s approach, to gently prod the reader towards God (and the author’s own Christian beliefs) was spot on. It was an enjoyable and enlightening read that, while it doesn’t walk any new ground or solve any old riddles, is a book every seeker should read and keep on his or her shelf for reflection.
4 stars out of 5.
Inherit the Wind a Play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (1955. Ballantine. ISBN 9780345466273)
Loosely based in the court case of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (usually denoted as the Scopes Trial), this play-turned-novella was the authors’ attempt to call attention to the purges of the McCarthy era by harkening back to an infamous courtroom drama from the 1920s. The authors (and all websites I consulted) make it clear that Inherit the Wind has many elements of fiction embedded in its storytelling but is indeed loosely based upon a trial that featured fundamentalist Christian and perennial presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow. The basic plot of the play is true to the underlying events: A teacher (Scopes in real life, Bert Cates in the play) is charged with a crime, teaching evolution in a public school in violation of Tennessee law. Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) takes on the role of state’s attorney to prosecute the teacher. Darrow (Henry Drummond) is hired by the ACLU to defend the accused. But while much of the theory and tension behind the original dispute rings true in the stage and movie version of the Scopes dispute, web resources are quick to point out that very little of the detail in the play, including major portions of the characters’ lives, is based on reality. Such slight-of-hand, resorting to fiction when the transcripts of the actual trial are available to support a fictionalized telling of an important tale, seems misguided.
Still, even burdened by archaic language and a somewhat grandiose style, Inherit the Wind reminds readers (and play and movie audiences: the cinematic version of the tale, starring Frederic Marsh in the Bryan role and Spencer Tracy as Darrow/Drummond, was nominated for four Oscars, including Tracy for best actor) of the tension between religious fundamentalism and science in a way that is enlightening and entertaining. (See review above for more on this topic!) An important, if dated, reminder of the fragility of our freedoms both religious and intellectual.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The blue Pacifica chugged. Our gas mileage went from a paltry 18mpg towing a 6′x12′ Uhaul trailer over relatively flat terrain to a dismal 15mpg once we hit the hills outside Minot, North Dakota. I tried to keep the speedometer at a steady 60mph but some of the climbs reduced our forward progress to little more than a crawl. We made Williston, ND, where our son Dylan and his wife-to-be Shelly Helgesen make their home, after a two day journey from Duluth towing a trailer full of dressers, a king sized bed, mirrors, and a china hutch. We broke up the trip by staying over in Minot rather than taxing my patience. It was a wise decision.
As we came into Williston, Shelly gave us directions which, it turned out, were really misdirections. We were ten miles past Williston and headed towards the Montana state line when Rene’ and Shelly “recalculated”. By the time Dylan got off of work at Highland Crude where he’s a supervisor over fifteen other guys, Jack and I had the trailer unloaded and most of the furniture situated where Shelly wanted it. The bedroom set, two heavy cherrywood dressers, a mirror, and a king sized bed, box spring, and mattress were gifts from my dad to the kids. He recently sold the family home and downsized. Given that the furniture is in great condition, I called the kids to see if they wanted it. They said “yes” so Jack and I loaded the bedroom set into our open trailer on a sunny day and unloaded the furniture at our house, storing it in the garage until we made this trip. Jack has been a trooper, giving up four days of work at Dairy Queen and his summer vacation to help tote the bedroom set and the china hutch out to his brother’s place for no pay. The china hutch was one of our first purchases as a young couple so giving it to our son and his wife-to-be makes perfect sense. Plus, it looks great in their living room!
To an outsider, Williston appears consistent with everything written about the place. It sits along the Little Muddy River in a shallow bowl surrounded by naked hills, the victim or the benefactor (I’ll leave it for you to decide) of the oil boom in the Bakken formation. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakken_formation for more information on the Bakken.) As you enter the valley just east of town, you pass hastily erected trailer parks and man camps, where thousands of invading workers extracting crude through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are being temporarily housed. US Highway 2, the main thoroughfare in and out of Williston, is clogged with industrial equipment, tractor trailers, a few cars, and an ocean of pick up trucks bearing license plates from nearly every state in the union. According to Dylan, the North Dakota employment folks he deals with say they’ve assisted job applicants from every state of the union save Hawai’i. One look at the traffic clogged, monochromatic, dust choked valley of the Little Muddy and you’d understand why anyone from Hawai’i has yet to seek their fortune in the Bakken. But we love our fossil fuels (myself included) and so, at least in the Bakken, Sarah Palin’s cry of “drill, baby, drill” has been heard.
The photo at the left shows the UHaul after Jack and I unloaded it. The trailer is sitting in Dylan and Shelly’s driveway. If you look really close, you can see a brand new oil well behind the house across the street. That’s Williston. Every square inch of the landscape has some sort of tie to the new boom, whether it be new gravel roads cut across pastures or grain fields to access sites, or new oil wells plopped down in the same fields and pastures, or new pipeline routes or tank farms strategically located to move the oil and, to a lesser extent, the natural gas being sucked out of the prairie. Everything about the place feels temporary. The roads, the housing, the Walmart. All of the building and construction seems like a massive slight-of-hand that, once the oil dries up, or the EPA steps in, or the price per barrel for crude dips below what’s economically viable for fracking, will be left behind like a modern day version of the ghost towns of the historic West. Whether the end comes in two years or twenty, it will come. And what will be left behind will not be aesthetically pleasing, to say the least.
Saturday. We all climbed into the Pacifica and drove through town with Dylan and Shelly as backseat guides. Outside Williston, we checked out the Little Muddy and noted that, away from the noise, and bustle, and grime of the boom, the landscape here, just as Lewis and Clark noted on their journey west, has its own quiet dignity and beauty.
We stopped at the interpretive center where the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers meet. It’s a location featured prominently in Lewis and Clark’s journals. At the confluence, I observe that, despite the landscape’s unfamiliarity to those of us who grew up surrounded by trout streams, lakes, and tall pines, there is much to be admired in the serenity and sloping grace of the Great Plains.
We drove a few more miles to the west and toured historic Fort Union, a place secured, not by our government for military purposes, but by various fur trading companies as a place to exchange goods with the First People. Our collective experience at Fort Union was fascinating, a remarkable step back in time. You’d expect crowds at such a well maintained attraction on a cool Saturday in July. Not so. Perhaps few of the workers who’ve infiltrated the Bakken are interested in history. Or perhaps, they’re just too tired from working 12 hour days to make the short trip out to see the fort on their days off. Whatever the reason, there were only a few dozen folks wandering the grounds, looking at the site and listening to the staff members (appropriately dressed in period costumes) provide insight into what life was like in the early 1800s.
Sunday. We tumbled back into the Pacifica for another road trip to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Every year, on our annual ski sojourn to Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, MT, we pass by the south unit of the park and I lust after memory.
I remember going to the park with my mom and dad when I was 7, on our trip out to Seattle.
Until this trip to the Bakken to deliver furniture, to see my son’s home, and to visit with him and his wife-to-be, I’d never taken the time to return to the park. But everyone in our crew was up for the adventure. After a long drive from Williston, made all the longer by crawling tankers, road construction, and lines of unexpectedly slow traffic, we made the turn out of Watford City and entered the park. Admission was only ten dollars per car. The experience? Well, take a look at these photos to make your own judgment but I’d say it was priceless.
We only spent a few hours at Teddy Roosevelt but the vote, I am quite certain, was unanimous: Even though Fort Union was well done and impressive in its own right, the natural beauty and the wildlife of TRNP eclipsed all of our expectations. Did I recall being in the same places, seeing the same awe inspiring wonders when I was seven years old? Hardly. But that didn’t really matter. Being in the midst of such grandeur, such spectacular beauty, and experiencing it with my sons and family, well, that’s a new memory that outshines anything I could dredge up from the past. One thing I do remember from my trip here in ’62 is that we were warned, before descending to the valley of the Little Missouri, to be wary of rattlesnakes. Specifically, prairie rattlesnakes. I didn’t encounter any reptiles when I visited with my parents. But on this trip, I saw three varieties of reptile. First, I saw a sagebrush lizard sunning itself on the rocks. Then, thanks to the sharp eyes and ears of another visiting couple, I was able to see both a bull snake and a prairie rattlesnake hiding in the stones of an old CCC shelter at one of the park’s overlooks.
The couple had seen the tail of the bull snake extending from its cool hiding place. When they started walking away, the woman jumped back in fright. She heard the incessant rattle of a prairie rattlesnake also hidden in the rocks. The noise scaried the beejeebers out of her but she recovered nicely and moved on, none the worse for the surprise. The rattler and the bull snake stayed put and I was able to take a long, long look at them.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Rene’ asked from the inside of the pavilion.
“There’s a rattle snake and a bull snake down here in the rocks,” I answered.
Rene’, Jack, Dylan, and Shelly all joined me in hopes of seeing the snakes. The bull snake had enough and crawled deeper into its hiding spot. I pointed out the rattlesnake to Jack before starting back to the parking lot.
I turned just in time to see Shelly leap and turn in the air. Dylan and Jack, who were standing a few feet away from Shelly, laughed at her antics. Apparently, the prairie rattlesnake decided it wanted to get a closer look at the tourists and, unbeknownst to Shelly, had crawled out of its lair. The rattler was sunning itself in broad daylight (but hidden by its camouflaged pattern) when Shelly nearly stepped on it.
“Good thing you heard the rattles,” I said from a safe distance. “He really doesn’t want to have to bite you.”
The dance Shelly did at TRNP will rival, I am sure, anything that goes on at the forthcoming wedding.
Monday morning, the Uhaul trailer returned to a scruffy lot in Williston, we packed the Pacifica and began the long drive home. As we rolled past man camps and new apartment buildings and travel trailers clustered like prairie schooners and oil rigs and new access roads and new wells and new drilling platforms, I recalled a piece I’d read in a brochure from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The article noted that the park comprises 1% of the land forming the Bakken oil field, the vast underground reservoir of crude oil and natural gas extending beneath much of western ND, northeastern Montana, and southern Saskatchewan. The piece described Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign to preserve wild places and natural resources, juxtaposing TR’s conservation ethic against the explosive growth that is Williston’s present-day reality. The author of the article expressed concern for the fragile ecosystem of the Little Missouri given that fracking will likely take place on every plot of land surrounding this national treasure. What will our desire for American oil, oil produced to avoid foreign intrigue, mean to the valley that once housed Teddy’s ranch? I have no idea but, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren, to enable them to experience what my family experienced, I suggest we all keep diligent watch.
After being out of print for several years, Minnesota author Susanne Schuler’s memoir of growing up on a family resort in the wilds of NE Minnesota (Ely/Babbitt) is once again available here or at your favorite online or bricks and mortar bookstores. Click on the “Books” tab and read the reviews. You can find out more about Susanne under the “Authors” tab. A great summer read.
On Tuesday, 7/22/2014 at 7:00pm, I will be a featured guest on Write On! Radio on KFAI. Award winning novelist Julie Kramer will interview me and I will read from Sukulaiset: The Kindred in hopes of getting folks interested in my latest novel. You can tune in live at 90.3 (Mpls.) and 106.7 (St. Paul) on Tuesday or via the web at:
Hope it goes and well and hope all my fans, friends, and family tune in!
The first time I read John Myers’ recent article about the restoration of the St. Louis River (“St. Louis River touted as a better place to be”, DNT 07/05/2014), I was a bit miffed at John. Why? Well, throughout all of the discussion and information contained in the article, there was nary a word as to how the St. Louis River was restored from an open sewer and industrial waste sluice to a productive fishery and recreational draw. I faulted John, one of the last DNT veterans who covered the career of State Representative Willard Munger (yes, he’s related: he’s my uncle), for not calling attention to the history behind the river’s resurgence. But then, after a second read, I realized that John was highlighting what was taking place across the bay, in Superior, Wisconsin, as opposed to in my hometown of Duluth. Still, for today’s readers and young folks to understand the success story of the river, there needs to be some perspective.
My uncle came to Duluth in 1935. Not too long after settling into West Duluth, Willard (who’d grown up fishing the pristine lakes and rivers of Otter Tail County in northwestern Minnesota) discovered the ugly truth about the St. Louis River flowing murkily right out his back door: the St. Louis was an environmental disaster. Human feces from the various municipalities along the river’s banks, coupled with six or seven decades of industrial degradation, had left the waterway an infectious, nauseous, open sewer; a place no child dared swim in and a place from which no adult dared keep a fish. The sturgeons were gone. The walleye were putrid. And muskies? They didn’t exist. Being a life-long political activist, Willard began working with the United Northern Sportsman in the 1940s on two issues: keeping Reserve Mining from gaining a permit to dump taconite waste in Lake Superior and cleaning up the St. Louis River. He and his conservation colleagues (mostly men who loved to hunt and fish) failed in their first task. The second goal, the river’s return to health, took nearly fifty years of hard, dedicated, devoted work to achieve.
Willard ran for elected office in 1952. His primary campaign promise was to stop the pollution of the river. He lost. In 1954, he ran again but his environmental fervor was concealed behind other issues in recognition that folks wanted to hear about economic issues rather than the cleaning up of an estuary. But after he won a seat in the Minnesota House and took office in 1955, Willard immediately set in motion legislative policies that ultimately created the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (the WLSSD) which, when it came on line in 1974 to treat municipal and industrial waste, immediately began to make a difference in the health of the river. Think of the patience that effort required! Willard started his legislative push to build the WLSSD in 1955 but it took nearly twenty years for his idea, the use of regional sewage treatment centers situated along the major rivers of the state, to come to fruition. Rep. Munger would be quick, if he was still here (he passed away on July 11, 1999) to point out that he had plenty of help from folks along the way, that the clean-up of the St. Louis River was not the work of one man but a process involving sportsmen and women, service groups, labor unions, conservation and environmental organizations, and civic and industrial leaders. Over the fifty years Willard Munger worked to better the water quality of the St. Louis River, he forged a coalition of folks who today might not even be able to break bread due to their political differences. But he was a stubborn man, a man with a dedicated heart, to whom the work was more important than anything else, including the ideology of those he enlisted in his cause.
Today, on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the great river that is the birthplace of the Great Lakes, people can swim and fish and canoe and boat on a river that, while not perfect, is one hell of a lot cleaner and more useable than it was when Willard Munger wandered into town. A labor leader once called Rep. Munger “an extraordinary, ordinary Minnesotan.” Indeed. Maybe some young person reading this short essay about how the St. Louis River came to be restored to a place of renewed beauty (and the focus of Duluth Mayor Don Ness’s recent promotional efforts) will be inspired to become a public servant with the heart and stubborn resolve of Willard Munger.
One can only hope.
Mark is a life-long Duluthian, a District Court Judge, and the author of Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, available in bookstores, online, and above under “Books”. An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.
Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen G. Bloom (2000. Harcourt. ISBN 9780156013369)
My mom loaned this book to me because:
1. Though a life-long Episcopalian, she is fascinated by Judaism;
2. She thinks I need to read more (I read about a book a week and “more” is likely an impossible objective); and
3. She knows I am a seeker.
Well, I have to say, though I won’t rave about Postville as many critics did when it was released over a decade ago, I will agree with Henry Kisor of MSNBC who wrote that author Bloom “treats both sides with affection…” Bloom, a secular Jew who had little experience or knowledge of Lubavitcher Judaism, tries to explain the religious gap between the predominantly Lutheran residents of tiny Postville, Iowa (population 1,465), his own tepid faith, and the rigorous, misogynistic, self-centered, and mysterious Hasidic Jews who land in Postville to reopen an abandoned meat processing plant. The success of the Lubavitchers and their commerce is good for main street Postville, bringing jobs and prosperity to a stagnant farm economy hit hard by the Carter years. Bloom, entranced by the sociological experiment inherent in the influx of stringently holy and standoffish New York Jews into a predominantly Christian community, uses his position as a journalism professor at the University of Iowa to interview Postville natives and the invading Lubavitcher clan with an eye to weaving their stories into a cogent, cohesive narrative. In this task, he succeeds.
One can’t help but come away from reading Postville with a sense of transcendent sadness and guilt. The Jewish faith, more than any other branch of monotheism, has endured the greatest purges, horrors, suffering, and discrimination mankind is capable of unleashing. And yet, through it all, the faithful and the fallen alike who identify themselves either religiously or culturally as Jews have managed to survive. It is the otherness of being a Jew, even a nonpracticing Jew like Doc Wolf (a local physician profiled in the book who delivered thousands of Postville-area babies without a single complaint being raised by expectant mothers as to his lack of Christian belief) that Bloom explores when attempting to make inroads into the tightly knit family and social structure of the Lubavitchers. The story hangs together on the twin threads of the Hasidim’s “otherness” defined by their defiance against assimilation (they are the Jews who wear the black clothing, the long ornate beards, and who do not intermingle with gentiles as depicted in New York street scenes in movies) and Bloom’s own sense of “otherness” as a nonpracticing Jew, married to a Jew, trying to raise a son in northeastern Iowa amongst well meaning yet condescending Christians.
The main plot device that the author uses to investigate Postville’s timid acceptance of a kosher meat plant operating just outside the reach of city officials is the city’s attempt to annex the land beneath the plant to gain control over the operation and to profit from assessing city taxes against what had once been an empty building and was coaxed into the economic driving force of the region by the hardline commerce of the Hasidim running the plant. Threats by the Lubavitchers to pack up and leave if the vote for annexation passes do little to strike fear in the residents of the town, though Bloom does explore and explain the divide that the vote caused within the Christian community: the merchants were generally against the plan because they fear the plant will close, taking with it millions of dollars spent in the local economy, while the majority of the gentiles seem bent on exercising municipal power over the non-compliant Jews next door. In the end, its not so much how the vote turned out as the debate and discussion between the factions that makes the plot device integral to the theme of the book, the fact that even within the seemingly unified Christian natives of the area, schisms erupt that lead to hard feelings amongst folks who have been grounded in the soil for generations.
Politics aside, the personal journey of Stephen Bloom, his reaction to the rituals and rules and confines of Hasidic Judaism as practiced in Postville, is the heart and soul of this lively, well written exploration of a little known experiment in social isolation and defiance that, so far as I am aware, continues to play out in Postville to this very day.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
I should be out weeding the vegetable garden or picking Russian berries.
It’s five o’clock in the morning. I have the day off from my job as a judge and I am still up, sipping coffee, pondering my “to do” list, way too early for anyone with a modicum of sanity to their name. I’m sitting here, at my iMac, working on Facebook posts, emails, and other tasks all related to the forthcoming release of my latest self-published novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred. As I type, a small hawk (I don’t know what kind) swoops over the yellow, white, orange, and red flowers of the hayfield surrounding my place on the Cloquet River. The raptor searches for mice and voles and shrews and assorted rodents as it sets its wings and glides only a few feet above beauty. My wife remains tucked into the cozy warmth of our marital bed upstairs, oblivious to my departure or my commerce or the gliding hawk. A rooster at the Holte farm across the river crows. Red wing blackbirds call each other before meeting at the bird feeders in our backyard for breakfast. A mourning dove coos as it joins the smaller blackbirds for a meal of sunflower seeds and millet.
After a long day at work involving angry folks unhappy with my decisions from the bench and the circumstances that brought them to court, I came home last evening and tilled the vegetable garden and finished up with the mowing and the trimming in anticipation of Rene’s sister and brother-in-law and their two kids coming to visit for the 4th. We used to gather at Rene’s brother’s place for this holiday. We ate too much, talked too loud, argued about politics some, watched fireworks over Island Lake, and fought off bugs for the better part of 25 years. But Greg no longer sponsors an annual picnic so the last two years we’ve invited the Schostags and other family members to share the beauty of our farm for Independence Day. Anyway, the mowing and the tilling and the trimming did a number on my neck, shoulder, and low back. I ended the evening watching West Wing on DVD with an ice pack and Tylenol for comfort. The mosquitoes, ubiquitous and obnoxious after all the rain we’ve had, made me give up any notion of weeding the garden or harvesting berries.
KUMD plays in the background as I catch up on emails to the Bookstore at Fitger’s and other vendors and folks who will be promoting the sale of my latest attempt at Grisham-like fame. My kids, of course, have it right.
“Why don’t you write something folks want to read like Krueger or Patterson, or Flynn, or Grisham?”
Mmm. I thought I had.
Anyway, the sky is devoid of clouds. Songbirds chirp and twitter and call across the flowerly fields surrounding our home. It’s the 4th. It’s a day off. I’m done working on my dream (and the garden) for the moment. It’s time to join my wife for breakfast and await the coming of family.
Here’s hoping all of you have a great Independence Day. As you celebrate family, and food, and friends, and your loved ones, don’t forget our men and women under arms, in harms’ way, across the world, protecting the freedom we often take for granted.
You might think that driving from Duluth to Ignace, Ontario with four octogenarians crammed into a blue Pacifica might be problematic, what with all the pee stops, driving instructions, and potential for discord inherent in such a journey. Not so. Oh, I’ll grant you that when my dad, Harry Munger, a lifelong friend of former U.S. Senator, Vice President, and Ambassador (to Japan) Walter F. Mondale tabbed me to be the driver for our annual fishing sojourn to the wilds of Ontario, and I found out I’d be hauling four men with the collective age of a deceased pharaoh, well, there was surely some trepidation experienced by this writer. Hitting the road a week ago last Sunday before sunrise to pick up Fritz and his pal George Millard from the Willard Munger Inn (no kidding), my dad from his apartment at UMD, and my dad’s law school buddy and outdoor adventure pal, Bruce Meyer from his son’s home in Clover Valley, I was indeed apprehensive. But once the banter between the old men began, once the philosophical and religious and political discourse echoed through the van, I knew that I was in for an interesting trip.
We met up with the rest of our crew (save one of our hosts) at the Blue Water Cafe in Grand Marais. Jay Litman, Dr. Bob Donley, Sammy Perella, and Sammy’s seventeen year old son, Tony, were all slurping syrup and eating big breakfasts when we meandered into the restaurant on a cool and foggy Sunday morning. Pleasantries were exchanged and then my carload of wisdom and wit found seats at a table and ordered Swedish pancakes, eggs, toast, sausage, and bacon to fill the morning void. We drank vats of coffee and, when we were ready to leave, we transferred Bruce’s and my gear from the Pacifica to Jay’s trailer to give George (who was manning a rear seat in my van) more room for his weary knees. Soon, we were back on the road, the Big Lake, a vast bowl of gray water whipped to frenzy by the wind, on our right as we made our way to the Canadian border.
Customs was a breeze. Last year, the Canadian agent manning the border noticed he was about to admit a former dignitary into his nation. This year, nary a word about Mondale’s fame was said by the guy who examined our passports and waved us through. A left hand turn onto the Queen’s Highway, a few more hours and we were at Ignace Airways, the flying service the Litman family has used to access their family camp on Lake Elsie for the better part of four decades. The ceiling was not conducive to taking off from water in a bush plane. The sky was rainy and fog socked. Brad, the owner of Ignace Airways, made the call early, sparing us any drama. We’d have to spend the night in a local motel hoping that the sky cleared by morning.
Monday morning, we packed food and clothing and eight guys into two small De Havilland airplanes for the short flight to the Litman camp. When we landed, we were greeted by Sheriff Ross Litman and a group of guys who’d been fighting bad weather for the better part of a week. We emptied the planes of our gear and Ross’s guests loaded their stuff onto the planes before leaving us alone in paradise.
Fishing was good. Not great. But steady. The surface water temp of the lake never exceeded 57 degrees, resulting in the nine of us catching and releasing far more lake trout than we normally do. Ross and Jay Litman, our hosts, divided camp duties between them, Ross being the organizer and constantly-in-motion camp caretaker and Jay the chef. Of course, given that Sammy Perella owns one of the Sammy’s Pizzas in Duluth, there was one night of Italian, prepared by Sammy, to go along with the fine steaks, fresh walleye and lake trout dinner, conies, and assorted big breakfasts Jay threw together (with some assistance from Ross).
The rest of us filled in doing dishes, yard work, and assorted chores assigned to us by the Sheriff. And despite the diverse nature of our personalities, amazing as it may sound, nary a grouse or a complaint escaped our collective lips over the entirety of the trip. Tony, by far the youngest of the crew (and a recent graduate of The Marshall School in Duluth) listened to the stories, the political debates, the religious discourse, and the gentle arguing of older men, inhaling the experience like a new baby taking his or her first breath.
Tony turned 18 on the trip, calling his mother via satellite phone (there’s no cell phone service in the bush) on his big day. Ross celebrated a birthday as well, though given the Sheriff’s advanced age, no mention was made (as we ate celebratory banana cream pie) of the exact number of years the chief
law enforcement officer of St. Louis County has graced this Earth. The high point of the trip for me was that, for two days, while everyone else was struggling to land fish using jigs and minnows, I was killing the walleyes, lake trout, and the occasional whitefish using a white and pink spinner tipped with a minnow.
“You better retire that lure,” Ross said the third day I tossed the rig into the clear waters of Lake Elsie. “That spinner deserves to be in the fishing hall of fame.”
Ah, but only if I had quelled my greed for one more fish. The third day wasn’t the charm. I lost the spinner to one of Elsie’s many rocks and, that night, as I sat in a boat watching Ross, Tony, and Sammy haul in fish after fish, my line as limp as an impotent suitor, I lamented that I hadn’t followed the Sheriff’s wisdom. But in telling you this tale of woe, I missed the most important part of our week together: the founding of a new and significant religious tradition; Walleyeism. Which brings us back to the photo I posted on Facebook of the former Vice President of the United States holding a stone walleye. Patience, dear readers, there is a connection here, I promise.
Sometime this past year, after Fritz lost his beloved wife Joan and found himself in the hospital for a variety of ailments, George Millard concocted a plan to raise his friend’s spirits. At first, it was only George and Bruce in on the caper. Inspired by a rock carver George met at a mineral show in Arizona, Fritz’s longtime confidant and friend came up with the notion to have the carver create a lifelike walleye out of Tiger’s Eye stone for the former Vice President. From such modest beginnings, George spun a web of deceit and inspiration that led to the Sheriff concocting an outrageous plan as to how to “present” the carved fish to Mondale. I was only brought in on the scam at the tail end, when Ross copied me in on a few of the emails flying between the co-conspirators. Mondale, of course, was part of the email chain only as a clueless victim. Fritz was provided with just enough information to believe that George and his cohorts were fabricating a tale for the Vice President’s amusement during his hospital stay and recuperation, but the great man was never savvy to the true intent of the plot: to gift him a magnificently carved fish on the shores of Lake Elsie.
Thursday. Ross and Tony left the Vice President bundled up in the cabin as they motored across the lake to set the trap. The plan was elaborate. The carved walleye, safely transported to Lake Elsie by the fictional Jesus through underground tunnels, was to be placed in a waterproof bag, attached by line to a fishing marker, and left in such a way so as to allow Mondale to snag the line securing the treasure, feel the heft of the fake fish, and think he’d hooked the mother of all behemoths. All three boats were to meet at the fishing marker at 2:30pm to witness the event. Oh, there were fears that the line might break, leaving a priceless artifact on the bottom of Lake Elsie for archeologists to discover and wonder over. But that was the only thing we feared. Unfortunately, we failed to take into account the fact that, for two solid days of fishing, Mondale had been incapable of catching his own pants leg.
Ultimately, after about a half hour of spectators in the other boats pretending to fish, my old man (who was also brought in late to the scam) laying thick and misguided “hints” as to why the Sheriff continued to circle a fishing buoy that was yielding no fish, the former Vice President snagged the marker. Not the line he was intended to snag, the line from the marker to the stone fish, but the anchor line of the marker itself. The Sheriff quickly adapted and urged Fritz to reel in the prey he’d finally managed to catch. And there, on the slate gray waters of Lake Elsie, the stone fish, the icon of a new faith, Walleyism, was revealed.
Our last day of fishing, my lament over the loss of the white spinner continued. I went out with Jay Litman and Dr. Bob on the pontoon boat. I had one bite, one small tap tap on the end of my line, as we trolled for hours around the lake. It wasn’t until we were within a stone’s throw of the cabin that I finally caught and landed two fine lake trout, my last fish of the trip.
That evening, Ross broiled fish for our last dinner together. The lake trout and walleye fillets, fresh out of Lake Elsie, could compete with any meal at any fine restaurant, including Wolfgang Puck’s place in San Francisco. After dinner, George and I tackled the dishes. and then Jay, Doc, and I headed for the sauna as the Sheriff took the Vice President and the Perrellas out for one last go at the walleye. I dove into the frigid waters alongside Doc, the two of us as naked as the day we were born, yelps echoing across the dusky sky. Across the lake, Fritz redeemed himself by landing three fine fish, walleyes of the flesh and blood, not stone, variety.
The next day, fog cloaking the trees, a gentle mist falling over the Canadian bush, we cleaned the cabin and the bunk house and waited for the weather to clear and for the drone of the De Havillands.
Thanks to the old guys, to Doc and Sammy and Tony, and to our gracious hosts, the Litman brothers, for making some more memories.
The Nightengale’s Song by Robert Timberg (1995. Touchstone. ISBN0684826739)
Hmm. Well, what to say about a book that one of my brother judges gave me to read with the recommendation that it’s “one of my favorite books”? Granted, Dale Harris is entitled to a certain level of bias towards the subject matter. He’s a Navy man and Timberg’s book, a look back at five men involved in both the Vietnam War and Iran Contra, profiles five Annapolis graduates: Senator John McCain, Lt. Col. Robert McFarlane, former Sen. James Webb, Lt. Col. Oliver North, and Adm. John Poindexter. So I’ll give my friend a pass on the hyperbole he attached to the book as he handed it to me a few months’ back. But having plowed through the 543 pages of this tome at odd hours of the night and on weekends, I won’t be making a similar proclamation in this review.
Not that the book didn’t hold my attention. It did. Particularly the early portions of the story involving John McCain’s hijinks at the Naval Academy and the scenes depicting his time spent in captivity in Hanoi after being shot down during the Vietnam War. In his treatment of McCain, a man who has enured both my admiration (McCain-Feingold) and my contempt (Sarah Palin), Timberg’s portrait is detailed and, at times, deeply moving. So too is the way he touches upon the rivalry between Ollie North and Jim Webb beginning with a still-hallowed boxing match at the Academy (North won). But the scenes devoted to McFarlane and Poindexter aren’t nearly so concisely painted, leading to a level of boredom and confusion created, perhaps, by a skilled writer biting off a bigger chunk of a historic story than is warranted. How’s that? I found myself confused trying to follow the five separate and distinct biographical sketches Timberg uses to explain the linked narrative of Vietnam and Iran Contra. The result is that I came to an understanding there are connections between America’s failure in the southeast Asian conflict and the scandal that nearly undid Reagan’s presidency. (A note to Reagan fans here: Timberg equates, without ever saying as much, the former president’s intellectual capacity with that of a B-level actor playing the role of his life.) But the details of Iran Contra are, at least for me, buried in the vignettes depicting the five principals. So far as I could discern, the author never arrives at a narrative that explains what happened during Iran Contra, what the end game was, who was actually involved, and how high the scandal reached. I get it was an “arms for hostages” slight of hand orchestrated by North, and to a lesser degree, Poindexter and McFarlane. But the details, at least for me, remain murky even after finishing this marathon read.
There’s value in revisiting moments in history where our democracy has come off the rails. I think that was Timberg’s intent, to explain what happened during Iran Contra within the context of our nation’s sad experience in Vietnam. I’m not so sure he accomplished his goal, though, in attempting to state his case, the author does explore five distinct and unique men who served their nation, albeit with varying levels of honor.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Today I received a check from the Finlandia Foundation representing a national grant from the Foundation in support of my novel-in-progress, Sukulaiset: The Kindred a novel of the Holocaust, WW II, and Karelian Fever set in Finland, Estonia, and Karelia. The Foundation is a national organization whose primary goal is to inspire, celebrate, and connect members of the Finnish American community. The Foundation is the most important sponsor of Finnish culture, history, and arts in the United States. The book will debut at Finn Fest in the Twin Cities in August (2014) and be released to the general public in the fall of 2014. Thanks to the Foundation and to Gerry Henkel of The New World Finn and Jim Kurtti of the Finnish American Reporter for supporting the grant application. More information about my appearance at Finn Fest and the October launch of the book at the Theater of the North in Fitger’s will be announced as details are finalized. Thanks to the Foundation and to Gerry Henkel of The New World Finn and Jim Kurtti of the Finnish American Reporter for supporting the grant application.