How do you capture the spirit of a man in words? I mean, a sculptor, a good sculptor, can do it in rock or wood, right? If you’ve seen any of Michelangelo’s work in marble, or Rodin’s The Thinker carved from stone, I think you’ll agree. The same is true of any painter worth his or her easel. The nuances of a person’s soul, their essence, can, if the artist is talented, be conveyed on canvas by replicating that one glance, that one smirk, that one wink everyone remembers. Music, the medium of Duke’s essence, might be a good choice for trying to figure the guy out but no one here, least of all Duke’s family and his fellow musicians want me to start trying to replicate Duane Tourville in song. So, as I struggle writing this piece, listening to jazz classics on Youtube—a real contradiction since Duane never owned a computer—“All of Me” playing softly in the background, I’m stuck trying to capture a beloved husband, brother, stepfather, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, and friend in a eulogy. But here goes.

It’s not an easy thing to be a stepparent. Especially a stepparent to three Munger kids and their respective broods. Even though Duke entered into the picture when I was already married and a father and practicing law in Duluth, and Dave was already gainfully employed, and Annie was wrapping up high school, the point being, we weren’t little kids when Mom and Dad finally pulled the plug and Mom and Duke started spending time together, such transitions and change can be troublesome. Many such late-in-life partnerships fail. This one didn’t. From the very beginning, Duke was an engaged stepfather and grandfather despite never having kids of his own. And there’s absolutely no question he, in a word, simply adored Barbara. The two of them, though never perfect, were perfect for each other. How Mom found a railroad man who was elegant, dapper, talented, generous, thoughtful, and dedicated after both of them had been married to other folks, well, that really is a mystery. But a mystery that served them and our family well.

Most of you know that Duane had a lifelong love affair with another lady, a big blue one. Lake Superior was in Duke’s DNA likely because of his father, Ransom, who once operated an excursion boat on St. Louis Bay. In any event, it wasn’t long after Duke and Barb were married that my older boys, Matt and Dylan, were invited to experience the glory of Lake Superior. Matt, our eldest, remembers a trip from Grand Portage to Isle Royale in the company of Rene’, me, Barb, and Duke aboard the Ransom II not so much for the fun and excitement but for the fact that as we left Mark Rude and his mother at Fisherman’s Home and headed up the east coast of the island, the seas became rough. The two and a half to three foot swells and dark sky didn’t faze Captain Duke who invited me up on to the fly bridge to sip Bud as the little 26’ bluewater boat bounced through weather. Matt remembers Grandma Barb’s solution to my wife’s uneasiness in the cabin below us was pretty straightforward: Brandy and seven. Lots of them, allowing us to circumnavigated the island without incident. A few years later, Matt joined Grandma and Grandpa on the Ransom II for an even longer voyage, a trip to the Keweenaw. Again, Captain Duke was a master of his boat and respected the big lake enough to know when to stay in port and when to venture out.

Dylan, my second son, recalls a week-long trip from Barker’s Island to the Apostles on which he caught his first lake trout. On a shorter trip, Grandpa let the eight year old captain the boat from the fly bridge but made a serious miscalculation: Dylan had chowed down a bag of Doritos that ended up being hurled over the boat’s side as chum.

Chris and Jack, our youngest sons, never got to experience personal voyages with Grandpa on the Ransom II. By the time they came along, Duke and Barb had sold their place in Superior and traded in the Bertram for a pontoon boat. But you know Duke. The pontoon boat he bought wasn’t just a 20 footer with a cheap Force outboard to be used for lazy tours of Island Lake where the Tourvilles built their new home. No, Duke invested in a twenty-six foot Tritoon powered by a 260hp inboard outboard, a boat capable of pulling three water skiers and reaching 40 mph. No sedate, putt-putt for Captain Duke! Both Chris and my brother Dave reminded me, when I asked for reflections of the Old Captain, of how Duke loved to tow his grandkids behind that pontoon, starting out slow, a can of Bud in hand, gradually opening the throttle. Duke believed it was his job to flip the kids off the tube and when he wasn’t able to do that, which was rare, he begrudgingly gave the rider a big “thumbs up.”

When Duke and Barb moved to West Duluth from Island Lake, the pontoon moved with them. They used the Tritoon to host Labor Day gatherings on the St. Louis River. If the weather was good, the tube came out. If not, we just took a ride. My sister Annie remembers one return trip where white caps tossed passengers around like ragdolls but had no affect on the man in charge. Despite the rough seas, Captain Tourville kept the boat on course, a grin on his face and a cold beer in his hand.

One Labor Day, we were returning to Boy Scout Landing on the pontoon when we passed a fishing boat anchored near shore. A woman was in the water next to the boat thrashing and screaming something about a dog. Duke sprang into action and raced to rescue the floundering woman. The family dog had apparently jumped overboard and was having a jolly good time paddling around the boat. According to her husband (who remained uncommonly calm) the woman had panicked because she thought their dog couldn’t swim, jumped in, and then remembered that she was the one who couldn’t swim. My brother Dave, brother-in-law David, and I opened the front gate on the pontoon and tried to pull the woman out of the water. But here’s the thing: That woman was as big as a house. When we yanked on her arms, we nearly pulled them out of their sockets. She was panicked and tearful and just about spent as Duke held his boat in place and we worked out the logistics. My brother dove in the river. David and I grabbed a beach towel and threaded it under the woman’s arms. It was shallow enough for my brother to stand on the bottom, put his hands inelegantly on the woman’s butt, and lift. With Dave underwater and pushing, and two of us pulling, we plopped the overly large woman onto the pontoon’s front deck. Duke’s response, as he threw the inboard outboard into reverse? He simply grinned, opened up the throttle, and brought the tearful woman back to Boy Scout Landing.

As his obituary said, if Duane wasn’t on water, he was on snow. Barb and Duke weren’t part of the original group that began the Ski Hut trips to Bridger Bowl but they soon became part of the crew. Fifteen years ago, when our youngest son Jack was five or six, Mom and Duke convinced Rene’ and I to join them. Jack learned to ski the right way, as Grandpa Duke would say: he learned in the mountains! Since then, all four of our sons and Annie’s family have made the trek to Bozeman at one time or another, experiences with family and friends that we’ll never forget.

Duke was an elegant and graceful skier who constantly challenged my boys and Annie’s two girls, Madeline and Emelia, to “race”, which, since there weren’t any gates set up, meant bombing the hill. Grandpa claims he never lost a race and I guess, we can’t really dispute his bragging at this point, can we? Chris remembers Grandpa Duke skiing a steeply pitched run and “buying the farm”, requiring Chris to stop and walk back up the hill to help a very snowy Grandpa dig out his skis and poles. Once, Duke and I were skiing Pierre’s Nob at Bridger when I led him down a back slope, a black diamond, not knowing that I was taking a seventy-five year old guy into a field of awful moguls and ice. We made it through but that was the last run Duke skied with Mark that day!

Though never a soccer or hockey player, Duke made sure he and Barb were there for many, many of his grandkids’ athletic contests. Even more important, he was there, working as a crew chief when my youngest son, Jack, organized his Eagle Scout project. Duane gave up the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to be at Grace Lutheran Church leading a group of five or six scouts putting together benches as part of Jack’s project. The kids of Grace still use those benches when enjoying a campfire, the benches a lasting legacy to Grandpa Duke’s generosity with his time.

He never missed a gathering at my brother Dave’s house in South Range and he was proud of the lives that Diane’s daughters and Grandson Jonathan were living. The fact that Jonathan is now working the same rails that Grandpa Duane engineered on for over 45 years is something, I’m sure, that makes the old man’s chest puff out with pride.

Duane grew up in a large and loving family. Jack and Carol (two of his siblings) and their spouses were there every day of Duke’s last stay at St. Luke’s, constantly talking to him, trying to rally his spirits, praying, like all of us, for a miracle. The miracle never happened but oh, the stories his brother and sister told! There were tales of Duke and Jack ski jumping throughout the Midwest, tales of familial teasing, the typical sort of thing you’d expect. But the one tale that really stuck with me is one Jack told, and one I’d heard Duke himself relate. When the boys were on the cusp of being teenagers, around ten or eleven, and school was out for the summer, the Tourville boys hitch hiked to the farm of a family friend outside Ashland, Wisconsin. They were to work on the farm for the summer. It was left to the boys to figure out how to get from the West End to Ashland on their own. Different world, different time. Anyway, the way Jack tells the tale, the boys made it to Ashland by dark, having hitched numerous rides along US Highway 2. With no tent, no place to stay, the two pre-teens bedded down in the shrubs near the band shell in the city park only to have their sleep disturbed during the night. No, it wasn’t the cops or wildlife that woke Jack and Duke. The boys were startled out of sleep by the sounds of a man and a woman making love in the bushes just a few feet away from the giggling, hysterical boys. And you thought farm kids learned the birds and the bees in the barnyard!

Did you ever see Duane unhappy? Shelly, my daughter-in-law can’t recall seeing Duke without a smile beneath his pencil thin moustache. She calls it “the best smile ever!” And, like I said earlier, that smile wasn’t just reserved for folks he knew well. Lisa, my other daughter-in-law, the gal who gave Duane the nickname “Troublemaker” or “Trouble” for short, says that from the moment she first met Grandpa Duke, he was thoughtful, engaging, and welcoming. And his joy, his interest in folks extended to the little people in his life. As he awaited heart surgery at St. Luke’s, Duke talked to his great-grandson, Adrien, who stopped by to visit. If Duke was nervous about the impending triple-bypass and valve replacement, he didn’t let on. Which, if you know Duke, was not his usual demeanor. Hospitals and doctors tended to make him nervous and fretful. But not this time. No, he and Adrien, who, like his father Matt, knows many variations of the word “Why?” had a good give and take including a discussion of Grandpa ordering meatloaf for dinner, a meal that Adrien advised he’d had for lunch that day at preschool.

Most of you know that Duke was a man of faith. He loved this big old church, a church he came to late in life. Given that, I don’t want to be disrespectful when recalling the life of a guy who had five Episcopal priests, a deacon, an Evangelical preacher, and a Catholic priest visit him, anoint him, pray for him, and say the last rites over him when he was in St. Luke’s. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Duke was a perfect man who never got angry or said a cross word or made a mistake. Hell, he was married a couple of times before he got it right with Mom so there’s that to mull over. And, let’s be honest, there were times when Duke liked beer a bit too much. He could also, if you pushed the right button, show his temper. I know. I experienced it a time or two, as this last story will make clear.

When my mom and dad divorced, we’ll not go into the details here, let’s just say that my mom did all right in the settlement. After she and Duane got married, he sold his Spirit Mountain condo and the two of them planned and built a gorgeous house in Billings Park. I sort of wish they never left that place. Of the three homes they built in their 33 years of marriage, that’s the one I liked best. Hands down. Anyway. So Duane sold his condo and mom used her divorce settlement to build that lovely place on the water in Superior. I was still working as a lawyer, as a partner in my dad’s firm, at the time. One day my dad asked me about the new place Barb and Duke had built. News traveled quickly at the Paul Bunyan Bar. Without missing a beat, I said, “Well, Dad, it’s the nicest house you ever built.” Harry didn’t think that was funny. Word got back to Duke about what I’d said. And while I thought the quip was funny, the Frenchman didn’t. Duke wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of days after that.

Those of you who golfed and bowled or fished and boated or played music with Duane likely have hundreds, maybe thousands of similar stories of this gracious, kind, loving, joyful man. I urge you to come to the Kitch after the service, listen to some great jazz from his pals, and share your stories in a place that Duke loves. The old ski jumper, boat captain, and drummer will be listening in to make sure Billy Bernard plays all the right notes and that the bass and drums keep proper time. Trust me. Troublemaker wouldn’t miss a party.

As I end this reflection of Duane’s life, I’ll leave you with a poem I found online. Duke’s not here in person, but he’s here in spirit and he’ll be ever so grateful if, from time to time, you’d look in on his beloved Barbara. Stop in for coffee. Take her to lunch. Invite her to the ski hill to watch the grandkids and great grandkids bomb the hill. Call to chat. Send her a note. Drop off a good book. Duke will appreciate it.

The Sea Captain’s Wife

Often when I drink my tea
I dream of Duluth, by the sea
But though her hills are sweet and fair
It is the sea, which holds me there.

The jagged cliffs, remain as gifts
To me in my old age,
Where lilac heather and pines together
Traverse across the page.

Up the winding stair I go
Into the heavens grey,
And though it was so long ago
It seems but yesterday.

Still on the wind the autumn air
Comes in crisp and cold,
And buried with the gravestones bare
Are secrets left untold.

Beyond the walls of gabro stone
Lie ruins of the past.
I’ve come aways to be alone–
To make this moment last.

And when the boats come into shore
I take in all the bay,
For though I’ve opened an ancient door
I’m never far away.

Muse22 © 2015 (as adapted by MAM)

Thanks.

 

It began a few years ago. Uncle Wayne, my maternal aunt’s husband, started acted strangely. For awhile, I had the Sheriff of Lake County keeping tabs on Wayne and my aunt, Susanne. Then, about two years ago, things took a turn for a worse. Wayne went to a doctor to check on his behaviors and some physical issues. He was diagnosed with both cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of a precarious circulatory system, Susanne, whom I call “Auntie Sukie”, and the doctors agreed: No surgery. Wayne went to live out his days at a facility near his lovely, pastoral home just outside Two Harbors, Minnesota. That meant Sukie, at nearly eighty-five years old, lived alone in the old farmhouse with her two cats, trying to fend for herself against the harshness of Minnesota’s winter. Her daughters, my cousins, Julie and Heidi live a ways away. Selling the farm: thirty-plus acres of beautiful rolling pasture, a quaint, well-built house, a large garage, and Wayne’s beloved workshop was an option. Wayne and Sukie had tried to sell the place but the price had been set so high, only dreamers and charlatans stopped in and expressed interest. But even with Wayne in a facility, despite the difficulties of getting to and from town as a very short, hearing-challenged, elderly woman, Aunt Sukie stubbornly, steadfastly, and lovingly refused entreaties to move closer to Julie, her eldest. The Slovenian inside my aunt, coupled with her love for Wayne, was just too strong.

I saw Wayne from time to time at the facility whenever I was on the North Shore for work. While he continued to display the typical paranoia associated with Alzheimer’s, he always knew me and took great pride in introducing me to the new friends he’d made. “This is my nephew, The Judge,” he’d proclaim. But in the end, Wayne passed on. After the funeral, Julie and Heidi again postulated to Sukie that maybe a move closer to them made sense. Auntie would have none of it. “I have my church and my friends,” she’d say, “and the library,” adding that her role on the board of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library was something she cherished. As a fellow writer, I understood her connection to place and people. But, as summer turned to fall, it became clear that Auntie Sukie would be unable to sustain her independence no matter how strong her spirit and resistance.

A series of health issues ended my aunt’s ability to drive. Robbed of mobility, she relied on others to get into town for groceries and supplies, or to her medical appointments in Duluth, which as a heart condition manifested, became more and more frequent. Finally, her daughters convinced Auntie to see a heart specialist. She was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, a condition that, if untreated, would see her lose more and more stamina. But because of other physical issues, no surgeon in Duluth would do the surgery. Fine physicians at the U of M agreed to do the work. She came through the operation with flying colors and after a brief stay in the hospital, went to Alexandria for rehabilitation. Just before her heart surgery, Auntie finally said, “I can’t go back to the farm.” And yet, she still clung to hope; hope that she could remain in the Two Harbors-Duluth area. That desire to remain close to her beloved North Shore evolved until she recognized the importance of being closer to her girls. Julie found her an apartment in Alexandria, where Julie lives, a place also much closer to Heidi.

Julie and her devoted husband Brad made countless trips to the farm to get things moving. Susanne visited the proposed apartment and, after many, many debates and discussions, agreed it was for the best. As Sukie’s Power of Attorney, I set about finding a realtor to help sell the farm. With her daughters’ permission, I settled on a realtor who attended Knife River Lutheran Church, Sukie’s church; Steve Carlson, a smiling, gregarious, big-hearted man who, having lived his whole life in the area, knew the market well. But before the place could be put up for sale, it needed to be cleaned, rubbish and trash removed, and made ready. It took elbow grease and many hours of dedication but, eventually, the little white farmhouse was ready for potential buyers to view. I signed a listing agreement for a price that I thought was fair. Sukie, of course, having been mislead by charlatans and hangers-on who gave her a false sense of the place’s value, thought I was selling her legacy for a song. But despite our differences on this point, Susanne moved into her new apartment in Alexandria, many of her beloved “treasures” packed in boxes and sent to auction. Reluctant to depart with furniture and dishware and books despite moving from a three-bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment, my aunt kept telling Julie and I that, “it’s all great stuff!” We’d placate her by nodding our heads, saying things like, “We know but you can’t take it all with you.” Between Julie and Brad and Heidi and Nick and I, the farmhouse was cleaned, her stuff sorted, and Sukie installed in her new apartment closer to family.

Steve listed the farmhouse for sale. It sold in two days. There were issues with the septic (let’s just say it hadn’t met code in decades!) that needed correcting. After escrowing money for a new system, the sale went through. Steve and I attended a closing in Duluth. The only remaining problem was Sukie’s car, a Buick that Uncle Wayne, in the early stages of dementia, had paid way too much for. The lender was a bank someplace in Ohio. With only Wayne’s name on the title and loan, and with the car having a value of about one-third what was owed, and with Susanne no longer able to drive, the car had to go. No one had paid on the loan since Wayne’s passing. The smart choice was to call the bank and have them come get their car. It took numerous calls and a final threat by a very pissed off nephew threatening, “if you don’t come get this car, I’ll have it towed to Fredenberg and you’ll have to come visit me to get the keys,” to persuade the bank we were serious. The car gone, the closing done, all that was left for me to do was deliver the check from the sale of the house to Auntie Sukie.

It was a beautiful Minnesota spring morning when I set out in my Grand Cherokee, cashier’s check in hand, for Alexandria. Passing through Mora on 23, I found I was ahead of schedule (I was meeting Julie and Sukie to tour my aunt’s apartment, go to lunch, hand over the check, and set up a bank account for Sukie) so I ended up diverting into downtown St. Joseph’s, home to St. Benedict’s College. I intended to say hello to Jeff Velline, son of legendary rock and roller, Bobby Vee, at the family recording studio in St. Joe’s, Rockhouse Records. I arrived a half hour before the studio opened, parked the Jeep, and took a stroll around the St. Ben’s campus, When I finally entered the studio, I was greeted by Tom Velline, Jeff’s brother. I explained who I was, that I’d met Jeff at Høstfest in Minot, and that Jeff was a fan of my Finn books. Tom gave me a tour of the place (formerly a bank). Later, Tom and Jeff and I stood in the studio’s control room and talked music and books and Finns (Bobby was half Finnish) and life. The Velline brothers were gracious hosts even though I’d arrived unannounced and uninvited.

I was still ahead of schedule. I detoured off I-94 into Sauk Center, the hometown of Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis. My only quest was to drive around town to get a sense of the place, find Lewis’s birthplace, take a quick photo, and get back on the road. Unfortunately, I relied on GPS. It took twice as long as it should have but eventually I found the writer’s home, took a few photos, and headed north on the freeway.

In Alexandria, I dropped my Jeep off at the Cenex station. Brad, Julie’s husband, manages the tire center and, because my car needed new tires, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. Julie showed up at the Cenex. I grabbed the envelope with Sukie’s check, hugged my cousin, and we sped off to visit Auntie. More hugs, a quick tour of the apartment, a nice lunch at a local eatery, some time spent with a very thoughtful lady at the local bank setting up accounts, brief goodbyes, and the it was back to Cenex to pay for the tires and hit the road.

The weather held. The ride home was uneventful. I took the scenic route, following two lanes from Alexandria to Duluth through farmland, over rivers, and around lakes, content in the knowledge that my aunt was safe, well cared for, healthy, and back to enjoying life.

Before we parted, I suggested that she write another book, a follow-up to her great little memoir, Back of Beyond.

“Maybe,” was all she said.

Peace.

Mark

 

The photo at left was taken at the White Horse Tavern in downtown St. Cloud on St. Patrick’s Day. What you see in the photograph are seven old friends, some who’ve known each other since grade school, raising their glasses to the recently departed mother of another friend. The Bensons, the Johnsons, the Mungers, and Katy Wild-Olson met at the trendy saloon for dinner before attending a stunning performance by a Minnesota treasure, the Ring of Kerry Band, at the restored Paramount Theater in downtown St. Cloud. Absent were Bruce and Jan Larson. The Larsons were the first folks to accept my invitation to meet up in the county seat of Stearns County, listen to great Celtic music, and marvel at the talent of the young women in the St. Paul Irish Dancers performing alongside Ring of Kerry on the storied theater’s stage.

The Larsons, the other folks raising their pints, and Rene’ and I, are part of a group of friends, some couples, some singles, who gather for an annual holiday dinner in and around Duluth. Most of us are Denfeld grads. And most of us have been attending these get togethers for the better part of thirty years. As we’ve aged, we’ve also attended graduations, weddings, Eagle Scout ceremonies, and miscellaneous celebrations involving our respective children, vacationed together (including three Caribbean cruises, a few camping excursions, golf outings and pig roasts at the Munger Farm, canoe trips to the Michelsons, ski tours of Thomas Lake, visits to Arizona, and dinner-theater trips to the Twin Cities to see plays at the Guthrie, comedy at Acme, and live music at the Dakota). And as our parents have aged, we’ve also attended obligatory farewells to folks of the Greatest Generation. It was the death of the matriarch of the Erickson clan, Jan’s mother Shirley, that compelled Bruce to call me a week or so before our scheduled trip to St. Cloud.

“Mark,” Bruce said after I answered my cell phone in my Jeep, “Shirley passed away. Jan and I won’t be able to go to the concert.”

I assured Bruce and Jan that I’d cancel their hotel room and try to find folks to use their tickets for the show. Back home in my writing studio behind my iMac, I emailed the rest of our concert group the sad news. I also extended an invitation to others in the Dinner Club (there are 23 folks on that roster as of today) to attend the concert in the Larsons’ stead. I got no takers. On the Monday before St. Patrick’s Day, I called the hotel and got Larsons a refund on their room. Via office email, I also extended an invitation throughout the Sixth Judicial District allowing folks I work with to claim three free tickets to the show (I’d ordered 10 when I only needed 9 so I had 1 extra ticket even before the Larsons cancelled). Within minutes, Sheila from Monticello replied via the Web. I had no idea who Shirley was or what she looked like. But her daughter works in the Hibbing Courthouse, saw my mass email, called her mom, and the next thing I knew, the free tickets were claimed.

The other complicating factor was that we wanted to make it back to Duluth to say our goodbyes to Shirley. Her funeral was scheduled for 11:00am on Saturday morning. That meant eating a quick breakfast at the hotel, driving north for two and a half hours, and sliding into a pew at Christ Lutheran in Piedmont before the preacher got started. Doable but definitely not the leisurely Saturday morning I’d envisioned when I conceived the trip back in January. Thankfully, we’ve all aged gracefully. The pints and cocktails we quaffed down before the show were done with such maturity and moderation that no one had to negotiate an early morning hangover or exceed the speed limit on Highway 23 to make the funeral.

Anyway, inside the Paramount, I claimed my seat and introduced the group to Sheila, her husband, and their friend. Looking up at the distant terracotta ceiling, I marveled at the historic theater’s elegance. Visions of what the Norshor in Duluth may well become; a magnet for great music, theater, and entertainment in Old Duluth; manifested. When Ring of Kerry and the Irish Dancers finally took the stage, they did not disappoint. From “Danny Boy’s” soaring vocals, to fast paced reels and jigs and sea shanties that raised a ruckus, the authenticity of the band’s sound, their energized delivery, instilled timeless images of Ireland, Scotland, and Cape Breton upon the crowd. It was an evening of friendship, great food, hearty drink, old and new stories, and laughs accentuated by marvelous musical performances and enhanced by energetic, bright eyed young ladies twirling and whirling to iconic Celtic music.

Truth be told, younger folks wouldn’t have let the night end so soon. The street outside our hotel was barricaded from vehicle traffic. Live music played across the street inside a huge wall tent spanning half a block of downtown St. Cloud, allowing the Irish-and those who wish they were Irish-to party long into the night. But being of a certain age, we claimed soft, warm beds in the Grand Stay Suites, our bellies full of Guinness and wine and brandy and lamb stew and Shepard’s pie, our minds stilled to calm by remembrances of lovely music and dancing Irish lasses.

We met early Saturday morning in the lobby, slurped downed coffee, scarfed breakfast with deliberation, and hugged each other slan leat before driving north beneath a wintery sky, mindful that Shirley Erickson was waiting for us to come and say goodbye.

Peace.

Mark

(PS Here’s a sample of what you all missed:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vWumoL7XuQ. Buy their music at: https://www.ringofkerry.us/.)

I’ll be at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Tuesday, 1/31 from 6-7 talking about the “real story” behind my latest novel, Boomtown. Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, free and open to the public. Come and be part of the discussion and, if you have a mind, pick up a signed copy of one of my books!

Peace

Mark

New microwave after the “easy” install.

“Rene’,” I called out across the kitchen, “I think the microwave is dead.”

The appliance was installed 17 years ago when we built our new house along the banks of the wild and scenic Cloquet River. Our contractor installed the under-the-counter, over-the-stove model that served us well for nearly two decades. But, after repeated attempts to resurrect the dawdling unit, I came to the unfortunate conclusion (unfortunate because who wants to spend extra money just before Christmas on an appliance?) that the life source of the microwave had indeed given up the ghost. After reaching this fatal conclusion, Rene’ and I trundled off to Home Depot to check out new microwaves.

Now, I won’t lie. Home Depot is my kind of store. Generally speaking, if I can’t buy it at Menard’s, Home Depot, Walmart, Dick’s, or a bookstore, I detest shopping.  So when my wife and I stood staring at the plethora of shiny, black and stainless steel compact ovens hanging from fake cabinetry at Home Depot, I wasn’t all that miffed about having to shop.

“Can I help you?”

The store was quiet and the clerk who stood behind us had plenty of time to tend to our needs. We talked wattage. We talked warranty. And then, because the new unit was going to have to fit above the range and below cabinetry, we talked size. Now, understand, I had, in my best “Tim the Tool Man” fashion, measured the dimensions of the space the new microwave would occupy. I hadn’t brought the ruler with me to check whether the GE would actually fit where we wanted it to fit but when I asked about the unit’s size, I heard nothing but reassurance.

“They’re all standard. Just take down the old unit, remove the wall bracket, install the new wall bracket, hang it, and you should be go to go!”

I was skeptical that my meager carpentry skills would allow me to get the thing mounted and operable but the clerk was very reassuring.

“Not a problem. We do offer installation but we’d have to charge shipping and delivery as well.”

“How much?”

“I’d guess around two-fifty.”

The price tag of the microwave was two-fifty. I was looking at either attempting the job myself or paying two kids in blue jeans with body art and piercings an amount equal to the cost of the new unit to drill a few holes, mount a bracket, and tighten down a half dozen bolts.

“Whatdathink?” I asked my wife. (I’m not sure I officially involved her in the discussion. But for sake of blameworthiness, I’ll include her response, real or imagined.)

“I think you can do it.”

“OK then.”

Later that afternoon, I called my son Matt to come over and help. He was occupied with the kids so I decided to begin the process of removing the old microwave without him. After pulling the range and oven away from the wall, I stood on a step stool, opened the upper cupboard, unplugged the dead microwave, and loosened the screws holding the unit. When the screws were mostly free, I asked Rene’ to hold the unit while I completed the task. Then, easy peasy, I tilted the microwave away from the wall and removed it from its wall bracket. I took a look at the existing bracket and the rear of the new unit. Just as the store clerk had warned, the new stove wouldn’t fit on the old bracket. I needed to remove the old bracket and install the new one so the bracket’s metal tabs lined up with slots in the back of the microwave. As I began to remove the existing bracket, I noticed the first major issue with my “do-it-yourself” approach.

“Shit.”

“What?”

“The contractor.”

“What about the contractor?”

“When his guys mounted the microwave, they stripped two of the lag bolts holding the bracket. I can’t use a wrench or a vise grips to get them out.”

I stared at the offending bolts, the heads stripped and useless. A solution made itself apparent. A half hour later, after cutting the bracket away from the ruined bolts with a tin snips, repeatedly bending and twisting the metal until it came free, the old bracket lay in a crumpled heap on new snow outside our back door. I measured the new bracket, found the studs in the wall, and had it mounted in a matter of minutes.

“Help me set the new microwave on the new bracket,” I asked Rene’. Matt still hadn’t shown but the GE wasn’t all that heavy. The two of us easily lifted it in place.

“Shit.”

“Now what?”

“The clerk…”

“What about the clerk?”

“One size fits all. Bullshit. The new microwave is too tall for the opening between the tile backsplash and the bottom of the cabinet.”

“Oh.”

“We’ll have to take the microwave down, remove the new bracket, and chip out at least two rows of tile.”

My wife’s eyes grew wide. She’s the craftsman in the house. She had, without a word of it to me, gone out and bought the tiles, the grout, and whatever else she needed, and installed a backsplash of small, metallic tiles around the kitchen cabinetry. It was a masterful job, one that I could never have replicated. And now, here I was, suggesting I was going to take a hammer and chisel to her masterpiece.

“Ah, maybe I should do that.”

I shook my head. We set the new microwave on the hardwood floor. “No, I’ve got this.”

After a half hour of steady diligence, I managed to remove two rows of tile without damage. Matt arrived as I was re-hanging the new bracket. “Help me set the microwave on this bracket,” I said. We did. The unit fit snugly between the cabinet and the backsplash. But there was another problem. In my OCD zeal to toss out the extraneous, I’d tossed the template needed to drill holes for the two bolts running from the cabinet into the top of the microwave. The old holes in the base of the cabinet didn’t line up with the holes in the new unit and without the template, I’d have to resort to guessing. I slid on my boots and wandered out to the garbage can. I dug and dug and dug but couldn’t come up with the template.

“Shit,” I muttered as I stomped snow off my boots, slid them off, and padded back into the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked.

“Nothing. Let’s see if we can line up the bolts with the microwave.”

After a couple of false starts, with Matt holding the microwave and the tabs of the new bracket holding the unit in place, I managed to get one lag bolt locked in place. “Damn it,” I yelped, my four year old grandson Adrien within earshot, “this second bolt just won’t line up.”

I’ll spare you the back and forth that took place over the next hour as I drilled the hole larger, as Matt raised the unit up, as the bolt refused to take, as more colorful words were expressed by Grandpa. At one point, Matt climbed the step stool and tried to adjust the unit so the bolt met up with the hole in the unit. No one noticed Matt was standing on the stove top while he worked. After additional moments of futility, I removed and inspected the second bolt. “This $#@! thing is stripped!” I said. We took the unit down off the bracket. I walked out of the house, into the garage, found a hacksaw, and cut off the last 1/4″ of the bolt. I was pretty darn upset by this point. But I was still, despite time wasted, money ahead.

Until.

“Goddamn it!”

I won’t sugar coat it. That’s what came out of my mouth when I mounted the step stool and Matt pushed the unit back on the bracket, holding it in place, and I placed my foot on the top of our stove for more leverage. My foot met the ceramic top of our range. Glass gave way under foot.

There’s more. Oh, much more. But I managed to pull it together enough to get the bolt in place. The microwave was solid, sturdy, and looked pretty damn good hanging beneath the cabinet. But the old stove? Home Depot was happy to sell me a new one.

The new microwave and new stove in place.

Peace.

Mark

islam

Islam for Dummies  by Professor Malcolm Clark (2003. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-764-55503-9)

Though I’ve been a Christian my whole life, I like many modern men and women, still search and seek for answers. Answers to the questions: “Why are we here?” and “Is this all there is?” and other philosophical/religious queries. So, I’ve not only read the Bible multiple times trying to understand the roots and underpinnings of my own faith, but I’ve read The Book of Moron cover to cover (there’s a review in the Archives section of this blog) and last year, I began to study and read The Koran. With The Book of Mormon, I took up my quest to make it through the text not so much because I wished to understand the faith behind the faces of Mitt Romney, Glen Beck, and Marie Osmond, but more as research for my novel about polygamy, Laman’s River. On the other hand, my study of The Koran is fueled by a desire to understand why religious zealots across the world, but most predominantly in the birthplace of all three major monotheistic branches of faith-the Middle East-deign to blow themselves and innocent men, women, and children to oblivion, all in the name of Allah. I wasn’t finding the answer to my question reading the text of The Koran and so, I thought maybe Professor Clark’s tutorial could assist my research.

Like all “Dummies” texts, this book is very straight forward, well organized, and written at about the high school level, all of which I found refreshing. The one major drawback to my copy of the book (ordered through The Bookstore at Fitger’s) is that much has happened in the world regarding conflicts within and involving the Moslems since 2003, the year my copy was published. My edition of the book ends not long after the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the heels of 9/11/2000. So there is nothing in the book dealing with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the more recent bombings, attacks, and conflicts within and without Islam. Still, Clark’s effort does give the reader a basic primer in the faith, people, culture, and history of Islam. I obtained, by spending my time with this book, a basic understanding of the religion and an appreciation, I think, that we, the West, have underestimated the import of Islam on the world. I am nearly through my reading of The Koran and, having now gained a better framework for reading the text through Professor Clark’s work, I may have to re-read Mohammad’s message to his people to gain a fuller understanding of how it is connected to today’s events.

What I came away with after racing through Islam for Dummies is an appreciation for the variety of branches of this faith along with a comprehension that the conflicts between peoples who adhere to Islam, such as the Iraqis and the Iranians, have much to do with their views of Islam and The Prophet, causing religious disagreement and discord not unlike the debates that rage between Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainstream Protestants in Christianity. The difference may be that, in large part, because the Christian faith is centuries older than Islam, Christianity may have, through the Reformation, heresy trials, and various purges, completed its own period of conflict and unrest and human tragedy whereas Islam remains in that transitional phase, sorting out the message handed down by God through his Messenger. Perhaps, as Catholics and Lutherans have finally put up the sword, so too will Sunni and Shi’a come to a place of peaceful co-existence, and also come to a place of quiet and calm with respect to the non-Moslem world as well. One can only hope.

4 stars out of 5. A bit dated but a valuable resource.

Peace.

Mark

19096-1966-chrysler-300-std

Picture this. I’m twenty years old. My mom and I are fighting over the ’67 Wagoneer my dad gave me as a high school graduation present. The Jeep was, until Dad bought himself a new Pontiac, the family car. Thing is, despite Mom’s schedule of hair appointments, tennis outings, bridge matches, and volunteer activities, she and I are expected to “share” the Jeep. Me being the eldest—six years older than my brother Dave, eleven years older than my sister Annie—I don’t share very well. Ditto for Mom. So when the daily ruckus over who’s going drive the rattling, wheezing, cantankerous Jeep gets to be too much, I decide to buy my own wheels. Problem is, I’m working as a janitor at General Cleaning for four bucks an hour (buffing the tile floors of the First American National Bank) and paying my own way through UMD. So I don’t have cash to spend on a car. That’s how I end up with a broken down, rust infected 1963 Chrysler 300; the best car I can afford.

Despite the fact that I’m not a native son—I was born in St. Paul and moved to Duluth before kindergarten—my formative years were spent here, in the hilliest town east of San Francisco. Having attended Piedmont Elementary, Lincoln Junior, Denfeld High, and UMD, I consider myself to be a Duluthian. Like others who share that label, I learned at an early age to negotiate the steeps of this place regardless of weather. In fact, I took my driver’s test in a blizzard. Those of you who hale from more geographically sedate places, well, be honest: You don’t brave driving to or in Duluth when there’s snow in the forecast. Non-Duluthians just don’t buy that Duluthians can safely navigate our town’s perilous streets in winter. And yet, I’m living proof that we do.

Back to the Chrysler. I bought that car from my buddy Shane. Shane managed to amass a small personal fortune before he began college. Part of Shane’s wealth was automotive. Before his twenty-first birthday, the kid owned two Caddies, a Plymouth, and the Chrysler 300. He wanted fifty bucks for the Chrysler. I got it for half-price: complete with a busted power steering pump, an inoperable driver’s door, suspect brakes, and four bald tires.

A Saturday in January. I’m making a beer run across the old Arrowhead Bridge between Duluth and Superior before meeting up with my pal Larry. The drinking age in Minnesota and Wisconsin is 18 but in Superior, just across the St. Louis River from Duluth, you can buy Buckhorn for three bucks a case and get sixty-five cents back for the returnable bottles. I’m heading down 24th Avenue West in the Chrysler, thoughts of sipping cold beer on my mind. Just to be clear: I haven’t had a lick of anything stronger than milk to drink before driving.

The road conditions on Piedmont Avenue are snowy but manageable even for a rear-wheel-drive iron sled with bad tires. But as the hill steepens towards the Big Lake, as I get closer to Five Corners—a messy intersection that disappeared when the DOT gave us Mondale Drive—the snow turns to rain, which, because it’s below freezing, becomes ice. As I approach a stop sign, I tap the brakes. Nothing. I look to the left. I look to the right. There are no other cars entering the intersection as I slide onto 24th Avenue West. I take my foot off the gas. Doesn’t matter: gravity urges the car downhill. I pump the brakes. Still nothing. The old sedan, the heater roaring to keep ice off the windshield, the broken springs squeaking with each pothole, picks up speed. At 10th Street, I try the brakes again. The car does a complete one-eighty. I’m now looking uphill, back towards where I came from and the Chrysler shows no signs of slowing down. The only saving grace to my situation is that, unlike the idiot behind the wheel of my car, no one else is stupid enough to be on the road. The Chrysler leaps and plunges like a bucking bronco as it enters and exits plateaus announcing intersecting streets. I have my shoulder harness locked in but I’m pretty sure it won’t do me a lick of good if the Chrysler collides with a semi-truck at the bottom of the hill.

In my youth, it wasn’t uncommon for grain trucks to take shortcuts to the grain elevators located on Duluth’s waterfront. Every year, local television stations ran clips documenting the destruction wrought by runaway tractor-trailers full of corn or wheat or oats that lost their brakes on Duluth’s hills and ended up in the living rooms of unsuspecting citizens.

That’s gonna be me, I think, my gloved hands gripping tightly to a steering wheel that offers no solace. I’ll end up crashing into Rikala’s front porch, I fret, visualizing a friend’s home in line with my accelerating trajectory.

At the intersection of 24th Avenue West and 8th Street, I brake again. A rear tire catches pavement. The Chrysler whips around and faces downhill. The car continues to slide until, near 5th Street, I’m able to slam the passenger’s side front tire into the curb and stop the car.

That summer, I give the Chrysler away. The following winter, a snowstorm buries Duluth. Even with places to go and people to see, I have my pride. I don’t borrow the Jeep from Mom despite the fact it has four-wheel drive. Instead, I carry my skis to the top of Piedmont Avenue, slide ski boots into bindings, secure safety straps, and push off. I glide towards Lake Superior, making occasional turns to control my speed, until there’s no more hill to ski. On the flats, I pole and skate to West Duluth. I arrive at a familiar front yard. Larry, dressed in a snowmobile suit and helmet, is sitting on the seat of an idling Ski-Doo waiting for me. I release my bindings, hop on the rumbling yellow machine, and wrap my arms around my friend. Larry hits the gas. The snow machine floats around drift-encased cars and trucks. A mile later, we roar onto the Arrowhead Bridge. We pass the bridge’s toll station without slowing. There’s no one on duty but I know this: We wouldn’t have stopped to pay the toll even if the tollbooth had been manned.

(An edited version of this essay was read on KAXE’s The Great Northern Radio Show before a live audience at the Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth on 11/12/2016.)

(c) Mark Munger 2016

 

 

 

 

1947

I grew up in Piedmont Heights. My dad was an undersized kid and not particularly athletic, a boy who never participated in organized high school sports. He was book smart and blessed with flawless memory, traits that allowed him to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. My mom was pretty and petite. Raised by parents who valued books and music and art, Mom wasn’t an athlete in any sense of the word, and even if she had been so inclined, there were no opportunities for her to participate in school sports in the 1940s. Girls took home economics and learned to sew and cook and handle roles of domesticity. Girls did not, in 1946, the year my mom graduated from high school, shoot pucks or grab rebounds or head soccer balls as members of varsity athletic teams.

After graduating from Denfeld in 1945, Dad enlisted in the Army. He wasn’t around when Lloyd Holm took over the reigns of the Denfeld boys’ basketball team in 1946. Holm inherited a talented but undisciplined group of young men. The new coach worked the boys hard, instilling in them the notion that, alone, each of them was gifted, but together they were a force to be reckoned with.

Coach Holm’s vision of what could be culminated in a thrilling 46-44 victory over Crosby-Ironton on the storied hardwood of Williams Arena. My dad, as I said, wasn’t around to witness the one and only time Duluth Denfeld grabbed the brass ring and won the state championship in basketball. But Mom, who graduated from Denfeld a year earlier and remained in town to attend St. Scholastica, convinced Grandpa Jack to drive her and three of her girlfriends to Minneapolis to see the big game. Mom returned to Duluth with an appreciation for what those 10 young players accomplished.

My dad completed his obligation to Uncle Sam and married my mom. Over the years, as my parents raised a family, they shared the legacy of the ’47 Hunter team with my brother, my sister, and me as an example of what hard work and dedication to task can accomplish.

But to me, the boys who dispatched Crosby-Ironton in that championship game were more than just photographs hanging in the Denfeld gym. Those boys became men who became role models for a wire-rimmed, skinny, unathletic kid who lived on Chambersburg Avenue.

Though better suited for debate or speech, I found myself trying to emulate the ’47 team. I participated in varsity skiing and football, even though my talent for sports was marginal. I pushed myself athletically because Tessier, Nace, and Monson weren’t just names of long-forgotten heroes. Those men were, along with team manager Bob Scott, my friends. They were my hunting and fishing and skiing partners. And they were my mentors: men of integrity who helped guide me through life.

Sadly, all those members of the team have passed on. But on Oct. 8, when the entire 1947 boys’ basketball team was inducted into the Denfeld High School Hall of Fame, my friends were not only present in spirit; their voices could be plainly heard above the din of the audience seated in the storied Denfeld auditorium.

At the induction ceremony, Ken Sunnarborg introduced the members of the ’47 squad who are still alive and who were in attendance: Sunnarborg, Eugene “Pug” Norlander, Howard Tucker, and Keith Stolen.

After brief remarks, Sunnarborg turned the mic over to Norlander, and Norlander had a surprise in store for the family, friends, and alumni in attendance. A woman with no connection to the school discovered a sleeve of 78-rpm records for sale in a far-distant garage. After purchasing the records, the woman realized the discs contained the complete radio broadcast of the 1947 Minnesota State Basketball Championship Game. The woman read the players’ names printed on the album cover, used the internet to find Norlander, contacted him, and sent him the record.

Those at the hall of fame gathering heard the climactic final two minutes of the 1947 championship game — digitized to a quality unknown in the 1940s and complete with announcers, crowd noise, players’ grunts, the squeak of rubber sneakers against wood, the bang of leather on steel, and the swoosh of ball through net — for the first time in 70 years.

“Monson grabs a rebound.”

“Nace passes the ball.”

“Tessier takes the shot.”

As the voice of the radio announcer faded and as the present-day audience rose to its feet and applauded, tears formed. Tears of joy as I considered what it was like for my mom and her girlfriends to be at Williams Arena that night. Tears of sadness for the passing of friends, once young, then old, now gone. Tears of pride for being part of a unique and timeless bond shared by generations of Denfeld graduates.

May today’s Hunters — both young men and young women — carry on the proud legacy of clean play, dedication to community, and mentoring that made the 1947 state basketball championship team worthy of induction into the Denfeld Hall of Fame.

(An edited version of this piece first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)

 

 

Troop 106 Camping in Munger's Field

Troop 106 Camping in Munger’s Field

OK. Confession time again. I’m borrowing the title of this piece from the book and the old Fred MacMurray movie of the same name. I don’t remember much about either beyond the fact the story involved an adult leader and Boy Scouts. Anyway. On with the story. A few weeks back, I signed up to assist wrangling and guiding seven Scouts and two other adults down the Cloquet River. The route was from my house to the landing off the Bachelor Road: a modest trip, seven miles or so by water, an easy five hour paddle in good weather. There are four DNR tenting campsites (similar to the BWCA sites many of you might be familiar with: clearings in the wilderness complete with a steel fire ring and, somewhere close by, a pit latrine) along the way where paddlers can pitch tents. A perfect route for novice canoeists. Given the water was high, the result of late summer deluges, there was little chance the boys would spill into the dark, black water of the Cloquet.

Friday night. I made apologies as the Scouts and their parents set up camp in my backyard. Seems, as always, I was double booked. I had to make an appearance at a birthday party of a colleague a few miles away. After setting up my tent, and with promises of being back before dark, Rene’ and I drove off. The forecast was problematic: drenching rains were promised. By the time I returned, a storm had briefly doused the campsite and everyone was tucked into their sleeping bags. I released Kena, my black Lab, from her kennel, let her do her business, and then the two of us clambered into my tent.

“Judge Munger?”

A male voice woke me up from a fitful sleep. I grabbed my cell phone. 4:05am. Kena remained curled against my hip, seemingly unconcerned by the intrusion.

“Yes?”

“Trooper Smith. State Patrol. I have a search warrant for a blood draw.”

Crap.

I’d forgotten that I was “on call” for the weekend; which, in judicial parlance means I needed to be available to sign legal documents for law enforcement. My eyes focused. I unzipped the tent to a downbeat of wicked rain. “Yes. I’m here.”

The Trooper handed me an application and warrant. I studied the documents by headlamp. The officer swore to the contents of the documents. I signed them. Then, he was on his way. Kena put her head down and returned to snoring.

In the morning, a light rain, interspersed with infrequent squalls, stalled over the river. As the sky lightened from black to gray, boys and dads struggled out of their bags. I started a fire. Older Scouts filled pans with water for oatmeal. Orange drink was mixed. Bags of apples and oranges emerged from the food bins. Breakfast bars were opened. By ten, the mist and rain diminished enough to dry out the tents. We broke camp, loaded the canoes, and slid them down the muddy bank into the current. I wore hiking sandals to steady the canoes as boys and dads took up their seats. The mist returned, at times pummeling us with more significant rain. The sun remained absent. The wind whipped up. Paddling became more of an effort. The group ducked into Hunter Lake, an ox bow off the main channel, taking time to investigate an old Scout camp, a beautiful piece of property, Camp Bunkowske. “Wonder why this isn’t used anymore?” was a question that boys and dads asked more than once as we explored. I knew the history of the place and shared what I knew. And then, we were back in our canoes, headed downstream. Rich changed positions with a young Scout, becoming the stern man in his son’s canoe. My new partner took the bow seat in my 18′ Grumman square stern and promptly launched into a dissertation on just about every topic under the sun. My new partner’s chatter never stopped. I tried to maintain patience, which, as anyone who knows me will attest, is a fragile component of my persona. Despite the multitudinous questions and answers launched between bow and stern, we got on just fine.

Hunter Lake.

Hunter Lake.

Troop 106 pushed on. The younger Scouts interjected frequently, “Are we there yet?” “Just around the next bend,” I’d reply as rain dripped off my waterproof bush hat. My lie briefly quelled the questioning but only for the time it took another Scout to draw his breath and bring the query ’round. Shortly after noon, we landed at Twin Pines campsite, our destination and lodging place for the evening.

Paddling the Cloquet.

Paddling the Cloquet.

Twin Pines.

Twin Pines.

After staking down my tent and unrolling my sleeping pad and bag, I threw on my life jacket and took a stab at tossing a dew worm and spinner into the tannin stained water of the Cloquet. I had one hit but landed no fish. After a hot lunch, with the rain gone but the sun remaining stubborn, I claimed my mummy bag and took a short nap. My neck was giving me grief and it seemed that even the cushion of a PermaRest wasn’t enough to let me slumber. But tired from the short paddle and the exertion making camp, I was soon asleep. In the late afternoon, we explored the ridge behind the campsite, following a four wheeler track for a mile or so through residual legacy white and red pines. After a dinner of brats, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and s’mores, we sat around the campfire as night descended. As the sky darkened, a pair of otters chirped and splashed nearby, oblivious to human visitors. A deer (we never did see whether it was a buck or a doe) swam from one side of the watercourse to the other. A train rumbled across a bridge downstream. The locomotive’s lonesome whistle reminded us that, though we were surrounded by forest, we weren’t far from civilization. A Barred Owl hooted. Bats swooped in and out of the trees. As night fell, the sky opened up and we tried to guess constellations.

Morning fog, Twin Pines.

Morning fog, Twin Pines.

In the morning, after  a breakfast of steaming coffee, hot chocolate, oatmeal, breakfast bars, and fresh fruit, we policed the campsite. “Leave no trace” means exactly that. Rich and his son found a tree frog in their tent. I’d heard the amphibian calling earlier in the morning when I got up to do my business. I placed the frog away from the hubbub of breaking camp. img_3525

A short paddle brought us to Bowman (Side) Lake, another ox bow, where the troop rested and considered the warming morning. I tossed worm and spinner with no success. My canoeing partner grew reflectively silent. We paddled past the Beaver River’s concourse with the Cloquet and an osprey nest built atop power poles. We made the Bachelor Road landing ahead of schedule, unloaded our canoes, and waited for transportation back to Munger’s Farm.

The group, minus two.

The group, minus two.

End of the line. DWP bridge in the distance.

End of the line, the DWP bridge in the distance.

 

 

gary

 

Mark Twain. Will Rogers. Garrison Keillor. Each generation seems blessed with a humorist who, instead of standing off in the distance and pointing out the incongruities in American life, stands shoulder to shoulder with ordinary men and women. Our homegrown satirists have descended into the muck and mire of race and politics and religion to identify the best and the worst of America. Using words as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, our beloved social commentators have made us understand how far we, as a nation, have come and how far we have yet to go. Now the best of them, a man who combined music and poetry and narrative to reflect on our national pulse, is hanging it up.

 

I was just a kid behind the wheel of a battered Chevy Chevette negotiating I-494 from my apartment in Bloomington to downtown St. Paul on my way to my first “real” job as a process-server; going to law school at night. On those early morning drives, I’d tune into Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and listen to The Morning Show, a program featuring musical guests scheduled to be on A Prairie Home Companion (PHC), Keillor’s iconic Saturday evening radio variety show. Charlie McGuire, Leo Kottke, Prudence Johnson, Bill Staines and a plethora of other musicians enlivened my morning drives. Hailing from late seventies Duluth—the rebirth of the Arrowhead’s arts and culture and music scene still decades in the future—The Morning Show’s cavalcade of music was a revelation. In addition, faux advertisements and commentary and puns and jokes intertwined with the music. It all added up to an auditory experience unlike anything I’d ever encountered. I was hooked. My love of all things Keillor became engrained in my Northern Minnesota soul. Once I married my sweetheart and Rene’ joined me in the Cities, we made frequent trips back to Duluth. During our drives home, we tuned into MPR and listened to PHC.

 

Decades passed. Rene’ and I are still together. We’ve raised four sons and we’re now grandparents. Our boys grew up listening to PHC on family vacations. Our boys have also seen Mr. Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater and at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. They‘ve grown up listening to The News from Lake Wobegon. They’ve been raised on Garrison’s wicked political satire. Assessing Mr. Keillor’s impact on my family and the countless other American families who tuned into his broadcasts is difficult. One doesn’t want to exaggerate. That would be, well, so un-Norwegian, so un-Lake Wobegonian. And yet, it’s markedly true: Garrison Keillor’s renditions of Americana have been like no other. Is the show’s draw its not-so-subtle nostalgia, a desire for a simpler time, a more innocent world? Or is it simply the great music that draws us in? Or a mixture of the two?

 

It’s Friday night. Labor Day weekend. I’m sitting next to my wife beneath the soaring steel canopy of the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. Over the course of three hours, a seventy-four year old man who’s endured health scares, multiple marriages, and occasionally disappointing book sales (as all fiction authors and English majors must!) stands in a pristinely white suit (perhaps unconsciously claiming the stage persona of Samuel Clemens?), and leads the house band and guest musicians through gospel, opera, choral arrangements, folk, rock, and swing. With help from the omnipresent radio acting company, current presidential candidates make appearances as voices for GPS devices and a skittish private eye meets The Donald. We laugh. We sing. We applaud. The hour grows late. The host, cast, and musicians take a final bow. The old man at the center of it all says he’ll be back next year. Fireworks explode above the emptying stage and illuminate the night sky. We rise from hard seats and head towards the parking lot.

 

Very soon folk musician Chris Thiel, a member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, will begin hosting a very different sort of Prairie Home Companion. There will be no news from Lake Wobegon. Guy Noir will no longer sleuth the airways. Longtime sponsors The Ketchup Advisory Board and Powdermilk Biscuits will pull their advertisements. But rural America’s voice won’t be absent from our culture. Mr. Keillor will continue to narrate The Writer’s Almanac; a podcast I listen to for inspiration every morning before I write. He’ll pen novels set in the little town that time forgot. He’ll craft essays for The New Yorker and national newspapers where he’ll challenge us to aspire to be better than we are. And maybe, just maybe, on Labor Day weekend, 2017, the tall, gangly man in the white linen suit will climb down from the grandstand stage, microphone in hand, and sing “America the Beautiful” with ten thousand fellow Minnesotans.

 

Things change and, as families drive across this great land, their car radios tuned to MPR, or as dairy farmers listen in as they muck out their barns, or as older folks settle into recliners listening in as they wait out winter, it’s unlikely that Chris Thiel will make folks forget Garrison Keillor. But as the old man himself might say, “Give the kid a chance. You might like what you hear.”

 

I know I will.

Peace.

Mark

(c) 2016

(An edited version of this essay appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on 09/11/2016)

 

 

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