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.
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!
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
“Trooper Smith. State Patrol. I have a search warrant for a blood draw.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(An edited version of this essay appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on 09/11/2016)
Before we left home, the shit literally hit the fan. Rene’ and I were due to leave the house early on Friday morning. I had plans to load the car, tuck away the dogs (our son Matt had agreed to feed, water, and exercise our Lab and Dachshund), and hear the hum of rubber on asphalt before 8:00am. Didn’t happen that way. Here’s why.
First, I woke up sicker than a dog. Headache. Upset stomach. Body aching all over and unable to decide whether it should puke or let loose from the other end.
“Maybe we should stay home,” my wife of 38 years thoughtfully suggested.
“Can’t do it,” I replied, dragging my way out of bed and towards the shower. “Gotta set up early tomorrow. Besides, we’re supposed to be at Halvorsons’ tonight for dinner.”
Bob and Dode Halvorson are friends from law school. Bob was a year behind me at William Mitchell, someone I played intramural softball and football with and shared cheap beer in the Irish bars of St. Paul. Dodie is his wife. They invited us to meet up with three other couples with ties to the Dorsey Law Firm, the place I spent two of my four years working my way through night law school. The Floms, good friends from Moorhead, and the Liesches and the Buckvolds, who hail from the Twin Cities, were to meet up and spend some time together at the Halvorson cottage on Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids. The other folks have gathered annually since our days together at Dorsey. We were late invitees, the result of another of the couples we spent considerable time with, Mark and Debbie Ginder, passing away in the past year. I didn’t want to miss the chance to reconnect with people who helped define me as a person and a lawyer, whose support was essential to completing four years of night school while juggling a full time job, marriage, fatherhood, and working as a caretaker at a Wilder Foundation high rise.
The warmth of the shower did little to curb my aches and pains. I dressed, ate some half-toasted wheat bread slathered with peanut butter, woke Jack (our 18 year old son), let the dogs out to do their business, packed a suitcase with clothing for two days and nights away from home, and started lugging boxes of books out to Rene’s Nissan Rogue.
“Damn kids,” I muttered as I passed Jack on his way upstairs to get a towel.
“Not you. Matt’s boys. Daycare bug. It got me…”
Rene’ repeated that I should get back into bed and call off the trip.
I need to get out and get Boomtown moving, I thought, highlighting that the Northwoods Art and Book Festival, a neat little gathering in a tiny tourist hamlet a half hour south of Park Rapids, has always been a great place to sell my books. Plus we need to make our commitment to the Halvorsons and the others. Who knows. We miss this invite and, well, we just might not get invited again.
“No, I need to do this.”
“Can you drive?” I asked as I watched Jack drive away in his blue Matrix.
Then, I heard water running in the basement. I tumbled down the stairs towards Jack’s bathroom. What I found wasn’t pretty.
The lower level of our home has a bathroom that sits slightly up slope from our septic system. Whenever the baffle in the solids tank is clogged (usually with toilet paper), the sewage and gray water reverses course. The noise coming from the basement bath? It was the toilet overflowing with foul water and bits of toilet paper. But that wasn’t all. The tub was half-filled with the same disgusting mess. The words that came out of my mouth, uttered like the wail of a father over a fallen child, can’t be printed here in a family-friendly blog.
I’ll spare you the details. But I did learn something new. We’ve been in our house for 16 years. By the time the septic guy arrived, I’d managed to get the sewage flowing again. The alarm in the house was blaring but the poop water was diminishing.
“Here’s another thing,” the kid said, pulling on a white handle fitted between the solid and the liquid tanks in our front yard. “Your filter’s clogged.”
“Didn’t even know there was a filter between the tanks,” I said, my head pounding, my legs shaking from the bug.
“Well, now you do. Needs to be cleaned at least once a year.”
I slept the entire four hour drive to the Super 8 in Park Rapids. By the time we arrived, though I wasn’t fit as a fiddle, my headache had ebbed and my guts had calmed to the point where we could register at the motel and head out to the Halvorsons’ for dinner. Despite the anxiety of the shit storm and the resulting cleanup (I did as much as I could but knew that a more concentrated, more thorough scrubbing of the bathroom, tub, and sump room awaited) the dinner of salad and steak, prepared by Bob and Rita Buckvold and their daughter, was wonderful. The company? With old friends, the stories get retold, the love is rekindled, and the years seem to melt away.
Saturday morning. Rene’ made arrangements with Joe and Marcia Liesch to get a ride from the motel out to the Halvorson place on Fish Hook Lake. She was fast asleep when I pulled away from the Super 8 in her Rogue, headed south on the backroads for Hackensack. I’d gulped down a cup of motel coffee, eaten a hardboiled egg and some yogurt, but still felt the affects of the bug as I meandered towards the art festival. By the time I pulled up to the Hackensack Community Center where my rented table was waiting for me, the illness had run its course.
You might be asking why, given I was nearly at death’s door (OK, that’s a huge exaggeration but damn it, I did feel like crap!), would I drag my sick body and my long-suffering wife all the way across
Minnesota to sit in a hard metal chair behind a rented folding table selling books to strangers? Well, the simple answer is, of all the events I’ve done over the years, the Northwoods Art and Book event is on that I can always count on.
“Oh, I just loved _____ (fill in the blank). Do you have anything new?” is a common comment and question from readers. 20 or more authors set up shop in the UCC Church across the street from the community center. I choose to pay a little higher fee to be isolated from my brother and sister authors. Why? Less competition, pure and simple. If I’m one of only a few, rather than one of many, trying to foist my words on strangers, odds are, I’ll sell better. This year was no exception.
The rewarding thing about these events is that time and time again, kind folks who’ve purchased a book in the past stop by and buy another Munger read. In the 16 years I have been selling words to strangers, I’ve only heard a handful of negative comments. I accept them, as I accept praise, reminding myself of Hemingway’s admonition that, if you revel in the glory of the critics, you must accept their condemnation as well. Boomtown, my as-yet-to-be-launched murder mystery/legal thriller sold well. At the close of the festival, I said my goodbyes, packed up my boxes, and hit the road. Within an hour, I was back at the Halvorson cottage, a Bent Paddle Black in hand, floating on the calm waters of the prairie lake. The Floms joined us and, as we sat down for dinner with friends, joined by the Halvorson’s daughter Zoe and her boyfriend, the old stories flowed. I’m sure the twenty-something child who grew up with most of these folks had heard every tale from our law school days. And yet, she pretended to listen…
Sunday morning. We were back on the road, headed south. The last leg of our trip took us to Target Field to watch a Twins game with my friends, Judge John DeSanto, and former Chief Public Defender, Fred Friedman. We set up this event months ago. Originally our wives were to join us. A week ago, Fred stopped in at my office to reveal that Mrs. Friedman and Mrs. DeSanto would not be attending. I kept this bit of news to myself, disclosing it only as we drew closer to the Twin Cities. My wife wasn’t particularly pleased to learn the other ladies had bowed out. But she’s a good sport and after letting off a bit of steam, she quieted down and accepted that she was the only girl in the group.
It was a great day for a ballgame. I was hoping that the resurgent Twins would make a showing. When Dozier hit a bomb to left to tie the game, I thought, Damn, this is gonna be fun. But by the time we shuffled out of the ballpark later that afternoon, the Twinks had been on the receiving end of a 11-4 shellacking. The bumbling hometown favorites had nearly as many hits (6) as they had errors (4). But again, sitting with two mentors who I admire a great deal, trading stories, talking law and baseball and families, well, it really didn’t matter what the score was.
After a pit stop in Forest Lake at Famous Dave’s, we roared onto the freeway and were home slightly after eight Sunday night. It had been a grueling, tiring, exhausting yet delightful weekend. I wasn’t even pissed off or upset when I grabbed my scrub bucket, cleaning supplies, paper towels, and made my way into the basement bathroom to begin the process of scouring.
You’ll need to enlarge the photo above to see everyone clearly. The picture was taken on Anni Stahle’s phone. Anni is the Head of Public Diplomacy for the Finnish Embassy to Canada. She’s the lovely lady in white. Across from Anni, in the vibrant red hair, is Sari Lietsala, Counsul, 2nd Secretary in the embassy. Next to Sari is my host and tour guide, Dr. Ron Harpelle, Chair of the History Department at Lakehead University. His wife Kelly Saxberg, a documentary filmmaker and Finnish Canadian (who invited me to speak at Finn Fest) is across the table from Ron. Next to her, and directly across from me (I’m wearing the green hula shirt) is Ritva Murto, the ambassador’s wife. Seated next to Ritva is Ambassador Charles Murto and to his right is Laura McSwiggan, Honorary Vice Consul in Ottawa. The last member of the group, seated to my right, is Margaret Wanlin-Hyer, Thunder Bay business consultant and wife of former MP (member of parliament), Bruce Hyer. There. Now you who I had dinner with at Thunder Bay’s trendiest restaurant on June 24th. Just how did I end up in such esteemed company you ask? Hold on a second and I’ll tell you.
It’s no secret that, as my second son Dylan once remarked, I’m (paraphrasing) “semi-famous in Canada.” Back in 2000, after my first novel, The Legacy was published, I took a chance. I was looking for places to promote my book: bookstores, civic groups, arts and crafts shows, and libraries were all targets of my less-than-sophisticated marketing strategy. Many times, emails and letters and promotional packets I sent out were ignored, discarded, or relegated to the slush pile. But when Barb Philp, head of Adult Services of the Thunder Bay Public Library system replied to my email and invited me to come up to Thunder Bay to read from The Legacy, I made the trip north on Highway 61 to Thunder Bay. Reading for the first time in front of a room full of strangers, I was mortified. Oh sure, I’d done a reading at my book launch at the Amazing Grace Bakery and another at the local Barnes and Noble store. But those events were held in my own backyard, attended by friends and family. I had no idea what awaited me in old Fort William that wintery night in 2000. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
In fact the experience at the Brodie Library compelled me to so something out of my comfort zone: I joined a writing group, the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW). Through NOWW I participated in the annual book sale at the Waverly library, Finn Fling at Lakehead University, book signings at the local Chapters Bookstore, a conference at the Prince Arthur Hotel regarding Karelian Fever (the reverse migration of Finns from the US and Canada back to Soviet Karelia), the Sleeping Giant Writers Conference, readings at other branches of the Thunder Bay library, and a workshop discussing the perils and rewards of self-publishing. All this because one nice lady, Ms. Phelp, took the time to invite me up.
So here I am. It’s early Saturday morning. I’m at the Finnish Labour Temple on Bay Street. I’m crammed into a room with ten or so other vendors on the third floor of the building, selling my books to Finns attending Finn Fest. When I saw that the festival was scheduled for late June, I emailed Kelly Saxberg, who I’d met at a brunch following the debut of her film, Under the Red Star. That chance meeting, brought about because my novel, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, portrays the lives of Finns who settled around Lake Superior, propelled my work-in-progress, Sukulaiset: The Kindred (a story of Karelian fever) forward. 16 years after I first made my way north to Thunder Bay as an author, I find myself back in this lovely harbor city shadowed by mountains, talking to Canadians about Finns and hawking books to strangers.
My time here is limited. I have to leave the festival early to be in Two Harbors where I am slatted to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of my Uncle Wayne.
I arrived in Thunder Bay on Thursday evening. After settling into my room at the Prince Arthur Hotel, I strolled the town’s resurgent waterfront. I stopped to admire kids playing in a fountain, skaters doing tricks on concrete ramps, billowing sails of boats plying the bay inside the breakwater, and locals and tourists walking through the park on a beautiful summer evening. I found a pub, had a local brew, and set off to find something to eat. My favorite restaurant in town, Armando’s, closed. I wandered Port Arthur’s downtown until I found a pub serving food but I was disappointed to learn that the kitchen was closed, leaving a meat and cheese appetizer tray as my supper. I drank a Sleeping Giant lager, listened to two local boys emulating Neil Young, watched the crowd, and marveled at the lengthy journey I’d made in pursuit of fame.
On Friday, Ron Harpelle (Kelly’s husband) met me in the hotel lobby. We found a local haunt and over steaming cups of java, we talked politics, family, projects, films, and books for the better part of an hour. Ron was charged with meeting Ambassador Charles Murto and his wife Ritva at the airport. With time to kill, we piled into Ron’s van for an impromptu tour of the city. We visited Lakehead’s new law school and met the dean before heading to Chapters. I was bound and determined to buy a copy of Charlie Wilkins’s memoir, Circus at the Edge of the Earth. I’ve met Charlie, who came to Thunder Bay decades ago as the library’s writer in residence, a number of times, including at my first reading at the Brodie Library all those many years ago. He’s a well known essayist and writer with a national audience and a pretty neat guy. I own several of his books. I’ve always wanted to read Circus. Chapters is Canada’s equivalent to Barnes and Noble: a chain bookstore that believes bigger is better. Unfortunately, when I checked Chapters’ computer and the shelves, no Circus. In fact, no Charlie Wilkins whatsoever.
“We can order you a copy,” a helpful young female clerk suggested.
“I’m American,” I replied. “I don’t think that’ll work.”
I was buying a copy of Such a Long Journey by Canadian author, Rohinton Mistry just as Ron sauntered up.
“No Circus?” Ron asked.
“No Wilkins. Period.”
I paid for the book. We walked to the car.
“I really wanted that book,” I lamented.
My talk at the library went well. The audience listened intently as I explained researching and writing my two Finnish flavored books. Folks asked questions. I sold and signed books before making my way to the Labour Temple for the festival’s opening ceremony. I took a seat and watched an itinerary splash across the big screen in the crowded hall. Covers of my Finn books appeared. I smiled. Member of Parliament, Patty Hajdu, the Ambassador, and other dignitaries were introduced in English and Finnish. Several Finnish groups and musicians performed between brief speeches. And then, the festival was officially “open for business.”
Our dinner Friday night at Bight Restaurant was filled with political discussion, talk of the cultural differences between our nations, and consideration of just how The Donald was going to build a wall along the American/Canadian border.
“Is he going to float the thing in the middle of the Great Lakes?” I asked aloud. Given that Ambassador Murto, his wife, and staff were in attendance for casual dining, I’ll not repeat their responses here. Lets just say that the world is wondering just what the United States is thinking. Our meals were great. The wine was tasty. I avoided desert.
Saturday morning. I rose, packed, checked out, and drove the short distance to the Labour Temple for breakfast at Hoito (another of Charlie’s books, Breakfast at Hoito is one I have read and cherish). The restaurant in the basement of the old union hall wasn’t open. I walked across the street to Scandia and found the same Finnish pancakes I was craving. After eating and reading the Chronicle Journal, I set up my table in the tori (market) and waited for customers. Outside, the sky was darkening. Before long the clouds let loose, drenching vendors set up in the parking lot.
As I sit in my chair and watch Finns wander about, I consider the fact that I’ll likely outsell Thunder Bay’s most famous author because, inexplicably, the largest bookstore in town doesn’t carry his titles. Kelly arrives to say goodbye. She hands me a copy of The Big Blue, a documentary she directed about Wilkins and 15 other folks, mostly Canadians, who rowed from Africa to America. No sails. No motors. Just the power of their arms and legs propelling a catamaran across the Atlantic. I thank Kelly for her and Ron’s hospitality. Shortly after she leaves, I pack up and make my way back to the States.
I jet down Highway 61, and make my uncle’s funeral just in the nick of time. Later, after unpacking at home, I pop the DVD into the player. I watch and listen as my Canadian friend contemplates a journey that he, at 63 years old, seems ill equipped to make. And yet, despite the odds, he does what he sets out to do and then writes a book about the experience.
They aren’t even stocking his books in his adopted hometown’s biggest bookstore and yet, he soldiers on.
There’s a lesson in this tale for those of us who aspire to write something folks want to read.
PS You can find copies of Charlie’s books (including his account of his Atlantic crossing, Little Ship of Fools) online if not on the shelves of your local bookstore!