He was all ready to go. And then, he wasn’t.

Forty years ago, when my wife Rene’ and I were on the cusp of marriage, my dad approached me with a suggestion. No, Harry wasn’t trying to buy me off, to offer me hard cash if I’d stiff the woman I’d fallen in love with.

“Mom and I are taking your brother and sister to Canada. Jack Litman’s place. It’s a fly in. The Litmans and Mondales will be there.”

“OK…?”

“Well, are you doing anything for your honeymoon?”

I shook my head. Dad knew I was about to enter my third year, the toughest year, of law school. I was working full time at the Dorsey Law Firm as a legal assistant, making peanuts, paying my own way through school. Rene’ was finishing up her degree at the Main U. There’s no money for a honeymoon, I thought, though pride kept me quiet.

“Well, I’ll pay for you and Rene’ to come along.”

That was it. After a sleepless wedding night in a stuffy hotel room in Proctor (and not sleepless for the reasons you might think; shame on you!), Rene’ and I loaded ourselves into an already stuffed- to-the-ceiling Munger Family Suburban, crowding into the back seat with my brother and sister. Off we went. We had a grand time, spending five nights in a tent, my new bride and I sleeping on separate folding lawn chairs in separate sleeping bags. That bit of information aside, what other couple do you know can say they spent their honeymoon with the Vice President of the United States, protected by Secret Service, Canadian Mounties, and the Ontario Provincial Police?

The year was 1978. 30 years later, my dad approached me with a similar proposal.

“You want to go fishing with Fritz?”, “Fritz” being Mr. Mondale, now retired from public life.

“Sure.”

That trip renewed my acquaintance with the former Ambassador to Japan, Vice President, United States Senator, and Minnesota Attorney General. Thanks to that gracious invitation from Ross and Jay Litman, I was able to meet George Millard (a buddy of Mondale’s), Sam Perrella, III and his son Tony, Sam Litman (Jay’s son), and reconnect with old friends Doc Donley and Bruce Meyer. It’s a trip I’ve made every year since being invited except one. It’s a trip that’s heavy on laughter, great food, political bickering, and great fishing. This year, Harry was set to go; to, at nearly 91 years old, climb in and out of a de Havilland Otter and in and out of Sheriff Ross Litman’s fishing boat. He was eager to make the journey from his condo in Port Charolette to Duluth and have his eldest kid drive him and Mondale and George Millard to Ignace, Ontario and make the short flight to Elsie Lake. But fate intervened. Harry died on April 28th. His heart simply gave out. His memorial was held on June 1st. True to the strong ties such annual fishing trips create, everyone from the Litman trip attended the memorial to swap Harry stories, eat, share a toast, and remember.

For the past few years, I’d toyed with the idea of asking Ross if one of my four sons could make the trip but I never had the courage to ask. It’s not my trip; it’s Harry’s. So I kept my thoughts to myself until Harry’s passing. I emailed Ross not long after Dad’s memorial and broached the idea of seeing if Matt, my eldest and Harry’s oldest grandchild (and not insignificantly, a kid the Vice President managed to see baptized in 1980), couldn’t take Harry’s place. Not literally, of course, since there’s no way ANYONE could take Dad’s place. Ross and Jay approved the idea. Matt was able to sell it to his overburdened wife, Lisa, who would be stuck home with a new baby and two boys under the age of seven while Matt traipsed off to Canada. Matt must have promised Lisa the moon because she let him go. And so, we did. To say I’ve shed a few tears since Harry’s passing is to reveal that, despite nearly cancelling out of last year’s trip (Harry and I were in a spat, one that Sheriff Litman ordered me to “fix”, so I did), and many, many other disputes and disagreements Harry and I had since I was old enough to form opinions, I sincerely loved the craggy faced, gruff mannered, intimidating old litigator. Imagine being a little boy and being questioned by the most skilled cross examiner in the Duluth Bar. Every day of your life. That was our relationship, one that was, at times adversarial and contentious but was always, in a weird sort of a way, permeated by love and mutual respect. So asking Matt to “fill in” for Harry was not an easy thing to do. And yet, it felt so right to have Harry’s oldest grandchild sitting in the back seat of my Grand Cherokee with George, while Fritz reprised his familiar role of being my co-pilot on the drive from Duluth to Ignace.

George, Fritz, Jay, and Ross.

Like most years, we spent our time at Elsie returning to the routine of camp life in the bush. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We don’t rough it on Elsie Lake. Not even close. Jay is an exceptional chef. Sammy, the third generation of Perrellas to own and run Sammy’s Pizza, always does his Italian heritage proud in the kitchen. Ross usually contributes, in addition to near constant movement and upgrading around camp, a fish fry. This year’s menu didn’t disappoint. We slept on comfortable mattresses in sleeping bags, drifting off-in my case since I bunked with the old guys- to sounds of C-Pap machines whirling away in the night. Sure, there were times where chores were mandatory. I’m the designated camp dishwasher, though this year, with the addition of a solar pump and a propane water heater, I no longer heated kettles of water on the propane cook stove for dishes. I simply turned on the tap and, shazam, hot water! George served, as he always does, as my assistant. Every meal, we cleaned and dried and stacked dishes, pots, pans, and utensils. This year, due to an unfortunate shoe incident (it’s top secret; ask the sheriff!), Ross and Jay determined that the sauna needed refurbishing. Actually, rebuilding would be a better term. I need to stop here to explain something about camp logistics. There are no roads leading to the Litman Camp.Whenever building materials or supplies or food or propane or gasoline or boats or motors are needed, those items must be loaded into or strapped to the floats of an Otter and flown in. Hell, that’s how Judge Jack Litman managed to bring a brand new pontoon boat into the Canadian wilderness years ago, a boat that’s still in use. The boat was flown in disassembled, the pontoons tied to the Otter’s floats, and rebuilt on site.

Jay and Matt fishing from the pontoon.

The sauna construction crew included Jay ( who once made his living in the carpentry trade), Ross, Tony, and me. It was hot and humid inside the little steam room as Tony and I measured and nailed cedar cut by Jay, sometimes getting the measurements spot on, other times, not so much. We had the advantage of a generator providing power for a table saw; and battery powered skill saws and nailers and drills; tools that didn’t exist back in the 1960s when the original cabin was built.

Mark and Tony fitting cedar planking in the sauna.

In between raindrops and chores and fishing and feasting, there were, of course, quiet moments when we each did our own thing. I spent much time, when not in the boat with Jay or Sammy or Ross devouring Jim Harrison’s last effort (see my review of The Ancient Minstrel elsewhere on this blog), and discussing writing with Fritz and George and Sammy. 

Reading on the dock.

Of course, the reason for us being in the middle of the Ontario wilderness, miles from roads and civilization, was to fish. And fish we did! The walleyes were somewhat cooperative; the small mouth bass-lively; the whitefish (pound for pound the fightingest fish in the lake) were completely absent; and the lake trout, scarce. Still, we found enough fish to keep our anticipation high and our expectations higher. There were no trophies landed; no eight pound lakers or twenty pound pike or 28″ walleyes. But that’s OK: had we landed such monsters, the slot limits on the lake (or the Litman ethic) would have required a quick photo and a release, allowing big fish the chance to grow bigger.

Elsie lake trout.

 

Tony and Sammy and Elsie walleye.

We humans weren’t the only ones missing Harry. The camp dogs, especially the two yellow labs Jada and Lilly, seemed out of sorts without my dad around.

“Why so?” you ask.

Those of you who know Harry, know he always had a Lab by his side until he left Minnesota for retirement in Florida. The list of Labradors that lived with Harry over his long life is endless. His affinity for the breed knew no bounds. Wherever he was, whether pheasant hunting in North Dakota or steelhead fishing on the Betsy River in Michigan, he found a Labrador to adopt and spoil. This was true at Elsie as well and I’m certain Jada’s and Lilly’s constant nudging our legs and hands beneath the kitchen table in Harry’s absence was a learned response: Dad always had a treat to share with his canine pals.

Lilly waiting for Harry.

But this year, their pal didn’t make the trip and the yellow dogs (thanks, Sam Cook!) shared the human contingent’s unsettled state. So many memories. So many thoughts. As the patriarch of the Munger Family now that Harry has passed, I found myself tearing up in, of all places, the outhouse, for chrissakes! I don’t want to leave you with the impression I was overcome with morose longing for the old man. I’ve learned, with the passing of both my stepfather and my father in the same year, that grief doesn’t work that way: at least not for me. No, the sadness didn’t hit me full on, in the face, like I’d expect losing a child or a spouse does. I suppose because death is an expected part of life, and as our parents age, we come to anticipate the inevitable, grief sneaks up and pinches you on the cheek, making you cry over the smallest remembrance. I had some of those moments at Elsie. I’m sure Fritz and George and Matt and the rest of the boys did too. We all missed Harry on this year’s trip, and will go on missing the old guy, in our own ways, as long as we’re around.

That’s just how it is.

Peace.

Mark

Harry and Fritz, Elsie Lake 2017.

 

HUMOROUS

When I was 12, two neighbor boys, both a couple of years older than me, got the bright idea we should go hunting for squirrels in the woods above Skyline between Piedmont Avenue and 40th. John Durfee, one of the kids, didn’t have access to a gun but Ricky Plys, the other kid, did. A .22. But Ricky’s dad had locked up all the ammunition. So, we had a gun, but no bullets. I solved the problem by digging into my dad’s closet and liberating a box of .22 long rifle rounds. Off we went.

            After plinking at stuff for a couple of hours, we decided it was time to head home. John led the way and I walked behind him. Ricky followed with the .22. Somewhere on the trail, my gun safety training kicked in. I’m not supposed to be walking in front of the kid with the gun, I thought. I peeled off and walked behind Ricky. But Durfee was still ahead of Ricky and the .22. Somehow, Ricky stumbled, the gun went off, and a bullet hit John Durfee in his leg and traveled up into his back, near his spine. Ricky’s response? He took off, leaving the smallest kid behind to try and help the biggest kid make it home. As we limped along, John came up with a story. His dad, who was a hunting buddy of Harry’s, was the Chief Public Defender. Represented some nasty dudes in serious cases. “Here’s what we’ll tell ‘em,” John said between bouts of crying and pain. “Some guys were across the valley, on the ridge. One of them said, ‘Hey, isn’t that Durfee’s kid?’ The other said, “That’s him, alright. Let’s get ‘em.’ They shot me and took off.” Durfee looked at me, his eyes defiant. “Got that?”

            So, when I managed to drag John into his living room, where his dad, a seasoned trial lawyer interrogated us, that’s the story we told. Before Jack could rattle me, I skedaddled up the hill. My house was only a ½ block away. And I had a problem to be rid of: I still had a bandolier of .22 rounds tucked inside my sweatshirt. Between when I left Durfee’s and stopped at my shack, opened the door, and tossed the bandolier inside, Jack smelled a rat and called Harry. I didn’t know it but my dad was standing in the picture window of our house, phone in hand, getting the low down from Jack, while watching me hide evidence.

            I came in the back door and there was Harry. Dad was, when his dander was up, a very scary guy. I took one look at his face and I knew he knew.

            “What were you doing?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Where have you been?’

            “Nowhere.”

            “What did you throw in your shack?”

            “I wasn’t at the…”

            I never finished the lie. Harry had me by an ear, out the door, across the lawn, and standing next to the shack in mere seconds.

            “Get it”, he said.

Dad was silent during the walk to Durfee’s, but held my neck in a firm grip. The ambulance, its red lights flashing, its siren blaring, was just pulling away from the Durfee house when we stopped in front of Jack and two cops.

“Boy’s got somethin’ to say…” Harry said, shoving me towards The Law.

They found Ricky Plys hiding under his bed with the .22. The cops put the two of us in handcuffs, drove us downtown, fingerprinted us, interrogated us, and scared the shit out of us at the request of Jack Durfee and Harry Munger. I won’t say I never strayed after that. I can say I was never again a guest in the back of a squad car.

My sister Annie recently made this observation: Our dad was a tough, ornery, cranky, opinionated son of a gun who came down hard on us when we messed up. But just as quickly, he had the ability to move on without ever throwing our sins back in our faces. He never dwelled on history when it came to our missteps. In the fifty-three years since John Durfee got shot, Harry Munger never once told that story.

TOUCHING

If you know the Mungers, you know that there are times when one Munger refuses to speak to another of the clan. Such impasses occurred between Dad and me over the years. The reasons behind these silences aren’t important, never were. They just happened. But during the last six months or so, Harry and I didn’t have any spats. Our truce, such as it was, saw us calling each other 2-3 times a week. He loved it when, during this past winter, I repeatedly bemoaned that it was below zero or snowing, to which he would reply: “Well, it’s 85 and sunny here and I just got out of the pool.”

Mom and I have always said, “I love you” to each other. Not so Harry and I. We’re guys. We just don’t do that. An occasional hug, sure. A firm handshake? Always. A kiss or an “I love you”; not in the cards. So when, over the past five or six years, Harry began ending our long distance phone calls with, “I love you,” it caught me off guard. Something had changed in him, making him more sentimental, more affectionate. He never hung up the phone without saying, “I love you, Son.” That phrase, quite frankly, was rarely reciprocated. It just wasn’t in my wheelhouse to repeat those words to my old man. I did on occasion. But those occasions were few and far between.

Friday, April 27th. I called Harry. We had a nice talk. He’d just come from the pool. He didn’t tell me, as Pauline later revealed, that he’d been unusually tired, having slept nearly 20 hours before making his way to the pool. In any event, Dad and I came to a logical place to end our conversation. There was a second or two of silence. Before he could say anything, driven by whatever foresight or grace or intuition was granted me, I said, “I love you, Dad,” and I hung up the phone.

            I said those words because Harry had brought about a positive change in our relationship. It was the last time we spoke. And it was a gift.

            Thank you, Dad.

 

                                                                                  

 

You might know me as a writer, a judge, and a life-long Duluthian. You may also know that, over the past two decades, I‘ve researched, written, and published two historical novels about the Finns. As I type this piece, I’m presently at work on another novel concerning Finnish history and immigration. When all is said and done I’ll have devoted more than twelve years to my Finnish-themed novels. Folks often ask, “If you’re not Finnish, why do you write about the Finns?” Given that Finland recently celebrated 100 years of nationhood (on December 6th, 2017) maybe now’s a good time to answer that question.

I grew up with Finns. As a thoroughly diluted American (Slovenian, English, Welsh, and German with a bit of French, Dutch, Scots, and Irish tossed in for good measure), when I befriended two 100% Finnish boys in 6th grade, I was, given my mutt-like bloodlines, curious. But I didn’t question my new pals’ ethnic purity right off. It wasn’t until the three of us set out to build a log cabin on the Tynjala ancestral farm near Palo when I began to ponder my friends’ Finnishness. During breaks from cutting and peeling and stacking logs I wandered the farm’s abandoned hayfields. As I walked, I took notice of glacial rocks piled high in the fields and wondered: “Who were these people and why did they try to farm this godforsaken land?” Even city kids understand the basics of agriculture: you need ample rain, good soil, a long growing season, and hot sun to be successful. The little Finnish farm in Palo had none of these attributes except ample rain, which, of course, bred ample black flies and mosquitoes and little else. As our makeshift cabin took shape, I puzzled over the hardscrabble lives of those who carved a farm out of forest. But I did not, in my imagined stories, discover anything worth putting down on paper.

In 2000, I stumbled across the tale of Olli Kinkkonen, a Finn found hanging from a tree in Duluth’s Lester Park in 1918. The police ruled Olli’s death a suicide. In my view, the facts pointed to something more sinister. Researching Kinkkonen’s life and times, I became captivated by Finnish immigrant history. Before I knew what hit me, I was penning a broad-shouldered yarn I had no business writing. Once Suomalaiset was in print I feared the worst. Who was I to write the story of the Finns coming to North America? I waited for criticism from the Finnish American community. None came. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on to other projects. I was content−until Gerry Henkel, a Finnish American friend pulled me aside for a “chat”−to leave the Finns alone. I had no further interest in exploring Finnish history in a fictional context. But Gerry convinced me that there was a larger story waiting to be told. What that story was, Gerry left it to me to discover.

I struggled as to what theme could be compelling enough to prompt me to write another book about the Finns. Then it hit me: Karelian Fever, the emigration of thousands of Finns from North America to the U.S.S.R., could fuel a novel. I had an inkling that there was a more complex tale to be told than simply regurgitating themes surrounding Karelian Fever. But what other aspects of Finnish history could be fleshed out? Some topics seemed obvious: many writers have explored the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Finland in 1939. To add another fictional accounting of the Winter War atop an existing mountain of similar stories seemed meritless. Then it dawned on me: No one has explored why the Finns cast their fate with the Nazis during the war. With Gerry’s encouragement, my second Finn book, Sukulaiset, found its way into print. Once again, I waited for criticism but the storm of protest never materialized. Finns remained appreciative of my treatment of their history, culture, and national identity. Even so, after Sukulaiset was published, I tried to put aside my fondness for the Finns.

Except. Lingering in the back of my mind was a question I’d left unexplored:

Why did all those Finns leave Finland in the first place?

This morning, I’m at my iMac in my writing studio cobbling together an answer to my question. The answer is taking shape in the form of Kotimaa (Homeland), the final novel in my Finnish trilogy. In my effort to understand why Finns left Finland in droves at the end of the 19th century, I find myself juxtaposing historic emigration upon contemporary events. Trying to comprehend the past, I’m compelled to examine the present. I peruse newspaper articles detailing the political handwringing of nations−including boisterous debates taking place in Finland−as world leaders consider the demands of beleaguered refugees; refugees who don’t look, talk, or worship like the folks inhabiting the homelands being called upon to provide sanctuary.

As the Finns−a people once derided as being clannish, standoffish, and unable to assimilate−debate how to respond to dark skinned Moslems seeking shelter and safety from terrorism, war, genocide, and despotic rule within Finland’s borders, I’ll answer the question of why within the context of the plot and dialogue of a historical novel, letting my readers determine whether my response rings true.

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland.

(c) Mark Munger 2018

*Happy Centennial (at least according to Google translate). This essay first appeared in edited form in the Duluth News Tribune and was reprinted with permission in the Finnish American Reporter.                                                   

Kena waiting for the hunt.

October. Every year. It’s a tradition that began with my old man and his buddy Bruce. They started the legacy my sons and I are carrying on sometime back in the 1990’s. They were already old men then, old men who still had vim and vigor to chase wild pheasants and ducks in the Dakotas. At first, they hunted South Dakota. But when that became too pricey, too uppity for Harry and Bruce, they moved north a bit. They found a little town not far from where Lawrence Welk was born. Ashley, ND has been the center of the Munger pheasant hunt now for twenty plus years. I’ve been part of this trip for going on fifteen years. My eldest son Matt joined us a few years back, followed by his brothers Chris and Jack. Reid, one of Matt’s buddies, rounds out our five-some. The old guys don’t come out anymore. Joints and heart issues and maladies and such. Time and age eventually catch up with even the most stubborn hunter. Oh, they’d both be making this trip if they could. But such is not to be. Sometime during this trip, we’ll tip a beer in tribute to Harry and Bruce. It’s not much but at least it’s something in honor of our hunt’s founders.

This year, Kena-“the greatest champion” in Celtic-Jack’s four-year old black Labrador is our “go to” dog. Matt’s yellow Lab Lexi is battling cancer, is over ten, and isn’t able to hunt anymore. In Lexi’s stead, I’m bringing my five-month old Brittany pup Leala-“faithful” in French. I’ve never had a pointer so I’ve been working Leala and Kena every day. They’re both eager to hunt. For the Mungers Plus One, expectations are low. Why? The five of us are poor shots when it comes to hitting rooster pheasants on the fly. Shooting trap, you suggest, might be of help. Not so much. We’ve tried that and it really didn’t improve our collective effort. And so we go into the field as we are.

It’s a seven hour drive to Ashley. Should be six but we’ve started a tradition of stopping partway to grill lunch. Last year, we pulled over at a city park in Fergus Falls. This year, with Matt and Reid in Matt’s Dodge pickup and Jack, me, and the two dogs in my Grand Cherokee we pull off in Pilager. Matt cooks lunch on  a portable LP grill. We munch on brats and chips, sip soda, and let the dogs run around. The sky is high and blue. The weather is warm. Unseasonably so for mid-October. Our bellies full, it’s back on the road.

Matt the chef.

We count rooster pheasants over the flat desolation of North Dakota farm and ranch country as we head south on No. 11. We pass through familiar towns, none of them bigger than a postage stamp, arriving in Ashley-the county seat of McIntosh County-near dark. Chris, who lives in St. Paul, is already at our rental house and has likely turned on the water and the heat. When Harry and Bruce first started coming to Ashley, they stayed at the one and only motel in town. Then they befriended a local rancher and rented his extra house, thereby gaining permission to hunt acres of private field and forest. This relationship soured shortly after I started coming along (maybe it was something I said?) and so for the last decade, we’ve stayed in town, limiting our hunting to PLOTS land and waterfowl production areas. I’m not keen on paying farmers to hunt their land or asking permission to walk their property and though such an attitude limits our opportunities, so far, no one in the crew has mutinied. 

Morning. It’s glorious working open fields beneath an endless sky, watching the dogs track birds. Kena is steady and strong and conserves energy: finding scent, following scent, her tail relatively calm until she hits on a bird in cover. Leala is a coiled spring of boundless energy, all youth and spunk. Jack never touches the remote controlling Kena’s eCollar. She’s so compliant and diligent to task, there’s no need. On the other hand, the pup needs constant mild reminders from my thumb on her eCollar not to roam too far or chase corn fed white tail bucks or scoot off after owls that slowly flap away from hidden nesting places as we hunt.

Leala waiting for her master.

We don’t know it at the time but the first flurry of the first morning, a passel of roosters rising as we push a fence line marking the edge of the CRP land we’re hunting is our best opportunity for multiple birds. Reid downs one, which the dogs have trouble locating but eventually find. The rest of us miss our shots. After finding Reid’s bird, I introduce Leala to her first pheasant. I toss it a few feet. She runs to the bird and struggles with a dead rooster that is about a quarter of Leala’s weight. Which is to say, having hunted over Labs and the occasional Golden Retriever and Springer, I am not used to considering a twenty pound dog a hunting companion. But over the course of days, the Brittany’s stamina and nose convince me of her worth. Unlike past years, where we’ve lost a half dozen or so downed birds, we don’t lose a single rooster this year. Granted, we don’t hit all that many. But still. It’s nice not to lose birds. After that first day-when we down three-it gets very, very tough. The wind roars in, gusting to over 50mph, making it impossible for the dogs to follow scent. In turns it rains and spits and blows harder, making our time in the field miserable. But when the weather calms we hunt long and we hunt hard. The health app on my phone says we average 8.5 miles per day. We walk over 10 miles on Sunday. So, if nothing else, we’re getting our exercise!

A pair of Dakota roosters.

I have to stop here to say this: Without the efforts of my eldest son, this hunt would never happen. Once the old guys stopped coming, Matt took it upon himself to become trip planner, quartermaster, and chef. He rents the house, buys the food, and cooks every meal (except breakfast which is cold cereal). He’s the guy. Period. For that, I thank him deeply.

And I don’t want you to form the conclusion that these trips are complete affirmations of familial love. Reid, who’s now tagged along with the Mungers for more than half a decade, will attest to the fact that we’re all stubborn bastards and that every year (this one included) one of us will march off in a huff, threatening to drive back to Duluth and “never come to Ashley again.” But it’s all bluster and nonsense and, as with the weather, eventually things calm down. That Reid Amborn is willing to put up with such drama is a testament to his good nature. Or maybe, he enjoys a little theater on the Plains. Whatever. He’s managed to figure out how to stay out of the fray, keep his head down, and have a pretty good time despite us.

My contribution to these annual trips? I’m the dishwasher. Chris and Jack clean and pack birds, with Chris being the teacher and Jack the student. Reid pitches in peeling potatoes, cutting carrots, grilling steaks, sweeping up; doing whatever he’s asked to do whenever he’s asked to do it. Despite my earlier proclamation of discord, for the vast majority of the time we spend together, we’re a jovial, happy crew. Especially when the cold beer comes out at the end of a long day…

Three days in, Kena has worked so many fields and marshes and swamps that she’s split open a pad on her right front paw. And both she and the little one are the very definition of dog-tired when we get back to the house after dark, hitting the couch as soon as they get in the door.

A hard day’s night…

I bandage the Lab’s foot and hope for the best. In the morning, she limps a bit but once her adrenaline starts pumping, she forgets her pain. Still, Jack’s careful not to overwork her. She, like Leala, are more than hunting dogs. They are family. That having been said, Kena doesn’t miss a beat, retrieving every bird we hit, poking her nose in every possible roost, never slowing down.

Matt, Reed, and Chris working the grass.

Still, I’m amazed at the little pup’s stamina. For a tiny bit of dog flesh-she’s mostly fur and sinew-she never backs down from a challenge. Cattails so thick that a man can barely bust his way through don’t stop her. Bramble and thistle don’t deter her. Whereas Kena will power through such obstacles, Leala simply ducks down and avoids the worst of it. After four days of watching the dogs, I’m pleased with how well they work together. By the end of the hunt, I’m reaching for Leala’s eCollar remote with less frequency.

“You want to try that CRP up north, where we saw those roosters driving in?”

It’s Wednesday morning. We’re cleaning the rental house, leaving it-since Reid, Jack and I are all Eagle Scouts-cleaner than we found it.

“Sure,” Jack replies.

I pack the Jeep. Chris packs up his Nissan. Matt and Reid close the tailgate on the Dodge. We lock up the little white house and garage and hit the road. A couple of hours later, Jack and I are walking another grassy section of CRP; a huge slice of acreage further north than we’ve ever hunted. The dogs get birdy. A rooster bursts from cover. We shoot. For a moment, I think I’ve clipped it. But if I did and it hit the ground running, the PLOTS land we are hunting is so vast, the dogs will run themselves to exhaustion trying to corner the bird. And truth be told, I think I am being overly optimistic. Chances are, the bird is unharmed. We hunt for another hour but no other roosters take wing. We’ve missed our last chance at a pheasant. With the dogs back in their kennels and our shotguns packed in their cases, we take one last look at the Plains, and climb into the Jeep for the long ride home.

Jack and two more birds.

Peace.

Mark

Home.

“I thought we were going to Scotland,” I complained as my wife showed me a TravelZoo page on the family iMac.

The page wasn’t of some gray and drizzly loch in the highlands but rather, of Villa I Laghi; a villa set in the golden hills and stark light of Tuscany.

Villa pool in Tuscany

“I want to go to Italy,” Rene’ replied.And that was that.

The trip was solely and wholly an idea conceived and orchestrated by my wife. She celebrated her 60th birthday in June. We celebrated 39 years of marriage in August. She was bound and determined that her longevity and her patience should be rewarded.

Without so much as a peep, I agreed: “Italy it is!”

Because I’d actually been watching flight prices to Scotland, I knew we could drive to Thunder Bay (TB) and fly Air Canada for significantly less than flying out of the Twin Cities. Plus, having flown out of TB on my infamous tour of Independent bookstores to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Calgary (please, don’t ask), I knew that TB’s airport had cheap parking and was, like Duluth’s airport, easy to get in and out of. I found tickets from TB to Rome with one stop in Toronto for $400 cheaper than any flight out of Minneapolis. Because Rene’ was booking a villa an hour outside of Florence, we’d need a car. To get from Rome to the villa, I booked a flight on Alitalia and reserved a car at the Florence airport through Sixt. I figured we could drop the rental car at the Florence airport, take a cab to the railway station, and take the bullet train to Rome fro the second part of our journey. All that remained was to lock in a place to stay in Rome. I found decent prices at the Hotel California (“You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave…” is NOT their motto!). I did everything-airplane tickets, car, and Rome hotel stay-on Expedia using my ten year old iMac.

 “Do you think we should see if anyone else wants to go with?” Rene’ asked one evening after finalizing our itinerary.

Whoever we approach will have to have the time and the money to say “yes”. We’re two months out so not a lot of our friends can say ‘yes’…”How about the McVeans?” I suggested.

 “I’ll ask Nancy.”

A few days later, Nancy and Rene’ were sitting on our sofa, logged into my notebook, trying to book the McVeans on our trip. It took an actual person at Expedia to make it all come together. But our friends were in. And off we went on our excellent Italian adventure.

Rome, Italy. “The website says that the flight to Florence is cancelled,” a young lady, her hair pink, her eyes, nose, and tongue pierced, deadpanned.

We found ourselves stuck at the airport, waiting for an Alitalia jet to Florence. Our flight was scheduled to leave by 3. It was nearly 5:30 by the time the airline confirmed what the bright young lass with the smartphone had already learned via the Interweb. Alitalia handed us vouchers for sandwiches with the promise of a bus ride. No one, least of all the four Americans who’d spent 9 hours on Air Canada jets, was happy that we’d paid good money to go zoom zoom and, through bait and switch, were going to be crammed into a tourist bus for a two hour ride through the dark Italian countryside. But, true world travelers that we are, we didn’t complain.

The Florence airport was deserted when we pulled in seven hours after our flight was due to land. We found the Sixt booth, rented our car ( a Spanish Seat sedan complete with six speed manual), and headed for the villa. I’d insisted on GPS in the Seat. Good thing. It was as dark as the bottom of the sea as we tried to find the village of Montaione (a place which it took Ron and I two weeks to finally pronounce correctly and remember!). Eventually, Rene’ called the folks managing the villa (it was nearly midnight) who came into town, met us, and led us down a lonely dirt road to our digs.

Villa I Laghi

The stay at the Villa I Laghi was exceptional with one caveat: Tuscan mosquitoes are ungodly. They’re nearly invisible but when they latch on, they leave behind nasty welts that itch for days and days. But the pool, the hillside, the morning coffee on the stone patio complete with fresh croissants. Ah. It was like a scene out of Under the Tuscan Sun. Our hosts were kind, considerate, helpful, and made the stay remarkably easy. From our villa, we took in the sights of Montaione, Sienna, Pisa, Marina di Pisa (on the Tyrrhenian Sea) Florence, and the walled fortress town of Monteriggioni. The delights came day after day after day of bright sun, warm breezes, and great pasta and wine. But of all the cathedrals and churches and ruins and buildings we visited, the Duomo di Siena (Sienna Cathedral) in Tuscany was the most striking, most amazing building to my eye. Though, truth be told, sitting in an open-air pizzeria in rural Tuscany, listening to rain beat a cadence on the tin roof while watching young Italians slide pizzas in and out of a woodfired brick oven as lightning lit up the night and thunder boomed across the valley, was nearly as memorable. As was an evening spent in a linen-table-clothed restaurant within the walls of Old Montaione. The four of us toured the bistro’s wine cellar, tried to understand our waiter (whose English matched my Italian), received bags of pasta made by either the waiter’s cousin or nephew (the language thing again), and then sat down to a seven course feast ( I had the lamb: it was out of this world) and several fine bottles of locally crafted wine.

Sienna Duomo

Our time in Tuscany, other than the driver of the Seat (me) burning the clutch on a steep, rainy road coming back from town with groceries, was without any major international incident. Don’t laugh: Given my friend Ron’s penchant for engaging and talking to everyone, including immigrant workers in the eateries and random folks on the street, I figured we were destined for an Italian prison once he said the wrong thing to the wrong person. But he never did.

Ron, Nancy, and Rene’ in Sienna

 

Rome was busier than the laid back time we spent in Tuscany. The bullet train (which hit a top speed of 165 mph) was the perfect way to travel. We’d taken a local train from Castelfiorentino into Florence (I didn’t want to test my international driving skills in city traffic), which was an easy way to get to town. But that line was diesel and slow and not anything like the state-of-the-art electric wonder that whisked us from Florence to Rome. Once at the Rome station, it was just a short walk with our luggage to the Hotel California. Again, the reviews on Expedia and TripAdvisor were spot on: the place was funky but clean and had a great buffet breakfast, all for a very reasonable price. The blue glazed glass shower sitting in the middle of the room took a little getting used to but, well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Nancy and Rene’ at the seashore

In our six days in the ancient capital, we saw and did it all: the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel, oodles of other museums, Trevi Fountain, the ruins, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Mausoleum, and many lesser, but equally beautiful cathedrals and churches, the likes of which took your breath away at every turn. What made it all even more real is that, while on the bullet train, I’d finished my last physical book in my backpack, pulled out my phone, opened up the Kindle app, and began reading From Sand and Ash.

St. Peter’s Basilica; Michelangelo’s Pieta

“Hey, “ I said to Rene’ once we arrive in Rome, “this novel…”

 “Yes?”

 “I loaded it on Kindle because I liked the cover. Turns out, it’s about the Holocaust in Italy. It’s set in Rome and Florence.”

 “No kidding.”

I gave the book such glowing reviews, Rene’s book club selected it for this month’s read. Go figure.

Language was never a barrier. Oh, I won’t claim we mastered Italian. Time and time again, when we’d try out a phrase on a waitress, she’d invariably correct our missteps. But kindly and always with a smile. Even a simple, “Grazie” (thanks) usually came out deformed; and Ron’s misuse of “Prego” (you’re welcome) with any number of comely young ladies from all parts of the world has given me an idea as to what Ron will be getting for Christmas. But most Italians readily accommodated our inability to communicate by speaking passable English.

Two Happy Guys

I can’t end this piece without giving you some advice: If you want to see the Vatican, go with a tour. It’s crowded and you don’t want to wait hours to get in. As far as the Colosseum and the forums, you can do those on your own. But, unless Ron is with you, make sure to reserve your tickets online. What’s so special about Ron? Well, you’d never know it from how he plays volleyball, or hockey, or basketball, or works around the house, but he’s missing his left arm. Now, having known the guy for 34 years, I can tell you this: Never once have I ever thought of Ronald McVean as being handicapped. He is one of the most able bodied people I know. But this exchange proves why you need to bring Ron (or your own one armed pal) with you to Rome:

“It’s gonna be a two hour wait to get in,” I moaned as we approached the Colosseum. “The line winds all the way around the place…”

Rene’ bit her lip. “You don’t come all the way to Rome to look at it from outside.”

“I agree,” Nancy said.

“Me too,” Ron agreed.

So, I complied and followed my group begrudgingly towards the entrance.

An Italian in charge of security eyeballed Ron. “You sir, are you with a group?”

“Yes. Four of us.”

The officer looked at Ron’s stub. “Follow me.”

Now whether he thought Ron was an American war hero (doubtful since he served his time in the Air Force away from falling bombs) or, as we seemed to be learning by a sequence of random acts, (Ron was given special privileges on other occasions as well), it’s simply Italian good manners, the four of us went to the head of the line. And, once inside, I have to say: I enjoyed the view immensely!

The Forum, Rome

Ronaldo on the tour bus

We ate our last dinner in Rome at another fine restaurant, dining as we nearly always did, under a canopy on the sidewalk, before attending a Vivaldi concert (how can you not take in “the Four Seasons” when Italy?) performed live in a beautiful Anglican church a few blocks from our hotel.

The next morning Ron said goodbye to his new friend from Sri Lanka, an airline pilot Ron had breakfast with most days, exchanging emails and promises to “stay in touch.” We caught a cab to the airport, waited in agonizingly slow lines, and finally, our feet weary but our spirits content, we flew back to Canada, four American friends who’d managed to avoid international incident or embarrassment…mostly.

Pace (Peace in Italian. I looked it up…)

Mark

Art-the Italian Way!

                 

                 

                 

 

 

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

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