The Miller Farm. Dagmar, Montana

It started with meeting a “sister” judge at a conference. When I found out she was originally from Eastern Montana, I had to ask.

“Do you have any connections back home, places a guy could pheasant hunt?”

“My cousin Mark lives on the family farm.”

I let things be. But when I got back to work, I emailed the judge and asked if she thought her cousin would be willing to allow me, and maybe a son or two, to hunt on the family farm.

“Sure. It’s over 2,000 acres. I’m pretty sure that would be fine.”

She gave me Mark’s email. I sent off a message, including how I’d met his cousin. It took a bit, but I eventually heard back. Mark was more than happy to have me come and visit, check out the farm, and talk over possibilities.

I wanted to find a better place to hunt pheasants than the locale we’d been hunting. Ashley, North Dakota had been the place my dad and his buddy Bruce settled on to hunt when South Dakota proved too expensive. Like Harry, I have no interest in paying a farmer to hunt. I’ll stick to public land or unposted private land (ND, like MN requires land owners to post their land or its assumed the land is open to hunting). Given the number of hunters around Ashley, the diminution of PLOTS (private land open to the public) in close proximity to the town, the increasing number of farmers posting their land “No Trespassing”, and given the terrible experience we had hunting near Ashley last year, I was bound and determined to find another place to chase pheasants.

Dagmar, Montana where the farm in question is located, is just across the border from Grenora, ND; about an hour from Williston where my second son Dylan lives. After spending four days with four dogs and five guys and shooting one pheasant last October in Ashley, I decided to use my second week of non-resident pheasant hunting in early November to investigate hunting possibilities around Williston. The results are chronicled elsewhere but suffice it to say, there were birds. There were few hunters. There were many, many places, including PLOTS and federal waterfowl management areas and unposted farm land I was able to hunt with my little Brittany, Leala. We limited out two of four days in the field. But more importantly, I got the chance to meet and visit with Mark and his friend Brad at a Grenora eatery before ending the night with a glass of good wine at Mark’s house.

“Anytime you want to hunt here, just let me know,” was Mark’s parting gift to me as I left Montana with a smile.

Here’s the thing. I’d stayed with Dylan last November. But Dylan sold his house in Williston and moved his wife and kids to Duluth. For now, he rents an apartment, works the oil fields, and commutes to Minnesota every other weekend. Meaning I’d lost my place to stay. When I asked Mark in an email whether there might be a house for rent or a motel in the Dagmar/Grenora area where we could stay, he simply wrote back: “You’re welcome to stay here.” Now that’s Montana nice!

I didn’t know what the logistics of Jack, my youngest son, and me and three hunting dogs staying at the farm would entail. I packed cooking gear, propane, a camping table, and food (thinking we might end up cooking meals outside) and our gear in a small trailer we were towing because the back of the Jeep was full of dogs and kennels. I even locked our shotguns in a roof-top carrier to save space. And just before leaving Duluth, I had a small leak in my nearly-new rear passenger tire repaired at Fleet Farm, where I’d bought a set of Coopers in June.

“Good to go,” I was told. “We didn’t find a leak but we re-beaded the tire. It should be fine.

As a precaution, I packed my portable air compressor, fully charged, in the cargo hold of the Jeep. Good thing I did: I had to refill the tire multiple times during our eight-day trip. I didn’t want to pull the tire off and use the spare because the treads on the spare and the Coopers are so different, On the long trip to Dagmar, we stopped every 100 miles or so to fill the tire; sometimes at a gas station, sometimes from the portable compressor, which was a pain in the ass but doable.

Arriving at the farm, we were greeted by Mark, set up the three dog kennels in the basement (out of reach of the family cats), unloaded our sleeping bags and Duluth Packs, and were shown our bedrooms and the guest bath. We planned to spend a week. We’d hunt the farm and publicly accessible Montana land for three days (Montana has a three-day non-resident small game option) and then hunt Northwestern North Dakota for the remainder of our stay. My oldest son Matt and his buddy Reid were scheduled to come out and stay with Dylan in Williston. Once Matt and Reid arrived, Jack and I planned to meet up with them and hunt together.

The first morning on the farm, Brad treated us to homemade breakfasts big enough to satisfy lumberjacks. Since it was the weekend and Brad was visiting, we piled into his new pickup truck, Jack’s Lab Kena and René’s Lab Violet crammed in the back seat with Jack and me. Imagine allowing strangers and dogs to dirty up your unblemished leather upholstery! I hadn’t expected Brad or Mark to serve as our hunting guides but for the first two days, that’s exactly what happened. Our hosts also introduced us to folks at Dagmar Central (the only eatery in town) during lunch so we could experience the local culture. Back in the field after eating the luncheon special (I treated), we saw four moose but didn’t down a single bird despite numerous chances. After a fruitless but memorable day in the field, Brad and Mark cooked us a beef roast, complete with all the trimmings, for dinner.

I woke up early Sunday morning and took the Labs and Callie (my eight-month-old Britt) into a nearby slough to hunt before Jack was awake. With good dog work and a lucky shot, I had a rooster in my game vest by seven.

Mark’s 1st Montana Rooster.

After breakfast Jack and I worked the western end of that same slough. I downed another rooster at the edge of a field and all three dogs took off after it as it raced for cover, the commotion reminding me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Despite being the oldest and slowest, Kena ran the rooster down and made a nice retrieve. We missed another rooster in the slough but Jack connected with not one but two Hungarian partridge that the dogs rousted and Kena and Violet retrieved.

jack with the Results of the Morning Hunt.

On Monday, our last day hunting Montana, Jack and I ventured north on our own. We found some very nice public-access land to explore. Montana trespass law considers all private land to be posted unless you have the landowner’s permission to enter. The trade-off is having something like seven million acres of public land and private land to which landowners allow public access. North of Dagmar, we found a big piece of accessible bottomland and worked it hard. We had no luck until, as we headed back to the car, Callie, who was beginning to shine despite her young age (the day before, she’d locked on a nice covey of Huns, holding them until Jack and I got in position and each shot one) started going nuts. She booked across an earthen dam with Violet and Kena in hot pursuit. Wouldn’t you know it? After walking miles and not seeing a bird, the dogs got up a handful of roosters and hens. Jack managed to put a bead on a beautiful male pheasant, shot, and dropped it in thick grass where Violet made her first-ever pheasant retrieve. After a hard day of hunting, it was a real treat to come back to the farmhouse to find Brad had picked up Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Talk about spoiling guests!

Public-Access Hunting Land in Montana.

“When your other son and his friend get to Williston, you’re all welcome to stay at my place in town,” Brad offered as we ate chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and coleslaw. “There’s plenty of room and you’ll be closer to the hunting in North Dakota.”

“Thanks.”

I texted Matt about our change in plans. Jack and I would hunt around Williston on Tuesday and meet up with Brad at his house. The hunting was again superb and, when we pulled into Williston at dark, our vests were full (including a Hun that neither one of us shot but Callie found and retrieved) and our legs were weary. The house in town had a big, fenced-in back yard where the dogs could be off leash and Jack could clean birds. It also had cable!

Since Chris, my third son and the designated bird cleaner, couldn’t make the trip, Jack took over those duties. I’d received a nice bird cleaning kit, complete with knives and shears, after making a small donation to Pheasants Forever. That kit allowed Jack to make short work of things.

Content after four days of great hunting, I sipped beer and watched election returns and thought about how lucky I was. My old man had forsaken pheasant hunting in South Dakota twenty-odd years ago because farmers were charging hunters a hundred bucks a day per gun to hunt. Here we were, essentially strangers to Mark and Brad, benefitting from their largess to a degree that was down-right embarrassing. When I asked Mark about paying for our stay, he waved me off. After our uneventful hunt on Saturday, Brad even bought a Montana non-resident license (he lives in North Dakota) to hit the fields with us in hopes of improving our odds.

Jack and I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. The topsy-turvy world of Electoral College politics caused us distress. But, as we drove out of Williston on Wednesday morning, things started looking better for Uncle Joe. We’d both voted for Biden and Harris by mail. We’d done what we could. But the suspense, with Jack monitoring his phone all day, was nearly unbearable.

We shot some nice roosters Wednesday, which gave Jack more time to practice cleaning birds. In celebration of my 66th birthday, we joined Dylan (who doesn’t hunt) at the Williston Brewing Company for dinner. It was great to catch up with my second son, though again, the pall of uncertainty regarding the election hung in the air like a funeral shroud. The three of us talked in low tones as I sipped stout and fretted about the fate of our nation.

Matt and Reid arrived Wednesday night. We hunted hard on Thursday and had some success, though we missed opportunities when a covey of sharptail grouse and a big covey of Huns escaped with nary a loss. Kena retrieved a live but injured rooster someone or something had downed; a bonus bird credited to Jack since Kena is his dog. Later in the morning, Jack potted a rooster over water. The bird swam seventy yards across a small pond. Violet dove in after the pheasant, followed it across water, and found it hiding in cattails along the opposite shore. Later, Reid downed the prize of the day; a rooster that looked like a peacock given the length of its tail.

Reid’s Monster NoDak Rooster.

The value of taking a hot shower after putting in eight to ten mile days in the field can’t be overstated. Additionally, we had the use of Brad’s kitchen to prepare meals. For breakfast, we scarfed instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, juice, milk, and hot coffee. For lunch, we packed sandwiches and snacks and water and juice to eat and drink in the field. At night, Matt and Reid made complete meals while Jack and I subsisted on canned soup and Dinty Moore stew though, on our last night in Williston, I splurged on pizza. I stopped by a local pizza parlor (wearing my mask) to order on the way to Brad’s house, returning a half-hour later to pick up two freshly baked pies.

Was it all smiles and giggles? No. There were occasional tense moments in the car and in the field. But most of our time together was spent agreeably; hunting, sharing the same old stale stories, and marveling at the work ethic of the dogs. Kena, Violet, and Callie performed like champs, though try as we might, we couldn’t convince Matt’s Lab, Greta, she was bred to hunt. Oh, Greta enjoyed herself, tagging along, content to watch-but not participate-in the action. But she never got “birdy” or evinced interest in the actual hunting part of things. That’s OK. She’s a great family pup, much loved, and had a great vacation on the Plains!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount some additional details. First, everyone shot a rooster or two. Second, Violet, only a year and a half old, came into her own. She not only made that water retrieve, she ran after a rooster I hit, chasing it a half-mile down a ditch until she caught it and brought it back to me. Callie, though only a pup, displayed true championship abilities to find, point, and retrieve birds. Her stamina is truly amazing, And what can I say about Kena? I hit a rooster in cattails so thick, I couldn’t walk through them. She found the bird, grabbed it, and brought it to me like the veteran she is. The best part about the dog work? We didn’t lose a single bird over eight days of hunting.

Reid, Jack, Mark, Greta, and ND Birds.
Two ND Huns and Three ND Roosters.

In the end, I experienced a legacy hunt. As always, the Munger dogs outshined the Munger and Amborn sharpshooters. We got some birds and missed some birds but that’s OK. They’ll be there next fall, when God willing, we’ll be back for more adventures on the prairie. Nothing is certain in this world except this: The kindness of strangers, as proven by Mark and Brad, knows no bounds.

Thanks, guys, for making an old man’s dream come true.

Peace

Matt’s Intensity after Downing a Rooster is Palpable!
The Girls and Grandpa.
Jack, Somewhere North of Dagmar, MT.

Postscript: The tire? On the way home, the temperature warmed up and it stopped leaking. I brought it back to Fleet Farm and they diagnosed the issue: I had a broken rim. Fleet Farm put my spare on, wrapped my tire and rim in plastic, and stowed the rim and tire in the back of my Jeep. I found a replacement rim online. It arrived and I made an appointment. Fleet Farm removed the spare, pulled the tire off the old rim, remounted the tire on the new rim, mounted the new rim on the Jeep, and charged me sixteen bucks for all their trouble. Sixteen bucks!

I’m buying my new chainsaw and gas grill from Fleet Farm.

Lost Ground by Ulla Jordan (2015. Friesen Press. ISBN 9781460259863)

I picked up this book because the author, who’d read one of my Finnish-themed historical novels, reached out and suggested I might enjoy the tale. I did.

The writing in this rather short but sad and engaging story is finely crafted. The three main characters; Tom, an American journalist covering Finland’s Winter War; Paul, the slow-to-move-on-his-emotions suitor of a lovely, single Finnish woman who ends up in the trenches fighting the Soviets; and Tina, the love interest of both men; are all well-drawn and intriguing. The recalcitrance of Paul, the bravado and worldliness of Tom, and the kind, gentle radiance of Tina are all essential to the plot and theme of the book. There is just enough suspense and war and conflict to engage the male half of the readership universe while the relationships and the love triangle will certainly find an audience amongst the fairer sex. But it’s the writing that stands out. Witness this scene set in Karelia at a time when the Soviets are closing in intent on reclaiming land taken by the Finns:

(I)t was too late. Someone was on the front stoop, testing the door. They both clutched the boy and cowered in the far corner. It didn’t take long to break the flimsy lock and three dark figures swept in. Two wore brown coats and heavy boots … The third man lit the lamp on the table and the room danced with light …

See? Great prose. Great story. Great book.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A great introduction to themes repeated and expanded in my novel, Sukulaiset.

Where the Light Enters by Jill Biden (2019. Flatiron.)

OK. This is a fairly light, airy read despite chronicling the travails our President-Elect and his second wife have endured. Much of the book repeats stories we already know: The accident that claimed Joe’s first wife and daughter; Joe’s prior ill-fated early runs for the White House; the tragic death of Beau to brain cancer. But there’s still a reason, if you are skeptical about mainstream media’s claims that Joe Biden is an honest, good, God-fearing, lovely human being: His wife provides ample evidence of all of those attributes as well as similar humility from President Obama:

“No one knew that President Obama was going to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ …It was astonishing to hear-the raw emotion in his voice, the kindness and humility from the most powerful man in the world. In that moment, every one of us was united in grace, in love, in allegiance against evil … After the memorial (for Rev. Pickney, a victim in the Charlestown, SC church murders) the President, the First Lady, Joe, and I met individually with the families of the Charleston Nine .. In small rooms, we hugged the family members. They spoke in low voices and told us stories about the lives lost.”

This is not a great book. But folks who doubt we now have a man of courage and faith and honor to replace the disaster of the past four years, should read this book.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 4.

Seven Pillars of Wusdom by T.E. Lawrence (1981. Penguin)

I grew up fascinated by Lawrence of Arabia. Consequently, I always wanted to read his account of the Great War in Palestine. Seven Pillars has been heralded since it was first published in 1926 in a massive, leather-bound, hand-autographed mammoth edition of over 260,000 words, as one of the great books of the 20th century. I’ve finally had the chance to read the excerpted, slenderized paperback of Lawrence’s recollections of war and his service and I don’t agree with the pundits. While Seven Pillars is certainly a learned treatise on the tactics, the politics, the language, the customs, and the religion of the era and the region, I found the complex nature of the hundreds of names and characters to be almost impossible to follow. The maps really don’t help put places and names and the various events into context. That said, I did learn some things.

For example, I learned that the scene from the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, where Lawrence is raped by a Turkish officer, while replicated here in prose, is, if you consult other sources, pure fiction. No one ever verified the incident took place. On a positive note, watching the film. one gets the idea that all of the action has something to do with what we call present day “Arabia”. The book makes it clear that the backdrop for T.E.s experience wasn’t Saudi Arabia but Syria, a place still in the news in terms of conflict.

In the end, despite the accolades, I was disappointed. It’s of interest to Mark the historian and the political scientist in that the beginnings of our present-day difficulties have their origins in decisions made post-WW I in the Middle East by European powers. Still, such revelations cannot compel me to consider this to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

3 stars out of 5.

The Silent Patient (Audible Book)

I’ll make it quick. Great book. Read it. Or listen to it while driving a Big Ass Camper across America, which is what René and I did. The plot and the characters and the pacing are all spot on. Anyone who loves psychological drama will be impressed.

4 and 1/2 star out of 5.

American Dirt (Audible Book)

Another good “listen” on our way across country. Again, I’d rather read such great prose and characterization but I had to settle for listening to it on Audible. There’s been some controversy attached to a non-Mexican writing such a detailed and considerable tale of Mexican immigration. Too bad. I wrote a story of the life and loves and travails of a contemporary African American woman (Esther’s Race) and I remain proud of my effort as Ms. Cummins should be of hers. Nicely done.

5 stars out of 5.

The Water Keeper (Audible Books)

OK, René. Your batting average for selecting audio books is still pretty good despite leading off with this one on our epic journey to Arizona. No. Don’t read it. This tale, which has as its premise sex trafficking, is so cartoonish, so outlandish in its depictions of the protagonist’s abilities and attributes, you’d swear you were listening to an episode of The Avengers (the superheroes, not the old British TV show). Don’t waste your time on this one, folks. The best that can be said is it filled up the time between Duluth and Kansas City with noise. Beyond that, it wasn’t worth a listen.

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Big Ass Camper in the Flagstaff KOA with Callie Standing Guard.

It only stands to reason. I am the son of Harry L. Munger, a man prone to misadventure when it comes to motor vehicles and long-distance travel. I mean, there are any number of stories about Harry and boat and snowmobile trailers gone awry I could call upon to make my point. But I won’t. Just accept me at my word when I tell you that I share my father’s proclivity for trailer-based disasters.

Last summer, René got it in her head that, since I was retired and she would be retiring shortly, we needed a travel trailer. I was OK with the notion because I envisioned us buying a nice little pop-up we could tow with our Jeep Grand Cherokee and its modest V-6. But that notion was quickly laid to rest when we began searching for something to tow. We ended up with a 33′ behemoth, nicely appointed no doubt, dubbed an “ultra light” by its maker, Forest River-Puma. At 6,400 pounds, it exceeded the towing capacity of the Jeep, necessitating yet another purchase. Loving my Jeep, we ended up buying another Grand Cherokee, this one dubbed an “Overland” edition, with a 5.7 liter Hemi V-8 and a towing capacity of 7,200 pounds. Barely enough to pull the camper but I wasn’t interested in the other options: a pick-up truck or a full-sized SUV.

In addition to being catastrophe prone when it comes to trailers, I’m the world’s worst when it comes to backing them up. My boys have stood by, laughing their asses off, any number of times as I’ve tried to back my fishing boat and trailer into the water. Sure, a back-up camera helps but, after trial and error, I’ve found the soundest logic is to simply watch my driver’s side mirror and fix an eye on the launch and the tires, keeping things in line as I back up. I’m no expert but, at least when it comes to backing up a 16′ foot boat and trailer, I’m getting better. That doesn’t mean I’m at all comfortable with the notion of trying to back a 33′ giant house between two other giant houses at a campground.

This is a long-winded way of saying that, when our friends the McVeans invited us to camp with them last summer, I insisted that any spot reserved for us would have to be what’s known as a “pull-through”, meaning you simply pull straight in, unhitch the trailer, and park your car. No backing up required. Nancy McVean ensured me that the spot reserved at the Apostle Islands Campground in Bayfield would be a pull-through. But when we arrived to check in, the owner was very apologetic: “I’m sorry. We only have one of those and it’s taken.” I was pretty sure the Big Ass Camper was going to head home at that point until I gleaned falsehood in what I was being told. Sure enough, I’d been set up. He was pulling my leg.

The new Jeep seemed adequate to haul the Puma to Bayfield and back. We also took a short jaunt, really the maiden voyage (a few weeks before the Bayfield excursion) to the KOA in Hayward. That too went smoothly and Matt and his two sons joined us for an overnight, with Lisa and Ari and my mom stopping in for dinner. Despite the Jeep feeling adequate to pull the Big Ass Camper during those two “trial runs”, trepidation bubbled just beneath the surface. I remained worried that the trailer was too heavy for the Jeep. But winter was on the horizon so I found a place to store the Puma and let the matter be.

This spring, Matt helped me pull the trailer out of storage and set it up in the backyard. Due to COVID, our family tradition of journeying north to the Scott Cabin on Whiteface Lake, a fifty-two year old legacy, didn’t happen. Which meant Matt and me and the boys fished the Cloquet River in my backyard, using the Puma as our basecamp. It was cold over the Fishing Opener and I learned some things. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, despite turning on the gas hot water heater, the spigots in the kitchen and bathroom delivered only cold water. I figured the water heater was on the fritz so I boiled water on the stove. I had the garden hose hooked up, supplying fresh water to the Puma, so that wasn’t an issue. I’d done a dry run by filling the fresh water tank and turning on the water heater and pump the summer before but, on our two camping outings, we’d hooked up to city water. I didn’t want to carry 50 gallons of fresh water from place to place, increasing the weight of the camper. During those earlier outings, the LP gas water heater worked well. I couldn’t get hot water to come out of the faucet as the boys and Matt and I caught one scrawny catfish over two days of fishing.

“I wonder if there’s a shut-off to the hot water tank that was turned off when the camper was winterized?”

Sure enough, about the time Matt and the grandkids were heading home, I opened up the panel to the heater and found there are not one but two shut-offs. Instant hot water. Lesson learned.

Matt reading during The Opener.

While talking to Ron McVean, a guy who has considerably more mechanical ability than me, I asked if it was possible to add an electric element to the hot water heater. My thought was, if you’re connected to the 30amp service at a campground, it would save on LP gas to be able to use electricity to heat water. “Oh sure. You just add an element to the tank and you’re good to go. They’re all adaptable.”

The next time I was out at the camper, I pulled the exterior cover off the hot water heater. That’s when I discovered the Puma came equipped with both LP and electric elements to heat water. There, in front of my eyes, as big as life, was an “on/off” switch. No need to buy an electric element: It was already installed!

I continued to fret about the size of the trailer knowing that we’d reserved a spot at the Verde Ranch RV Park in Camp Verde, AZ for a week in October. The plan was to drive the trailer to Arizona, stay the week, winterize the camper, and store it at a secure, outdoor lot in nearby Prescott. I’d spent over $700 bucks last winter storing the Puma near home but with the intent of returning to Verde Ranch in the spring, it made little sense to haul the camper to Minnesota, pay to store it, and then haul it back to the Southwest. It turns out the cost of storing the Puma in Prescott is several hundred dollars cheaper than storing it here, though two things are required to pull that off.

First, I’d have to winterize the water lines and water heater to prevent the lines from cracking. Second, because the Puma would be stored outside, I’d need to cover the trailer. I went online, found videos of the easiest and cheapest way to winterize (and checked with friends and Gander to make sure my plan made sense), and also bought a cover. Still, in the back of my mind the thought lingered: “Can the Jeep pull the camper all the way to Arizona?”

I made an appointment to get the Jeep’s oil changed. I also had the techs run the VIN of the Grand Cherokee to get the scoop on what the exact towing capacity of the vehicle is. Sure enough, it turns out the vehicle is fully equipped with the necessary transmission cooling system to tow up to 7,200 pounds. At least I wasn’t going to blow the tranny pulling René’s Big Ass Camper through the mountains.

A couple of short jaunts to Hayward this summer helped shake out more bugs. René found a great place, Lake Chippewa Campground, to stay at. We made two trips, one with just the McVeans and another with a group of their friends, again, using the excursions to learn more about the camping life, our trailer, and the Jeep. Turns out, when fiddling with the electronic display on the dash, I learned I have electronic read-outs for both the oil temp and the tranny temp. Good to know since, despite assurances from Duluth Jeep the car could safely tow the Puma, trepidation remained. Not so much concerning the towing capacity but more concretely, fears that a fierce wind could make the big rig problematic on the open road. Gander had installed an anti-sway and an electric braking system when I bought the rig to keep things safe. But hauling a house with a relatively small SUV, even one with an adequate engine and transmission, seemed daunting given we’d be driving through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona: Places where wind would likely be a factor.

Thursday morning. Up at the crack of dawn. The trailer was already hooked to the Jeep. The car was packed. With cups of hot coffee in hand, René and I and Callie, our little Brittany, pulled away from the house and set out for Camp Verde. I’d purchased a rearview camera and installed it on the camper to monitor traffic through an app on my cell phone. My iPhone 7 wouldn’t cooperate and, though I was able to see behind the trailer for a few miles, eventually the images stalled and I turned the thing off. I was relegated to using the mirrors which, thankfully on the Jeep, are big enough and adjustable so that it’s not a problem to see passing traffic.

Our first night in a KOA in St. Louis, MO was uneventful. Though we pulled in long after the office was closed, COVID protocol meant that our reservation paperwork, complete with directions to our campsite, was stuffed in a drawer outside the office. We parked, got things set up, and let Callie out to do her business. The place was clean and quiet, a perfect rest stop after twelve hours of driving.

One of the things you learn in a shake down cruise pulling a Big Ass Camper is to gauge distance. Given the size of the trailer and the limitations of the Jeep in high winds, I kept the speedometer at sixty on the freeways, which meant long days between stops. In addition, somewhere in Kansas, as we headed west towards the Panhandle of Oklahoma and Texas, the very expensive bike rack I’d mounted on the rear bumper of the Puma became an issue. After getting gas in a small, forgetable Kansas town, a guy pulled up alongside us. “Your bike is dragging,” he said, pointing to the rear of the trailer. I stopped, got out, and found the rear wheel of René’s new Aventon electric bike had bounced out of the rack and had been dragged behind us for several miles. Thankfully, other than wearing off some tread, there was no significant damage. I found a piece of rope, tied both bikes to the rack, and we were good to go.

“That could have been a disaster,” I said, reclaiming the driver’s seat. “Stupid-ass bike rack.”

My wife held her tongue.

Our next stop was the KOA in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. To get there, we had to endure some arduous travel through desolation. Fourteen hours later, we pulled in after midnight and were greeted by the KOA night man who, with flashlight in hand, led us to our site. The campground is conveniently located between one of the city’s main drags and the freeway, making it less than quiet. Still, Callie had her own fancy little kennel, complete with fake grass and fake fire hydrant.

Callie’s Safe Place in New Mexico.

When I went to pack up for the drive to Flagstaff, a short jaunt necessitated because our Camp Verde reservation didn’t start for another day, I learned that God indeed is great.

“Shit.”

“What’s wrong?”

In connecting the sway bars to the hitch before we left home, I’d either improperly latched a pin securing one of the sway the bars or had completely missed sliding it in place. Either way, we’d driven from Kansas City to New Mexico, through thirty-mile an hour winds and over bouncing highways, with only the weight of the trailer keeping the sway bar from falling off and dragging behind the Jeep.

“I need to go buy a pin for the sway bar,” I said, not revealing to my wife how close we’d come to disaster. A quick stop at the office and I learned that Rocky Mountain RV was just down the street. We drove to the store. I bought some treatment for the black water (sewage) tank and three new pins for the sway bars. I put one of the pins in the hitch and the other two in my tool box. “Not gonna let that happen again,” I muttered.

The quick dash to Flagstaff turned into a crawl. A traffic accident meant that all four lanes, two east and two west, were shut down. The five hour trip took eight. We found the Flagstaff KOA, claimed our reservation from the after-hours box, set up, and spent a nearly incident-free night in a quiet, peaceful setting beneath mountains and pines.

I said nearly incident-free because, when I woke up in the night to let Callie out (she sleeps in a kennel in the trailer), as we stepped outside a skunk skittered out from under the Puma. I kept Callie in close on the leash until the critter vanished but visions of my last encounter with a skunk, where Leala-Callie’s predecessor-was sprayed in the face while pheasant hunting loomed large. Thankfully, the New Mexican skunk didn’t fire and all was right with the world.

Verde Ranch RV is a short drive down the mountains from Flagstaff. What a lovely spot! Because it’s only seven months’ old, the sites, pool, laundry, and other facilities are immaculate. In addition, as I discovered the next morning while walking Callie, the campground sits on the Verde River, which unlike many Arizona watersheds, has water flowing in it year-round.

Camp Verde.

The only disquieting thing about our time at the resort were huge, super-expensive motor homes flying Trump flags. There was only one Biden flag. I made it a point to stop in, mask in place, to thank the couple flying Uncle Joe’s colors.

“You made my day,” I said as an older couple sat in their matching lawn chairs sipping adult beverages.

“Thanks. You’d be surprised at how many folks stop by to say that.”

I should clarify a point. The Grand Cherokee pulled the Puma, all 6,400 pounds and 33 feet of it, just fine. At times, the wind was an issue but, all in all, the Jeep did its job. That said, I enjoyed camping in Hayward and Bayfield and my backyard because the Puma wasn’t outclassed, even by the motorhomes driven by the McVean’s and their friends. But at Verde Ranch? Our camper was one of the more modest units amongst the half-million dollar plus motorhomes surrounding us, Trump flags or not.

Drinking a festive local brew at our site.
A hike amongst Sedona’s red rocks.
Callie’s morning walk along the Verde.

In our week of exploring the area, we made it back to Sedona (our third visit), the artsy town of Jerome, enjoyed fine Mexican food and great wine with Laurie and Clark Kerchen (I’d worked with Laurie in Lake County) in little-visited Cottonwood, took in Montezuma’s Castle and Well (misnamed locales that have nothing to do with Aztecs), all the while keeping our social distance, wearing masks when indoors, and generally loving our time in the high desert.

Of course, there were a couple of glitches. First, I couldn’t get the black water tank, the tank that holds the toilet proceeds, to empty. While I was working on that issue, I discovered water leaking from the faucet connections inside the bathroom vanity. I’d already tightened loose connections under the kitchen sink, experienced the water heater exploding hot water all over the exterior of the camper, and had nary a clue as to what the hell was going on. I tried and tried and tried to stem the flow of water dribbling down the hot and cold water hoses feeding the bathroom faucet but felt like Lucy in that episode with the chocolates on the conveyor belt: I’d stop one leak only to find another. My language was not something you can print in a family blog and my cursing awoke my wife and Callie.

“I’m going to the office to get laundry soap,” René said after she’d pulled on her clothes. “I’ll see if they can help.”

By then, I’d already called the Good Sam number, thinking that since I’d paid for 7 years of warranty protection, someone should offer instant assistance. After being put on hold, being given numbers to places that no longer offered RV or trailer service, and finally leaving my number on the answering machines of two repair shops, I wandered outside, cell phone in hand, fuming.

“I have a problem,” I said to John Benson, a pal from Proctor. John’s an ex-carpenter and a snowplow driver whose owned a motorhome for years. I figured he was my best bet. I started by explaining my black water problem.

“You got a hose? Not the one you use for fresh water, but one you use for cleaning?”

I did.

“Open up the valves and drop the hose down the toilet. Turn it on full. That should break things up.”

I was in the process of doing just that when René returned. She held out a brass fitting in her right hand to me.

“What’s that?”

She nodded towards the office. “Seems they have water pressure issues. They were supposed to tell us when we checked in but didn’t. This will regulate the pressure.” I accepted the device. After following John’s instructions and cleaning out the blockage in the sewer tank (I had to bring the hose in from the outside because I’d shut off the water to the trailer due to all the leaks), I dropped two tablets I’d bought in New Mexico down the toilet. A friendly guy we met in the hot tub, upon hearing about my potty woes, recommended putting in two tablets and letting things sit for two days before I tried to empty the black water again. That chore done, I hooked up the pressure regulator, reconnected the water and, viola, the leaks stopped. No more water gushing from the hot water heater either. We were lucky. Turns out, whenever you hook up to city water, you should have a pressure regulator in place. And, in another hot tub discussion, we learned you should also have a surge protector on your electrical hook-up to prevent a surge from frying every appliance in the place. No one at Gander bothered to tell us about either necessity and, given that Forest River (they own Puma) doesn’t believe is supplying a manual with their campers, you are pretty much on your own when it comes to discovering such maladies. The backed up poop? By the time we were ready to leave Camp Verde and tow the camper to Prescott, the pellets had worked their magic.

Montezuma’s Castle
Montezuma’s Well.
Last Night in Arizona.

We scouted out the RV storage facility the day before we were scheduled to leave. Of course, the Jeep’s GPS sent us on a wild goose chase by asserting the road we were seeking was a through highway when it wasn’t. In the end, we found the place, checked it out, and the next morning, I used a bike tire pump to blow out the water lines after opening the low-point valves to drain the system. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a wrench on the hot water tank’s plug (which doubles, as I said, as the element). My sockets were too small so I figured I’d pick up a socket set in Prescott and drain the water heater at the storage lot. Right. Long story short. Two trips into town for sockets and I never did find one that fit. I tried, using the bike pump, to blow the water out the tank’s pressure release valve but, unconvinced I’d got it all, I hit upon a plan.

“Mike will be here next week,” I told René after exhausting my patience and my endurance. Mike Town and his wife Jill rent a place just up the road, one of the reasons we’d picked the Prescott/Verde area to vacation. I knew I could count on Mike to take care of draining the water heater.

In addition to that issue, my lovely wife and I were trying to put the new canvas cover on the camper in a forty-mile an hour gale. We got it done but our marriage barely survived. Instead of a half-hour project, we spent three hours messing around with the water heater and the cover. “I’ll call Mike once I figure out the right size socket he’ll need,” I said as I closed up the Puma, climbed into the Jeep, and we headed east.

An internet search revealed the socket was an odd size: 1 and 1/16ths inch, a size only a mechanic has in his or her toolbox. I texted Mike. He said he’d take care of things.

Cover secure. Time to drive home.

Compared to the travails experienced trying to winterize the camper, our trip home (despite a blizzard hitting Arizona, New Mexico and all points north) was uneventful except for discovering a slow leak in the Jeep’s rear passenger tire. We stayed at the Drury Suites in Santa Fe (highly recommended) and at a Best Western in downtown KC (modest by comparison) before making it home in one piece.

Mike and his brother in law drained the water heater a week after we left so I suspect René’s Big Ass Trailer is resting comfortably. I can only hope the Puma is still in one piece when we return in March.

Peace

The Weary Traveler

The Tour by Bill Staines (2003. Xlibris. ISBN 1-4134-0964-4)

Bill Staines is as close as you’re going to come to seeing the great minstrels of old like Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. His songs resonate years after being penned and his voice harkens back to a prior age of folk music. I’ve met Bill twice. The first occasion saw me teaching a course on self-publishing and Bill teaching a course on songwriting at an arts retreat in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. My session ended early so I wandered into Bill’s songwriting clinic just before lunch. He was seated at an old upright piano with a woman likely in her late seventies. He asked her to play one of her original songs. The woman sang in that high, weak, way some female vocalists do when they are of a certain age. “That was nice,” Bill said. “How about another?” She nodded, pulled out a score, and began playing. While the words were different, the tune was identical to her first piece. She played another. Same thing. Rather than dump cold water on the flames of creativity, Bill simply said, “Nicely done. I think it’s time for lunch.” His patience and kindness were in marked contrast to a poet on the bill teaching a poetry class. That guy essentially trashed everyone’s work and seemed to relish crushing spirits. I hold the memory of Bill’s generosity close to my heart and I dearly wanted it to shine through in this book.

The memoir is in two parts. One section chronicles his tours of America over the first portion of his career (the book came out in 2003 and Bill is still making great music). The “past” vignettes coincide with his two “greatest hits CDs” (which I have); The First Million Miles and The Second Million Miles; the titles referring to the fact that Staines drives across America each fall to play small venues like churches and coffee shops and music stores. He sells his CDs at such events, meets folks, has a libation or two, and revels in the breadth and depth of American life as he tours. All that comes through in his reportage, as does his love of the folks who’ve either booked him, worked on his albums, attended his concerts, or put him up for the night.

The second portion of the memoir (the two sections are interwoven) details a recent (as of 2003) tour. But the sections are so indistinguishable, it’s hard to remember whether you’re delving into the past or experiencing the near-present as you read. But that’s not my real criticism of the book. It’s this: Knowing what a fine human being and terrific singer/storyteller Bill Staines is, while the chronicling of his many miles is not doubt accurate, it’s devoid of passion: It’s reportage, not storytelling and that isn’t what I was expecting. A good example is that, throughout the book, Staines laments being away from his wife and son and the family dog. We are told, in essence, “I miss them.” But why? Other than obvious homesickness, what is it about your wife, your son, your dog, or where you live that compels such lament? We are left clueless. There is, as I said in a short Goodreads review of this memoir, “no heart” behind such statements to be found in the book.

Still, for a Bill Staines fan (and I am one) the sections detailing his touring, the making of his music, the stories behind singular songs ( “Redbird’s Wings” comes to mind), and the mechanics and travails of a folk musician’s life on the road (much akin to what small-time authors experience as they hawk books) make for an interesting, if not compelling, read. So, it you are Bill Staines fan, by all means, pick this memoir up. If not, I’d say buy one of his CDs instead. You’ll learn more about the man listening to his songs than reading his words.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (2014. Dial. ISBN 9780812986358)

When I began my first novel, The Legacy, it was originally written in alternating “past” and “present” chapters, a technique learned from reading Michener’s sprawling historical novels. Eventually, I determined that the style didn’t fit my writing and condensed all the “past” of the book into one section; all the “present” of the novel into another. For some reason, I objected, not as a reader by as a writer, to following Michener’s lead. Well, that was then. This is now. After thirty years of plowing the fields of words, laboring to put together eight novels and two collections of short stories (along with a memoir and a biography and a collection of essays), I recognize Michener as an influence on my writing who cannot be denied his due.

That said, after buying a copy of the author’s second short story collection set in the South Pacific, Return to Paradise at the Talk Story bookstore on Kaua’i (America’s most western bookstore) and enjoying the writing, I had to read the original collection. Finding myself once again in Kaua’i with friends, I picked up a copy, again at the little bookstore crammed with treasures on one of God’s gems. I’m glad I did.

Essentially a series of linked tales relating to the US’s involvement in the island-hopping strategy that won the war in the Pacific, Michener gives us semi-autobiographical sketches of whores and connivers and sailors and airmen and Aussies and New Zealanders and Brits and natives, often imbued with tragedy softened by humor. War, as has been depicted by masters of the pen from Tolstoy to Crane to Michener, contains moments of embarrassment and absurdity and folks being caught off-guard by circumstances and fortune. The author makes good use of his knowledge of such folly, as well as the scheme of the war in the Pacific, and the setting, to create a memorable read.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A perfect selection for a men’s bookclub.

Peace.

Mark

Kulkuri (Vagabond) and Other Short Stories

My newest book, a collection of short fiction set in Minnesota, Irleand, Manitoba, and elsewhere, includes a novella (“little novel”), “The Angle” a story of love, loss, and redemption set in the Northwest Angle of Minnesota. I consider it to be one of the best stories I’ve ever written but I’ll let you folks be the judges! You can order your copy from this website (see “Buy Books Direct” above) or from Amazon.com. Digital version available exclusively from Amazon Kindle.

Thanks!

Mark

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (2003. BN Classics. ISBN 978-1-59308-113-3)

I’d never heard of Kate Chopin or read any of her work, including what is billed as her seminal novel, The Awakening, until I saw this collection at BN in Duluth and decided to give her a read. Let’s just say that Kate Chopin is a wonderful short story author who should have limited her writing to the short form. Why?

I get that The Awakening was, when it was released in 1899, a bit of a shocker to polite society. The idea that Edna, the female protagonist wants, needs, and desires an affair outside her marriage in the Victorian Age, well, that caused an uproar amongst readers and critics. But here’s the thing: While Chopin spends page after page after page exploring the inner psyche of her heroine, there’s virtually nothing happening outside Edna’s head. I found the story essentially dry, boring, and far from scandalous or titalating. That might be my 21st century societal background impeding my objectivity but I don’t think so. I share the sentiment of American novelist Willa Cather, whose review of Awakenings included the following:

A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin’s. Not that the heroine is a Creole exactly, or that Miss Chapin is a Flaubert … but the theme is similar to that which occupied Flaubert. There was, indeed, no need that a second Madame Bovary should be written … I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed style to so trite and sordid a theme … (N)ext time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause. Pittsburgh Leader, 1899.

If I had to rate The Awakening as a stand-alone work, it would barely garner 2 stars.

Still, because the introduction and Willa Cather make it clear that Chopin was a writer of some note at the turn of 19th to the 20th century, I plowed on and read the short stories that follow her ill-conceived novel. I’m happy to say that Miss Chopin’s short fiction redeems her as a writer of quality. Though the themes throughout the short stories are a bit repetitive, sexual and societal awakenings of women in the stories being a near-constant drumbeat of plot, Chopin is masterful in drawing the reader into her world of Creoles and heat and mist and the Old South. Modern critics who complain she is pejorative towards African American characters are not wrong; they just miss the beauty of the storytelling that lurks behind the author’s subtle prejudice. Yes, Chopin could have done more to highlight the character and integrity and humanness of the black folks lurking skirting the edges of her tales. But that wasn’t who she was writing about: She was writing about white women in the Old South coming to grips with the modern age. From that standpoint, she knew how to tell a story.

As a collection: 3 and 1/2 stars out of 5. The Awakening as a stand-alone novel? 2 stars. The short stories by themselves? 4 and 1/2 stars.

Tin House (Final Issue: Vol. 20, No. 4)



I’ll keep this short since this is a review of a literary magazine, one that is no longer being published, and not a book or collection. I’ve never been able to place any of my short fiction in literary journals, and certainly never had a piece considered by the now-departed Tin House. That’s OK; not everyone shares my taste in storytelling. But here’s the thing: With the demise of every journal devoted to poetry and short stories and thoughtful creative non-fiction, writers are deprived of a marketplace for their words, which saddens me.

It was for this reason, my despair (that’s too strong; discomfort is a better word here) at the retracting world of literary journals and wonderful little magazines of writing (Glimmer Train recently ended a long run as a great literary journal; years back, my favorite environmental/conservation magazine, Heron Dance, bit the dust) that I picked up the farewell edition of Tin House. While I’m sad at the journal’s demise, I’m glad I read the fine stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction contained inside its covers. RIP, Tin House, I am saddened you are gone.

Peace

Mark

Interview and Story for the Finnish American Reporter by Mark Munger

Bobby Vee (left) and The Shadows

Four years ago, I was a featured author at the Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota by virtue of my Finnish American novels. I stayed my nights in a tent at the RoughRider Campground outside of town and spent my days selling signed books to Norwegians. During the festival, a dapper young man stopped by to see me, said he was of Finnish descent, that he was Jeff Vee—the son of Rockabilly Hall of Fame musician, Bobby Vee, was the drummer with the Nelsons (Ricky Nelson’s sons and Høstfest headliners), was on break, and that he’d be back to buy my books. When folks walk away promising they’ll be back, it’s about a fifty-fifty shot whether they return. But Jeff was as good as his word. After he read my books, he messaged me on FaceBook, applauding my effort to capture the Finnish American immigrant story. That connection began a friendship, which has included Jeff and his family stopping by to see me at other events, Finnish and non-Finnish themed, to chat and check in and buy a book or two. It’s been a two-way street: I’ve bought a number of Bobby Vee recordings and brought a group of Duluthians to see Jeff and his family band, The Killer Vees, play his father’s hits at the stunning Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, Minnesota. After the show, Jeff and his brother Tommy invited my wife and I and our friends to tour the recording studio founded by Bobby Vee and his sons in nearby St. Joseph. That’s where the idea of writing an article for FAR concerning the life and legacy of Finnish American musician, Robert Thomas Velline (Bobby Vee) first popped into my head. Bobby’s sons thought the idea was marvelous: Jeff and Tommy and I originally planned for me to come to St. Joseph, buy them lunch, and do an in-person interview. The pandemic changed that. What you will read, are my written questions and Jeff Velline’s written answers via the internet.

MM:   For the readers of FAR, can you explain the link between your dad, Robert Thomas Velline (Bobby Vee) and Finnish ancestry? What’s the derivation of the Velline surname?

JV:       Dad’s maternal grandfather, Matti Tampanila came from Finland as a boy in 1900. Matti’s father, Jacob, had already established a homestead at Perth, ND, having immigrated from Pyhajarvi, Oulanni, in central Finland. The farm is still in the family. It consists of 5,000 acres farmed by relatives, including Matti’s 93 year old nephew—Art Tuomala and his sons. In 1906, Matti married Emma Simonson, whose father Henry had come from the same region, and they homesteaded near Dunblane, Saskatchewan, Canada where my paternal grandmother, Saima Tampanila, was born. Saima was 100% Finnish. Dad’s paternal grandfather, Christ Velline immigrated from Balestrand, Norway, in 1892.  He settled near Lisbon, ND. The farm in Norway had been split up under two family names, Sjotun (the original name) and later Vellene.  The immigrants chose to take the Vellene name changing it to Velline as they felt it sounded more American. I recently visited Balestrand with my own family and the farm is still known as “The Vellene” farm. Early in his musical career, Dad was often lumped in with the Philadelphia “Bobbys”— Rydell and Darin. Many fans thought “Velline” was Italian and Dad was often asked to perform at Italian festivals. He accepted such invites but was always clear: “We’ll play the festival, but, make sure they know I’m Finnish Norwegian!”

MM:   Sounds like the Velline household was a house of music given Sydney, your paternal grandfather, was a musician. Did your dad ever talk about his early influences in music and if so, what were they? How about your paternal grandmother’s Finnish roots and any musical heritage?

JV:      There was definitely music in Dad’s house when he was growing up.  No TV, only radio. Grandpa played fiddle, Grandma sang, and the boys learned horns and guitar:  Dad’s older brother taught him his first chords on an old Harmony guitar they shared. On Grandma Saima’s side, extended family kept Finnish folk traditions alive by playing the old country’s music on mandolins and guitars. We’re lucky to have some very rough cassette recordings of some of this. Mom—Karen Ann Bergen—was from Detroit Lakes, MN, where she met my Dad at a dance where he was performing with his band, The Shadows. They were both just 16, married four years later, and celebrated their 51st anniversary in 2014, shortly before Mom passed.  Mom’s heritage is German and French Canadian.

            Dad’s other early musical influence was KFGO Radio in Fargo. He loved Hank Williams and The Louvin Bothers. He said that the first time he heard Elvis sing “That’s Alright Mama” on that same station, Man, country music is really getting good!  He was a fan of early rock and roll; Buddy Holly, The Everly’s, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and the like. The Shadows’ records and a 1962 album called “Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets” reflect these influences.

MM:   I think I read somewhere there was a connection between your dad’s Finnish ancestry and Minnesota …

JV:      Dad’s Great Grandpa Jacob came over from Finland with his brother Matt. Matt settled in Duluth and ran a public sauna on the weekends. One of his sons, Urho, settled in Finlayson, MN.

            When my Grandma Saima was 5 years old, her mother passed away (ironically from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic). The oldest son Henry remained in Canada while the three young ones were sent to Perth, ND to be raised by family.  Five children were lost at young ages due to illness or accidents.  The immigrant life and homesteading was very hard. The older son, Henry (Dad’s uncle), worked in the lumber industry near Thunder Bay, Ontario where he died fighting a forest fire.

            Grandma Saima was raised by her grandmother in Perth, ND and later by her Aunt Minnie who married Bill Tuomala, who also came from central Finland. He had extended family that settled in the Ely area (August Tuomala).

            Christ Velline’s general store grew into a small chain that included a store in Fargo, which is where Christ and his wife, Christine, retired.  Most of their children ended up staying in that area. Grandpa Sydney Velline met Grandma Saima Tampanila when he worked as a short order cook at a café in downtown Fargo.

MM:   Did you dad talk about his Finnish ancestry growing up? If so, what was he take on it? Did he ever talk about Finnish sisu (what I translate as fortitude to the chagrin of Finns who say no one word can encompass the meaning!)? Seems, even if your dad didn’t talk about sisu, he certainly lived it.

JV:      Given he found success as a musician and started a family at a young age, I don’t think Dad had a lot of time to explore family history when we were growing up. However, I took an interest in my Finnish heritage due to stories Grandma Saima told us as kids and stories Dad shared from his own childhood, and was particularly drawn to the “immigrant story.” They were tough Finns, those immigrants, endowed with sisu! Dad’s curiosity was piqued as he aged and reconnected with family near Perth.  In the early 2000s, Dad and us performed at “Music on The Prairie” in the Perth town hall. While the gathering was organized by our Finnish relatives for the whole community, it was pretty much a family reunion.  In 2010, Dad and my family took a trip to visit the old homestead in Saskatchewan where Saima was born. We placed flowers on graves at the Finnish Cemetery and “walked where they walked.” We considered making a trip to Finland and Norway with Dad but a year later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He passed away from the disease on October 25th, 2016. 

            My wife Cindy, daughter Saima (named after Grandma of course) and I finally made Dad’s dream a reality in June of 2019, visiting both Finland and Norway. We were able to visit the original Velline farm and meet some distant cousins who we remain in touch with. In Finland, we visited the cemetery and honored my Finnish ancestors.  Our favorite city was Helsinki because of the people, the pace, and the beauty.  We also visited Savonlina where we stayed at “The Saima Hotel” and jumped into Lake Saimaa in honor of my grandmother and my daughter! The town and its people were a highlight of the trip.  My personal appreciation for nature, the north country, and saunas made it feel like I had a genetic connection to the place.  With everything going on in this world right now, we just might emigrate back! 

            Dad never referred to sisu. However, there was no doubt he embodied the concept of grit, determination, grace, and simply put: “Doing the right thing.”  He came from a poor background, bought his parents a house when he was just 18, and had a career making music spanning over 50 years.  In a business where many of his contemporaries didn’t survive, Dad had 38 chart hits, 6 gold records, and fans around the world he never took for granted.  We referred to him as an “ambassador of joy”: He (and later, we) went from town to town leaving smiles, memories, and stories through music. He was the last person to leave a venue: He took time for everyone who wanted a handshake, an autograph, or conversation.  He looked each person in the eye and gave the people his complete attention: Something that inspires me to this day.  So while Dad didn’t use the term, he possessed an internal compass I could never figure out. Maybe that was his innate, Finnish sisu

MM:   Bobby ended up filling in for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens after their plane crashed in Iowa. Give the readers a quick rendition of how your dad was selected to take the stage on that long ago night in Fargo and what followed …

JV:      In late 1958 and early ’59 Dad had been mostly been a spectator as his older brother Bill and buddies jammed in the garage until it became apparent none of the others could sing lead.  On Feb 3, 1959, the word spread thru Dad’s high school that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed in a plane crash on the way to a show at The Moorhead Armory. Dad and his friends had tickets for the show and DJ, Charlie Boone put out a plea for local bands to “come on down” and play.  Dion & The Belmonts, Frankie Sardo and the “new” Crickets (including Waylon Jennings) arrived by bus.  “The Shadows”—as they named themselves just before going onstage—opened the show.  It was their first gig. Dad was 15 years old and had been playing guitar and singing for only a few months.

            Dad’s recollection of the night is that things started out like a “rock and roll wake”. The musicians who’d been touring with the guys who died were in a daze. Fans in the audience learned the news when they arrived for the show. The Shadows performed twenty minutes of tunes by Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and The Everly Brothers and was called back for an encore, where the band—having run out of songs—had to repeat tunes already played.  A local promoter took the band under his wing and began booking them for school dances and “platter parties” at drive-ins. A few months later, he lined up a recording session for the boys at Kay Bank studios in Minneapolis where they cut four songs including “Suzy Baby” penned by Dad.  With vinyl in hand, the band got into a ’48 Ford and hit every radio station within 250 miles. Within weeks, “Suzie Baby” went to number one in the upper Midwest.

MM:   Did your dad ever perform in Finland? I know he was a huge presence in Great Britain, winning his only gold album (I think) for The Bobby Vee Singles Album in 1980. Talk a bit about his experiences in the UK. Did you and or any of your musical siblings get to tour with your dad in Europe? What can you recall were the highlights of any European visits?

JV:      Dad made a few appearances across the Scandinavian countries but never performed in Finland. He toured the UK many times during his career. We went to the UK with Dad at the end of the 1985 “Regal Rockin’ Blues Reunion Tour.” It was Dad’s first trip back to the UK in years. The tour featured Dad, Del Shannon, Bo Diddley, Frankie Ford, The Marvelettes and was headlined by Ricky Nelson, who was killed in a plane crash a month or so later. Years later, my brother Tommy and I went on to play many shows (and a PBS special) with Ricky’s sons, Mathew and Gunnar Nelson.

            We made about twenty trips to the UK as a family, playing some of the most beautiful theaters anywhere including Birmingham Symphony Hall, Glasgow Royal Music Hall and The London Palladium. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice were big fans of Dad’s music and attended his shows. In 1998, Sir Andrew hired us to play his big 50th Birthday Bash. That same year, we were part of an event produced by Sir Paul McCartney celebrating the music of Buddy Holly. Probably the single biggest career highlight for all of us was when Paul joined us, The Crickets, and Carl Perkins for an epic version of “Rave On!” 

            Dad referred to the UK as his “second home”. We were also privileged to tour with Dad in greater Europe, Asia, and across Australia. Dad always called early American rock and roll an “international language.”

MM:   Talk a little about your dad’s musical career. He really, at least to my mind, made his mark with some pop standards, “Devil or Angel”, “Rubber Ball”. “Take Good Care of My Baby”, and others; all gold singles but all mostly from the early ’60s. Yet he continued making music until his death from Alzheimer’s in 2016. Talk a bit about his work after becoming a star in the early days of rock and roll.

JV:      Dad was thrust into the music business at 15. The only other job he ever had was a paper route.  He was fortunate to end up with a label less corrupt than others, a great producer (Snuffy Garett), and a protective manager but I’m quite sure it was Mom who kept him on track; as she did for all of us.

            Most of Dad’s hits came early on. When the “British Invasion” arrived (1964), Dad felt his hit-making days were over but he had his biggest selling record (“Come Back When You Grow Up Girl”) which made it to #2 on the charts in 1967. Even so, by the early ‘70s his record company had lost interest, trends had changed, and he was no longer a “teen idol”; something he never wanted to be. Liberty Records owed him one more album.  With no support from the label, Dad went into the studio to record an album under his real name, Robert Thomas Velline with the Five Man Electrical Band.  Nothing Like A Sunny Day was critically acclaimed but, lacking support from Liberty, it came and went without fanfare. In Dad’s view, that album was as important as anything he ever recorded. For the rest of us, it’s our favorite album of Dad’s career.

            The lack of chart success began a process of slow disengagement from LA, culminating in the family’s return to the Midwest. By the early ‘80s there was a resurgence of interest in ‘60s pop/rock that allowed Dad and us to tour nationally and internationally.  Dad retired from performing on July 3, 2011 in front of 20,000 people at an annual fund-raising event we had started in 2006 called Joetown Rocks.

MM:   How many of Bobby’s children followed in his footsteps and became professional musicians? Talk a bit about the formation of Rockhouse Productions and how you, your dad, and your brother Tommy became involved in opening a studio.

JV:      The four Velline siblings grew up in a house surrounded by music, musicians, and instruments.  Dad often recorded demos late into the night on his 4-track reel to reel.  The three boys jumped from one instrument to the next until we settled on one. With Robby on guitar, Tommy on Bass and myself on Drums, we later backed Dad and other iconic ‘60s artists. Jennifer is an artist and designer who’s responsible for our promotional materials and CD artwork.

            Regarding Rockhouse Productions, I took an interest in the technical side of recording and production and studied audio engineering with the thought of helping Dad build a home studio. He did have a home studio but in 2000, Tommy and I bought a historic bank building in St. Joseph, MN and retrofitted it as a professional recording space.  Rockhouse is now home base for touring, rehearsals, booking, and event production, which is much of what we do. The place is a bit of a museum and when there’s no pandemic, the door is always open to visitors; no charge!

Jeff, Bobby, and Tommy Vee

MM:   You dad worked with Bob Dylan, James Burton, Nanci Griffith, to name a few of the greats in the business. Talk a bit about his history and association with Dylan.

JV:      In the summer of ’59 Robert Zimmerman detoured to Fargo on his way to the U of M in Minneapolis.  He’d taken a job as busboy at The Red Apple Café. Uncle Bill met him at Sam’s Record Land. Robert introduced himself as Elston Gunnn– “with 3 n’s”, told Uncle Bill he’d just gotten off the road with Conway Twitty, and said he’d had heard The Shadows needed a piano player.  “Elston” auditioned: He wowed the band with Jerry Lee riffs in the key of C. The band bought him a matching sweater, crammed him into that ’48 Ford, and they drove off to play a dance.

            Turns out “Elston” could ONLY play piano in the key of C! Whenever the band was in a different key, he’d jump up next to Dad and sing backup. “He’d stand behind me and scream in my ear,” is the way Dad recalled it.  After a few shows the band decided it wasn’t working out and they parted ways.

            A few years later Dad was walking through Greenwich Village.  In the window of a record shop he saw an album titled: BOB DYLAN. Dad’s take? “Man, that looks a lot like Elston Gunnn!”

            In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that “Bobby had a voice like a silver bell,” and “he was like a brother to me,” which touched Dad deeply. When Dylan played Midway Stadium in 2013, Dad—already dealing with Alzheimer’s—watched from the side of the stage. Dylan, who rarely speaks during concerts, called Dad “one of the most beautiful people he’d ever been on stage with …” Then he covered “Suzy Baby,” a song they would’ve played together at those teen dances. That moment meant more to Dad than any award or accolade he ever received.

MM:   I’d like to focus on two albums your dad completed later in his career. The first one is I Wouldn’t Change a Thing, which was released in 2003. Talk a bit about how that record came to be.

JV:      I Wouldn’t Change A Thing is an album we’re all proud of. We’d just finished the studio, were touring regularly, and were mostly tracking other artists work. Sir Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Lion King, etc.) dropped by the studio for a visit: He was in Minneapolis for the opening of his latest production, Aida. At my parents’ house, Tim and Dad reminisced about the “old days”. The talk turned to The Crickets and Tim blurted out: “Whatever happened to Peggy Sue?” Dad replied: “That sounds like a song!”  A few weeks later, a lyric showed up in an email from Tim. We took the words, went into the studio to write the music, and finished the song in short order. Eager to release “Whatever Happened to Peggy Sue,” we felt like we needed more than a single. I suggested we go the studio one night a week and just make music. So the “Tuesday Night Club” was born. We had no illusions about success; no timelines. The album came together organically, note by note.  It was as much about the journey as the destination.

            We wrote some tunes and others, we stumbled onto. A few are reworkings of earlier hits. Two of my Dad’s best friends in the business were Del Shannon (“Runaway”) and Brian Hyland (“Sealed With A Kiss”).  Two of my favorite tracks on the album are “Cry Myself To Sleep” and “That’s The Way Love Is”; obscure singles penned by Shannon and reworked by his buddies—Dad and Brian Hyland—in Del’s honor.

            In 1963, Dad released a song penned by Sonny Curtis of The Crickets. Though “How To Make A Farewell,” did not chart, it was a personal favorite of Dad’s. A gospel/ballad version of that song morphed out of those Tuesday sessions. On the album, it features folk singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith (a friend from Lubbock, Texas, who fancies herself an honorary Cricket) on main harmony.

Bobby Vee

MM:   The second album I’d like to get some feedback on is The Adobe Sessions. Maybe talk a bit about the trials and tribulations of working with Bobby on the album after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.

JV:      Our approach to The Adobe Sessions was similar to I Wouldn’t Change A Thing, though circumstances made things more urgent and challenging.  In early January 2011, Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Everyone in the family dropped what they were doing, circled the wagons, and road-tripped to Tucson, AZ where our folks had just finished building a retirement home.  I tossed portable recording equipment into the RV before we left and set up in the garage of their new adobe home after we arrived.

            In an effort to spend valuable time, support our father, and fight back against the reality of the disease, we made whatever music felt good; live and with minimal technology just like Dad did in the garage of his youth. We cut old songs from past campfires, lyrics that resonated, and melodies that made us feel good inside. We had no end game; it was about the process and being together to help Dad make music.

            “If I Needed You” was the very first track we cut. On it, you hear Dad doing his own harmonies as he did in the early days. We just kept cutting tunes from there; night after night.  The next track we cut, “The Man In Me,” resonated for all of us lyrically—and in tempo and melody as we gave it some twists. Dad sang it during his “club” shows in the ‘70s. We have fond memories of hearing it as kids and even better, it was written by Elston Gunnn!

            Most of the tracks were cut or started that first week. Then we chipped away for about a year, adding a few things here and there. The last track added is, I think, the most dynamic and cathartic song on the album. “The Maker” started in Tucson and was finished as a collaboration with monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.

            In the end, the album’s a family scrapbook of musical memories that, though very personal, has been embraced by fans for the sweet and honest work that it is.

MM:   It’s hard to point to marital success amongst the famous. How were your parents able to keep a family together?

JV:      Our parents dealt with the same issues any marriage does: They just never gave up.  They worked at it. Touring was hard on all of us, especially on our mother, being in her twenties and raising four young children. But when Dad was home, he was 100% with us. Also, Mom finished college and graduate school and pursued her own career as a social worker and therapist.  She was a strong and driven woman who impacted many.  They were a good team. One of my fondest memories of our parents was watching them in their last years, both of them dealing with terminal illnesses, holding hands and going for walks, making the most of each moment. 

MM:   Talk a bit about you and Tommy’s efforts to keep Bobby Vee’s music alive.

JV:      As much as we try to keep the music alive, we try to keep our parents’ spirit of giving back to the community and to the arts in mind with everything we do.  

            A few years ago, we produced a show called Remembering Bobby Vee starring The Killer Vees. The musicians included folks who played with Dad over the years; family, me, Tommy, Tommy’s son Bennett, our cousin Matt, and others. “We’re like a bunch of hillbillies,” Dad used to say.  That show includes a string section, female background singers, and some phenomenal video footage. Today, we only take it out periodically.

            It’s the musical play Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story that we’re most proud of.  Collaborating with local playwright Bob Beverage and The Minnesota History Theater, we spent several years interviewing people and developing the storyline. The play premiered in the fall of 2016 playing to packed houses and receiving rave reviews.  We lost our father during the last week of the production, making the play’s success a bittersweet tribute.

            Not only does it tell Dad’s story and our family’s story: It’s a love story and a theatrical ride through an exciting yet volatile time in America. It’s my hope the show will continue to entertain and inspire across the country and the world; perhaps one day debuting in Finland!

MM:   Explain your family’s connection to charitable works, like Joetown Rocks held in St. Joseph, Minnesota where the studio is located. Seems that your family has a close connection to the Catholic faith. Explain where that connection comes from and how it’s molded your view of helping out your fellow man and woman. Were Catholic charitable values something instilled in the Velline kids by your parents?

JV:      Dad was nominally a Lutheran. That wasn’t gonna fly with Mom’s family so he converted. The Catholic faith was a factor in our upbringing, but more in a ‘70s-California-hippy-acoustic-guitar-peace-and-love sort of way. Still: Broad, Catholic values kept all of us kids in Catholic school growing up.  After we moved to Minnesota and enrolled in Catholic schools here, our parents were asked to get involved with fund-raising, bake sales, and to help out painting the band room; things like that. That’s when my parents suggested: “How about a concert?”. 

            We called it Rock Around The Clock and included daytime carnival for kids, a raffle, a concert; the whole shooting match.  Over twenty-four years the event raised over two million dollars (for the school).  It became a tradition and created memories for many. Artists who were featured included Dad (and us kids), Dick Clark, Del Shannon, The Crickets, The Coasters, Little Eva, Tommy Roe, Ben E. King, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, Brian Hyland, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Rivers, The Three Dog Night, Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere And The Raiders, Mary Wilson’s Supremes, Little Richard, and many others. 

            My folks were strong on community and values, though not necessarily Catholic-driven.  They were liberal and open-minded; treating people the way they wanted to be treated. They sought to give something back, to support youth and the arts, and most of all, to bring people together.

            Two years after we wound down Rock Around The Clock we started Joetown Rocks since St. Joseph and Collegeville, MN, had become our stomping grounds. Meant to be first and foremost a community event, it was a parish festival on steroids. The first year we set up for 3-5,000 people: We drew 10,000. Dad played his last public show as part of JoeTown Rocks in front of an audience of 20,000 on July 3, 2011.

            Even after our parents’ passing, Tommy and I’ve kept the event alive: It continues to grow.  In 2016 we started another event, Rock 4 Alzheimer’s, to raise funds and awareness about the disease as well as fund scholarships for youth arts and music programs throughout Central Minnesota.

MM:   Looking at your dad’s lengthy, successful career in music what do you think Bobby Vee’s legacy is?

JV:      Dad received a fan letter a few years before he got sick. The sender wrote of an encounter with Dad when the fan was a young immigrant shining shoes on the streets of NYC in the early ‘60s.  Upon learning whose shoes he was shining, the immigrant told Dad he was a huge fan of Dad’s music; that he and his brother played “Rubber Ball” over and over on their little turntable.  Dad promised to return with an autographed album, but for whatever reason, didn’t make it back.  Fifty years later, not only did Dad send the guy a CD; he dug out a brand-new vinyl L.P., signed it and sent it along with a letter of gratitude.

            Dad took no thing and nobody for granted. He seemed to remember everyone he ever met, every DJ that ever spun his records, and every song he ever heard. He hung out with Elvis, performed with The Stones and the Beatles, played with Dylan and sold millions of records. He will surely be remembered for his music. However, I think the person and the father he was are his greatest legacies.

MM:   Where can interested readers of FAR find and purchase Bobby Vee’s music and find out more about this amazing Finnish American?

JV:      It’s best to go to the usual places: iTunes, Spotify, Siri, Alexa, etc … I can be reached at info@rockhousepro.com and would be happy to answer questions or chat with any Finn so inclined. We can “Zoom” now, too!

MM:   What question haven’t I asked that readers of FAR might want answered?

JV:      Like anyone who is not a Native American, the Vellines are here because of family who came before us: Immigrants who did what they did, struggled, and survived. It’s important to know your heritage and express gratitude for your ancestors. I also think that those long-ago immigrant Finns and Norwegians deserve some credit for the joy Dad gifted the world through his music.

The Author and his wife (center) visiting Rockhouse Productions with Friends.

True Colors by Kristin Hannah (2009. Griffin. ISBN 9780312606121)

Disappointing, for sure. Now, to be fair, my wife, an avid reader and a woman who actually belongs to a book club (this author does not) read this novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be candid: I did not. Before you Hannah lovers out there get all bent out of shape and start throwing cyber-grown rotten tomatoes at me, let me explain something: I am a Hannah fan too!

If you type in “Hannah” in the search bar of this blog (upper right hand), you’ll find three reviews of Kristin’s work: Nightengale (5 stars and smashing); Winter Garden (4 1/2 stars and a great read); and The Great Alone, Hannah’s most recent (4 stars). So, I am not on some crusade to hack apart another writer’s efforts. I have enjoyed my fellow ex-lawyer’s efforts as listed and will do so, more than likely, in the future as well. So what, you ask, is wrong with True Colors?

First, I was completely disinterested in the personal journal entries of Noah, the troubled love-child of Vivi Ann, one of the three sisters in the story, and Dallas, a Native American bad boy with a good heart. After reading the first few entires written in Noah’s hand, I found myself skipping the rest. That’s never a good sign; skipping portions of the text a writer worked so hard to create. Turns out, by skipping one of the last pieces written by the kid in his diary, I missed the final reveal in the story. I found myself confused at the end of the tale until I went back and read the entry. Not that I was surprised: I told my wife, when Dallas went to prison for a murder he likely didn’t commit, there’d be (spoiler alert) a DNA aspect to the plot that eventually releases him from wrongful bondage. That was in the first third of this soap opera and so, even though I missed that key plot point, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it in Noah’s writings.

The ending, to me, was extremely contrived, as if the author didn’t know how to reconcile the intra-familial conflicts raging in the Grey family between the three sisters, their father, their lovers, and Noah. There’s also a very trite and superficial reckoning between Dallas and the goody-two-shoes of the town whose eyewitness testimony put Dallas in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Unlike Hannah’s later works (the three previously reviewed books all follow True Colors, the author seems to be content to let dialogue drive the story; forsaking the literary fiction traits of character and setting and complexity that make her other books so darn good. I felt like I was, at times, reading “Grisham light” with a feminine touch. That’s not pejorative: This is, when all is said and done, chick-lit and if you’re into that genre, probably a fine read. That’s not me and that’s not what I expected from an author who gifted the world The Nightengale, one of my favorite reads in the last ten years.

3 stars: Readable but not my cup of tea.

Peace.

Mark

One Writer‘s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (1983. Harvard. ISBN 067463927-8)

I always love to read what inspires other writers past and present, how they write, where their ideas come from, and so forth. I am not an English major. I do not possess an MFA in Creative Writing. I am a self-taught author who relies upon years of reading great and not-so-great novels and short fiction, personal experiences, and the words of genius that I do not possess to teach me how to tell my stories. In the past, I’ve read books on these topics by Stephen King, Anne Dillard, Anne Lamont, and a host of other well-known writers. Because Eudora Welty is one of my favorite short story writers, when I came across this title, I knew I needed to read it. I ordered my copy from Zenith Bookstore and over the course of a couple of days spent on my front porch, a place any writer from the South would likely love, I dove in.

This is really more of a memoir than it is a “how to” script on fiction writing. That said, there’s great value for any would be writer in studying Welty’s personal history as told by the author. I was one of those folks who tried, as a young writer (junior high, high school, and college) to spin yarns out of whole cloth; meaning, by complete fabrication and invention. Of plot. Of character. And yes, even of place. Hemingway’s writing was the first place I understood, in my late twenties, that fiction writing is not fabrication of story without reference to the writer’s own experiences, encounters, and life. Welty takes that principle, fiction writer as synthesizer and collector, and explains, in curt and easy to understand terms, how every fiction writer worth his or her salt borrows from life to create stories that compel and resonate. She intersperses her own life story with the invented lives and characters and settings that permeate her fictional work and does so in a way that is both expository and entertaining.

As stated in the headline, at 104 ages of nicely posited prose, I’d give this thin read five stars but for one flaw: It’s far too short!

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

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