Making my best pitch

I have a dead file, and it is in need of its annual updating.

The file dangles in the front of our family filing cabinet, a red hanging folder filled with all of the important stuff my family will need for when I depart this mortal coil: the songs I want played, the songs I wish to have sung – the how-I-want-them-played-and-sung at my memorial service – dead-file-e1327109698717along with the scripture, quotes and poetry I want to be read, and what I want printed on the program.

Pretty basic, but important stuff.

My wife and kids know where this file is, they know that all that key info will be right there, as I am trying to be proactive, not controlling.  They are mostly okay with this arrangement, and though they don’t know what’s in it, they figure they will deal with that if and when the time comes.

Or, hopefully, my children will simply be able to pass on the whole thing to their adult children under the banner of ‘you cousins can all take some responsibility for grandpa/great family-tree-relationship-chart-free-pdf-templategrandpa/great-great grandpa here.’

Good Lord willing, that’s the way it plays out.

As is my custom, I review the file at the beginning of the year – though not as some sort of resolution ritual, or anything like that. I am always reminded to do this by all of the year-end/year-beginning, tax-and-estate planning reminders from every direction and the television commercials featuring thought-dead-already celebrities touting ’providing for your family’ with mail-order life insurance. Though sometimes I get those commercials confused with those of some other thought-dead-alreadys and their reverse mortgage ads.

Now there is a spiritual analogy post just dying to be written.

This year, as I reviewed the tattered red folder, I added a note about where the baseballs are – and nobody has to look far: they are right next to the folder.  Nice to have a decent file cabinet wide enough for legal files – I can have my letter-sized files, and room along the side for a half-dozen baseballs, in their boxes. Where they will hopefully remain for a long time.

Yeah, the baseballs.

Anyone who knows me and my family will attest to our love of the game. My wife Amy and I began dating late summer, 1991, as our hometown Minnesota Twins were en route to their second World Series championship, and let me tell you, World Series victories are great new-relationship aphrodisiacs. The following year we got married and had a Twins-themed wedding reception, followed up by family members and the wedding party (60 of us, all told) going to the Twins-Brewers game the next day, after which we (just Amy and I) followed the Twins on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee for our honeymoon

So yeah, as a passionate aficionado of all things America’s pastime, baseball will certainly be as much a part of my departure from this world as it is in my existence on this rotating-like-a-fine-change-up celestial orb.  My immediate family understands that, and figures they will deal with whatever zaniness I have in that red file folder when the time comes, though the one particular aspect they do know of gets the ‘hot potato’ treatment amongst daughter Lindsay, and sons Will and Sam. (Amy wants no part of my baseball bequest and has long since informed all the kidlets that this one will be totally on them.)

Somebody is going to have to put me in the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, actually, and far more feasible than other preferred options, like a traditional Viking viking-funeral-799141funeral.  The whole ship set ablaze and afloat (with my remains on it) while in keeping with my ancestral roots and desires, is impractical and expensive (EPA permits and whatnot) and maybe just a bit pretentious. So while the whole Viking ship thing would be as exciting as an inside-the-park home run, my baseball brainchild is an easy, knock-it-outta-the-park game-winner.

That I hope doesn’t result in me getting knocked around.

Upon my demise, after everything donatable has been donated, organ and tissue wise, the rest of me will need to be cremated. That will leave me as a nifty little pile of ashes, which will then need to be handled in some way. As I have never been one easily confined to conventional parameters (literally or figuratively) I don’t see myself as sitting in an urn or ornate box on someones’ mantelpiece somewhere.  Bor-ring.

Hence the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, really. A set of regulation, major league baseballs has been purchased, to be autographed by me; some signed as ‘dad’ some as ‘grandpa.’ Then, when the time comes to stash the ash, each ball will have a small core drilled out of it, just big enough to contain some of my ashes. Once the ashes are placed in each ball, the hole will then be sealed up with the drilled-out core and some epoxy, and the baseballs will then be ready for distribution to the next generation(s).

The idea could catch on – a sort of national pastiming-on, if you will.

The great thing about me being ensconced for eternity in baseballs is not only will what’s left of me be suitable for display in a ball cube, on a mantle or in a memorabilia cabinet, I will also be able to remain part of the family in a tangible, practical way.

For years after I am gone, when my grandkids and great grandkids get together someone will baseball-ed3always be able to say, “Hey! Let’s go outside and play catch with grandpa!”

And we still can.

Ummmm….but please, no batting practice, kids.

“Because grandpa said so! THAT’S why!”



55 3I just celebrated birthday number 55 – as a friend so euphemistically put it, my ‘speed limit birthday.’

The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.

The 70’s called – they want their slogans back.

I’ll go with ‘Thrive 55.’ No copyright or datedness issues, plus it’s mine and I am. Thriving, that is.

55 2For the most part I am. My health, and that of my family, is good; we are all happy and in relatively good spots in our lives. I am keenly aware of this blessing as many long-time friends struggle with a myriad of different chronic ailments. Even the dogs got clean bills of health from the vet this week.

I am blessed.

Approaching this mid-decade birthday, I have been paying extra attention to my health and well-being. Having dropped thirteen pounds since January the first, I can honestly use my new, self-appointed nickname: Lean, Mean Aw-What-the-Hell? Machine.

O.K. it’s a bit clunky.

I am generally of the just-another-year mindset with birthdays, but this year seems to have a lot of quirky numerical significance of milestones and anniversaries.

bouquetWP_20140420_015It’s a busy year. My daughter Lindsay turns thirty in June, and is getting married in July. She does not wish to be reminded of the former and eagerly anticipates the latter. Her two-and-a-half year old son – my grandson – Felix plays a prominent role in the festivities and I am greatly looking forward to it all.

Felix is a bright kid; he has figured out how to call or Skype me when he gets his hands on his mom’s phone. We pick up where we leave off whenever we can.

My eldest son Willi graduates from high school in a few weeks; he was accepted into two top-notch universities and has settled on mortarboradwhere he will go. Thus begins the process of his nest-leaving.

Meanwhile, youngest son Sam is wrapping up his freshman year of high school on the upswing after hitting a few fairly typical first-year-of-high-school rough patches. He now begins the process of flying more solo than he has had to up until this point in life. Daily life without his brother around to torment, nurture, harangue, bicker with, cajole and love (in all directions and all combinations) will be an interesting transition for all of us.

I recently realized that fifty-five is a big deal in part because of all the stuff that happened 40 years ago, when I was fifteen, which I have been thinking about a lot because that’s how old Sam is now. Looking back, fifteen was filled with all sorts of good stuff.

Driving legally comes to mind.

By the time my driving privileges were codified by that little yellow paper permit in 1974, I had been behind the wheel of various66 Valliant1964 Yeep pickup vehicles for a few years during my summer sojourns to Horseshoe Lake in northern Minnesota. I had driven Ivar and Lila’s ’64 Jeep pickup, in which I had learned to drive a manual transmission (though for the first few years, Ivar had to work the clutch from the passenger seat) which I proved my clutch prowess with by mowing down a sapling at age thirteen. I had also driven their ’66 Plymouth Valliant, a zippy little automatic transmission number that was compact enough for the smallish, pre-teen me to handle effortlessly.

Fifteen was also the age at which Ivar let me use the Homelite chain saw, and it was also the summer I occasionally (VERY oHomelite chainsawccasionally) got a full bottle of beer to myself. A story for another (and from another, very different) time.

2014 is also the 40 year anniversary my first job…of the approximately 72 different employers I have worked for to this date. Unless you include all the different things I did and places I did them while employed by five different temp firms. And of course, there was all the stuff I did on the side and sometimes off-the-books. Add in all the fun and funky stuff and the number of gigs I have actually been paid for easily tops 200. (see my poetry blog for more on that:

As Sinatra sings in my was then/still is now theme song, That’s Life, “…I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…a pawn and a king…..”  

If it is not illegal, unethical or immoral, there is a good chance I’ve dabbled in it.

Fifteen, the summer of ’74, was also when I discovered that girls were…? Aww hell, that they were girls. Different but still the same girls as in previous summers. They were something entirely new and familiar.

Fifteen was also the age when I began filling notebooks with teenaged profundity on solo cross-country Greyhound jaunts from Denver to Minneapolis at the start of the summer and back again before school reconvened. At fifteen, I was old enough to roll Grehound SeniCruisersolo. Add in shorter Greyhound hops from Minneapolis to Crosby, Minnesota and back, and I put a lot of miles on those spiral notebooks. That was over two-thousand miles a summer of life and writing about it, experiencing a wide array of people, different places. Big city kid soaking in small-town stopovers and all-night truck stops. Best scrambled eggs and link sausage I’ve ever had were at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, somewhere around two a.m. on a June morning surrounded by bus vagabonds and truckers, great conversationalists and monologists straining their necks to see just what I was writing down in my green steno book.

I had seconds on those eggs from the truck stop buffet, more sausages, too. They were great eggs.

When I wasn’t writing, I was watching and listening. Sometimes to my fellow travelers, sometimes to Sinatra or Dean Martin on the cassetterecorderlittle Radio Shack cassette player with the single earphone I had squeezed into my travel bag. Now and then I listened to all of the above simultaneously, and I vividly understood how movies soundtracks really enhanced the flow of a story.

Forty years have passed. An anniversary of a coming of age.

Fifteen was a crucial demarcation point for me. Now, here I am, some forty years hence.Sinatra singing

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king;
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing –
Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face…
I just pick myself up!  and get back. in. the. race!
That’s life…”

At fifty-five.


The Thrill Is Not Gone

“Political elections are a good deal like marriages, there’s no accounting for anyone’s taste”.
– Will Rogers, American Humorist

Election day always makes me nostalgic; not for the things you might expect like civility, logic and actual hope that win-or-lose, my guys could work with the other guys. My wistfulness is more visceral.

I get sweaty-palms, heart-racing nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of being a reporter on election night.

I started my career in radio (first real, full-time, ‘grown up’ job) in 1978 in the town of Nevada, Missouri (spelled like the state but pronounced ‘Neh-VAY-da’) a town of some 10,000 folks ninety-eight miles south of Kansas City. I had moved there that summer from my native Minnesota after being hired to work at the local radio station, KNEM.

It was quite a cultural change after growing up in very urban Minneapolis and Denver.

Small-town/rural politics, I quickly learned, was quite different from the urban variety I had grown up with and dabbled in. In a small town there is no detachment for candidates or issues; everyone knows everyone on some level, and it is always personal; school board to county commissioner, assessor to sheriff. Win or lose, you will have to live together and encounter one another on a regular basis. The saying ‘all politics is personal’ is never more true than in a small town.

While election night 1978 was not a presidential year, it was a congressional mid-term, and there were a ton of local races, so it was shaping up to be a big night – my first as an on-air election reporter. Not that I had anchoring duties or anything; that role belonged to Ken White, the station owner, who had put KNEM on the air in 1949. He worked out of studio ‘B’ where we usually did all of our recording and newscasting from; it had a boom-mic and a big round table that allowed Ken to have all of the various accoutrements of reporting scattered all over but within easy reach, along with his cigarettes and ashtray. Ken was a diminutive, grey haired guy with oversized ears and a raspy, authoritative, smokers-voice; through the smoke-filled air of studio ‘B’ he resembled a Hobbit Edward R. Murrow.

The entire staff was involved with election coverage: Vernita the office manager handled the incoming phone calls (two lines!) from various officials while Tim and Rich, my fellow full-time announcers, were stationed at city hall and the county courthouse. As the new guy on the block I was relegated to the least desired, but right-up-my-alley, wire service duty tracking the regional and national scenes. This required me to station myself next to the UPI teletype doing a rip-n-read: tearing stories off the wire-service machine, then sitting down in front of a microphone in the control room and waiting for a cue from Mr. White to update anxious listeners on what was going with any congressional or senate races of note in Missouri and Kansas.

If you’re not familiar with a classic teletype machine, it was essentially a noisy typewriter in a large box that received news via a dedicated phone line before typing it out on 8.5 inch wide rolls of newsprint. The story came in, the machine finished typing it, you ripped it off the machine and headed for the studio – in our case, a full fifteen feet away. And woe be onto you if the typewriter ribbon in the thing either ran out or got jammed; there was no retrieving a missed story. Hence, a box of spooled typewriter ribbons next to the machine and extra rolls of paper beneath it.

KNEM was usually a pretty laid-back place – but not on election night. The excitement was palpable and with the phone constantly ringing, the teletype going non-stop and ringing like crazy itself as a series of bells indicated ‘bulletin’ status: the more bells, the bigger the bulletin. The damn thing rang constantly on election night. I can still close my eyes and here the typewriter keys clacking furiously, the return carriage banging out new lines of type, and the incessant dingdingdingding indicating big news.

I delivered no earth-shaking results that night (I actually got comparatively little airtime, and in very short bursts) but the frenetic energy and all-around excitement was intoxicating, even in a place where the biggest battle of the night was for county commissioner. It was live, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, late-breaking-developments radio.

I was hooked.

By 1980 I was in Marshalltown, Iowa where I had been working for small, local station KDAO before being hired to work part-time at KSO/KGGO in Des Moines. Even as a part-timer, I had built a good rapport with the news director there, and he promised me a role in election coverage. Unfortunately, I never got a shot at that. As luck would have it, in October I got what I thought at the time was my ‘dream job’ working for a station in my old summer stomping grounds of Brainerd, Minnesota, and they wanted me there in early November.

The evening of election night 1980 found me in my loaded-to-the-brim 1969 Plymouth station wagon leaving Marshalltown for Minneapolis; a roughly five-hour drive and the first leg of my move to Brainerd. Missing out on being a part of election coverage was a disappointment, but that isn’t to say I missed out on the excitement. Driving through the rural Midwest on election night in that era meant A.M. radio was my only companion featuring wall-to-wall coverage on a wide array of small town radio stations, all broadcasting earnestly and breathlessly live from county courthouses, Grange halls, fire station polling places and various party headquarters.

As the Reagan electoral blowout of Carter was not at all compelling, the local stations seemed even more intent on pumping up their local races.

While I never did hear of any municipality electing a dog catcher, I remember being mesmerized for a good ten-mile stretch of I-35 cruising through southern Minnesota, as two local-yokels used every ounce of gravitas they could muster for an extensive chat about the “Too close to call, hotly contested race for library commissioner”. They, unfortunately, faded quickly away into the prairie night, and I was forced to scrounge the dial for fresh political fodder.

The only non-political respite I was able to summon from my dashboard was when, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, I scored a late-night signal of a clear channel Mexican station. After a couple of mariachi numbers, an announcer came on with a commercial (as a radio guy myself, I knew commercial inflection when I heard it) speaking rapid-fire Spanish, the only words of which I understood were ‘Pepto-Bismol’. Due to the various inflections the guy was using on the ad copy (“PEP-toe Bizzzzzmol” “Pepto. BIZ-mollllll” “PEP -TOE BEES-MOL? Si”! to mention a few) I got to laughing so hard I had to pull over for a minute before returning to regularly scheduled driving and election returns.

That night of rolling through the darkness listening to the pulse of democracy just fed my election-night-action fire.

Fast-forward to 1982, and I was working at KKCM in St.Cloud, Minnesota. We had just launched the station, and had been giving the established local stations a pretty good run for their money both in our country music programming and in our news coverage. At the time, St. Cloud was a city of about 40,000 with surrounding suburbs bringing the population up to around 60,000. It was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the state, and a hotbed for all sorts of tightly contested legislative and county races, and a slew of local ballot initiatives concerning growth, annexation and all sorts of other local issues .As election time approached, we were also actively tracking mayoral and city council races in nine communities. To top it off, the city of St. Cloud sits on the apex of three counties: Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. This geographical oddity presented some unique municipal election quirks. Some of the cities precincts covered parts of two counties, but not all three; others covered different portions of a combination of counties. This had an effect on various legislative races, as well as voting for county offices. Ballots in neighboring city precincts a block apart  could look vastly different. Tracking these races was going to be a challenge.

Enter Les Kleven, our station owner and wannabe political numbers-cruncher.

Les was a curiously odd bear of a man; nearly three-hundred pounds with a rather squeaky voice that got even more high-pitched when he got excited (and Les got excited A LOT) he was a small town rancher-turned-radio tycoon hell-bent on sticking it to the ‘big boys’ of St. Cloud’s radio establishment. To this end, he had hired a great staff of top-quality professionals, including news director Mike Sullivan, who hailed from Chicago and new politics and political coverage from every aspect imaginable.  I was an announcer/reporter/public service director for the station, and Mike and I had a great relationship. He wanted me in the studio with him on election night to serve as his right-hand-man, keeping info flowing and spelling him on air from time to time. Mike had looked at the local geographic issues and had come up with a simple but seemingly effective set of spreadsheets to help track the myriad of races.

Then Les unveiled his new baby: a brand new, roughly the size of a Fiat coupe, Tandy computer. “This” said Les with great confidence, “Will be the tool that helps us kick everybody else’s ass on election night”!

It didn’t. Not that we couldn’t get the data input fast enough (Les was a keyboard demon) or that the miniscule screen couldn’t display data fast (or big) enough but mostly because by the time the even-large-than-the-computer printer spit out its voluminous dot-matrix precinct returns on the over-sized tractor paper which I then had to try and manipulate on the desk in front of me without blocking my microphone the results were already out of date.

I realized by Les’ second and third batch of ‘results’ that his numbers didn’t add up to the raw numbers we had already been reporting via our reporters and stringers in the field, and brought it to Mike’s attention. His solution was brilliantly simple: keep taking the reams of printouts Les was producing from his office and keep them in front of me so that it actually looked like I was using them. “Whatever you do” Mike warned me, “DO NOT throw any of those in the garbage or onto the floor! Make notes or something on them to seem like they are getting USED”.

That’s why Mike got the big bucks.

After I had unfurled a set of Les’ numbers once, they got crumpled and appeared pretty well looked over – like the map you can never get folded up and back in the glove compartment neatly. Add in some legitimately made notes and some coffee cup rings, and Les was never the wiser.  One lasting impression of that night and our data-or-lack-thereof was Les periodically bellowing in exasperation from his office “What about Sonia Berg”?!

Berg was a legislative candidate in one of those districts that covered parts of two of St.Cloud’s three counties; in some precincts there were no results to be had, which puzzled Les, and which also left a hole in Les’ data, which the Tandy apparently didn’t like and wouldn’t compute until you put something in, which we couldn’t do except for ‘zero’ and Les couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp that there were no Sonia Berg results for some precincts.

We got through that election night in fine style – and I do mean ‘through the night’ as Mike and I greeted Don the morning show guy and tromped through the morning reveling and recapping all the election action, toasting each other with a couple of cold Cokes after signing off our coverage about nine a.m…a mere fifteen hours or so after we had begun.

And “What about Sonia Berg”?! Became an uproarious KKCM battle cry for all situations in the months after our first great foray into electronic political journalism

There were other election nights at other stations for me, all exhilarating in their own different ways. By the mid 1990’s I was out of the radio business, save some freelance gigs, but had moved on into the hotel business as I worked my way through my first stint in college. Election night excitement was to be found there, as well, in a more personal vein.  There is nothing quite like a big city hotel that is hosting a campaign party for a major candidate on election night….

Except for maybe a radio station studio somewhere.

Election night 2012 will have me in front of the television, remote in hand, watching history unfold in front of me. There will be moments when my heart will race, my palms will sweat a bit, and I will be thinking, at least a couple of times, “Oh man, if only for a night”.

My kingdom for a microphone.

Eternal spring

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” – Former major leaguer & Author Jim Bouton

Life is a scorecard; an encrypted story in exotic-to-the-unwashed hieroglyphs, easily and quickly translated by those versed in the language. We can excitedly tell the detailed story.

I’ve been told – more often than I can count – to take a walk.

I have sacrificed.

Took lots of pitches and touched all the bases. Made it to a few when I probably shouldn’t have, gotten thrown out when I tried to take an extra one…often experienced the thrill of sliding in safe at home.

I have played the field and struck out in love. My ears have echoed with the cheers of the crowd and have felt the sting of their boos.I have made may share of errors.

There are times when I have been left stranded, others when I have been benched. I have been shelled, and pulled for a reliever who could close out what I started.

I have made more than a few long, slow walks back to the dugout.

Ah, but the home runs have been plentiful.

I loved the game and life – and it returned the favor far more often than it could let me down. Oh yeah, a few pennant races broke my heart – but isn’t that life in a nut shell? I’ve had good winning streaks and a few tough loses.

There have been brush-backs, bean balls and I’ve thrown and been thrown more than a few curves in my day.

Hurled a few biting changeups of my own, too. Others will tell you there are times when I’ve been a real screwball.

Sometimes I’ve had to play hardball. I have usually won.

I have been thrown out, tagged out, shut out.

I have balked.

I have loved the game – my life – it has returned the favor.

Now, the grass is greener than ever, lush and rich; the sky is always a vivid blue. In my mind I can always I feel the breeze on my face, breathe in the aroma of oiled leather, hear the distant crack of solid horsehide colliding with polished ash.

Someday I’ll be rounding third and headed for home, with someone waving me on. I’ll know then as I do now that it’s been a grand and glorious event, an extra-innings affair to remember; a ninth inning grand slam in every sense.

It’s hopefully a long time before I need to come out of the game, many years before I’ll need a curtain call to acknowledge the home crowd, tip my hat and then disappear, headed for the clubhouse to hang up my gear for the last time.

Not now, not today.

It is spring again.

Hope, potential and promise fill the air, a game has yet to be lost.

A long, blissful summer awaits. There will be highlights and losing streaks, rainouts and glorious days you’ll hope will not end. For now, the joy is in simply taking the field again.

As Ernie Banks always says, “It’s a great day to play two!”

Characters who helped shape mine (#1 in a series) The Grocer

It is well documented that scents and smells are among the most powerful of memory triggers; I have to believe that sounds cannot be far behind.

When I began teaching, I purchased a set of self-inking stamps for classroom use, one of which I use on a daily basis: my red thumb. The thumb stamp has become one of my most versatile and effective tools with the high school kids I teach, as I use it during certain class work times to quickly update students. A ‘thumb up’ is for encouragement, a ‘thumb down’ is a silent indication they need to get on track, a ‘sideways thumb’ is my ‘rethink this’ signal – a true student agitator.

My students all know the thumbs and their meanings, and I hear about it quickly if I am not making the rounds with my stamp when they think I should be. Many will react a table or two away if they hear my now-familiar ’ca-chick, ca-chick’ stamping sound, and start writing faster.

My students periodically work in class from literature workbooks that are nicely self-contained; a literary selection, sidebar questions on every page, more extensive written work at the end of the selection. This format allows me to do a fast check of the day’s work, stamping quickly as I go through a pile of workbooks. Students can get a variety of thumbs on a given selection. If a student hasn’t done any of the work, I can blow through the selection with a rapid fire series of thumbs down in all the blank spots.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I have been doing this for quite some time, and never gave it a whole lot of thought. A few days ago I was sitting in my classroom going through some workbooks of a particularly difficult pair of students that refuse to do any work. I had tried dealing with them during class, but knew that not a thing had been written in either book. Sure enough, as I started thumbing through them, everything was blank.

‘ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

And all of a sudden, it was 1965 and I was six years old, in a SuperValu grocery store at 34th and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis; light-years literally and figuratively from my current home base of New Orleans.

The store was one of the first supermarkets in the neighborhood – huge, for the time. It was a clean, crisp shop owned by the Williams family; Joe, Marian and Randy. My parents preferred shopping at the new Red Owl supermarket a few blocks further down Chicago Avenue, but Ivar and Lila, the elderly couple that owned our duplex shopped at SuperValu. They were my de-facto grandparents in so many ways, and they would babysit me on Friday nights when my parents went bowling. Friday night was also their grocery shopping night, so after dinner, we would pile in to their red-and-black ’58 Nash-Rambler station wagon to load up for the week.

Ivar was good friends with Joe Williams, the store owner, and always referred to him as ‘Super Joe.’ Ivar was an immigrant Swede who gave all sorts of people nicknames as a course of generational, immigrant habit, I think. Every time we were in the store, the two of them would strike up a conversation while Lila and I began cruising the store aisles. One of Ivar’s many nicknames for me was ‘Little Squirt’ – usually just shortened to ‘Squirt’ – a nickname that the startched-white-apron-and-paper-hat wearing Joe then adopted whenever he would see me; “Hey, Squirt! How are you today?”

The store was also right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and once in a while I would  be in the store after school with someone or another. Super Joe always greeted me heartily, which was impressive to any other kids who happened to be around: I knew Super Joe and Super Joe knew me! (This was on display vividly during Thanksgiving of my first grade year, as our teacher, Mrs.Kime, brought us all to the store to shop for a Thanksgiving feast we then prepared at school. Joe told everyone I knew the store so well I should be leading the tour and explaining things.)

Friday night bowling was a big deal for my parents, and for me: an evening with Ivar and Lila meant having dinner and going grocery shopping, maybe watch a little television or play Chinese Checkers before bedtime if we got back early enough. May not sound like much, but it was a rockin’ Friday night for me, usually kicked off with Lila gathering her shopping list and coupons and Ivar announcing in a sing-song, Swedish-tinged, “Time to go see Super Joe!”

Every trip to SuperValu with Ivar and Lila followed the same basic script: Ivar and Joe would chat, Lila and I would start shopping, Ivar would catch up to us, and I would then be on the lookout for Super Joe. Once any eye contact was made with Joe, I would immediately dash to the aisle where the baking supplies were.

The bottom shelf on one side of the baking goods aisle was reserved for all of the big bags of flour and sugar, the twenty-pounders and such. (Hey, people were still baking from scratch a lot in 1965) Once I reached the baking goods, I would find an open spot on a bottom shelf, then squeeze myself into it, pulling my knees up against my chest, and resting my chin on my knees – sort of like during a fallout shelter drill at school. It was usually a tight fit, but they didn’t call me ‘Squirt’ without cause.

Within a few seconds, I would hear Super Joe walking down the aisle, wondering about what the price of flour was that week. A furtive peek around the bag of Pillsbury Gold Medal that I was huddled next to revealed Super Joe standing at the end of the aisle, drawing his shiny silver price stamper from his holster and adjusting the little wheels on it to the correct price. The wordlessly, but usually humming or whistling to himself, he would make his way down the aisle stamping the bags of flour with their correct price:

Ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

When he arrived at my locale, his only acknowledgement that I was scrunched up there was, in one single, smooth motion, to place his hand on my head, smack the back of it with the price-stamper, and continue on down the rest of the aisle, wordlessly heading on to some other part of the store.

‘Ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’ fading into the distance.

At this point, I would get off the shelf and run to catch up with Ivar and Lila, wherever they were in the store, and ask them to check the price on the top of my head, to which Lila would usually say “I think you’re worth more than that!” while Ivar would reply, “Ya, I tink it’s about right!” That usually got him an “Oh, Ivar” mock-scolding from Lila. We would then finish our shopping, get our S&H Green Stamps, and go home.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

1965 was also the year that Ivar and Lila retired, and moved to their lake place north of Brainerd, in Minnesota’s north woods: Horseshoe Lake was the locale where I spent my summers for the next dozen years. As my family usually shopped at Red Owl, I didn’t see Joe nearly as often.

But we weren’t through with Super Joe. He and his family visited us at the lake from time to time, and a few years after Ivar and Lila moved north, Joe and his family followed suit; they bought a small town grocery store in resort country about an hour’s drive from Ivar and Lila’s place. Both families remained friends until Joe’s untimely death a few years after that, when I was  thirteen or fourteen. I had experienced death before, family members and close friends, but I remember this was the first time I had grieved for someone that I really had no strong, tangible connection to. He was just a good guy that I knew from going to the grocery store with Ivar and Lila.

I have no idea why Super Joe and his price stamper escapades all came back to me the way they did, nearly fifty-years after the fact, sitting in an empty classroom in Louisiana. I use my stamper frequently. But return to me they did, and it gave me a smile when I needed one, being less than thrilled with the performance of my students.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I don’t know how the flour-bag routine got started, not sure why it still resonates so strongly with me today, it just does. Ivar and Lila were a huge part of my life; de facto grandparents who hosted me at their lake place for the entire summer every year of my youth. The relationships made and the life lessons learned over all those years are immeasurable. The old SuperValu store? Now an inner social-service outreach center. Super Joe Williams? A nice guy we used to buy groceries from who took a couple of minutes each week and once on a Thanksgiving shopping trip to make a kid feel special.

That’s all there is to the story, really. Just a childhood memory that returned at the oddest of times, triggered by a now oddly familiar, new yet retro sound. Or maybe its just a fun-filled Friday night remembrance.

Whatever it is, you just can’t put a price on it.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

Everything old is new again

One of the offshoots of my new teaching gig is the retro-yet-contemporary feel to my classroom; I have a ceiling-mounted projector with which I can utilize my school provided ELMO document camera. Anything from a single sheet of paper to a teachers edition-thick textbook can be placed under the camera and shown on-screen, and ELMO also projects computer or other electronic images. The camera itself is on a pliable neck and can be rotated, twisted and manipulated to point and focus on most anything in the room, so you can record and playback student presentations (or behavior!) and the like, as long as you have a memory card. A nifty little gizmo.

Unlike having a wall-mounted smart-board, however, the retractable projector screen that pulls down via a slim, white rope from its metal case mounted above the green chalkboard is somewhat less high-tech and tends to sway as I walk around it; my new technology meets 1965. Annoyance factor: minimal.

Yeah, you read correctly; I said chalkboard – there is nearly thirty feet of green pseudo-slate in the front of the room, slightly less than that on the back wall. I post info that can stay a while on the back chalkboard, but up in front of the class I spend a lot of time each day writing with chalk, and come home every day with chalky fingerprints and smudges in various pastel hues on my clothing and trailing little wisps of chalk dust as I go. Like the character Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip. Only…chalkier, and more colorful.

I feel so teacherish.

There are no dry-erase whiteboards in my classroom, no high-tech ‘smart boards’ ala the CNN election coverage set. I have chalkboards, different color sticks of chalk, and a pull down (“Filmstrip time!”) movie screen.

It’s working out quite well.

Let’s review:

Over my first three years teaching here in New Orleans, I have had three separate classrooms to call my own. The first room featured a smart-board that continually outsmarted the guys who installed it, as it never functioned properly, and the tech guys couldn’t get it squared away. I never had it functional for classroom use more than three consecutive days. A true waste of wonderful and donated technology.

It did, however, make a very expensive, super smooth easel and frame for all of the sheets of flip-chart paper I used that year.

My second classroom (same school, different grades) had no smart-board, but did have an overhead projector – but no screen, at first. Fortunately, the wall on one end of the room was white and relatively smooth, and a few sheets of that nifty flip-chart paper can tape together nicely to make a screen of sorts, in a pinch. It was moderately functional until the overhead bulb burned out and the school wouldn’t order me a replacement, so I scrounged one from an older overhead in a storeroom and used that until it too, burned out.

And boy, did I enjoy printing up all those nifty transparencies.

Last year I had a smart-board and an ELMO in my high school classroom, but ended up using the smart-board as simply my ELMO screen most of the time as the video and audio drivers in my school-issued laptop didn’t always play nicely with the software of the smart-board. We were able to make it through a few video presentations with the seniors without a glitch of some sort. A few.

Oh, those previous classrooms did have dry-erase white boards…sort of. One classroom had four-by-eight sheets of glazed bathroom wallboard attached over the original whiteboard. (I saw this all the time in my year as a sub around the area; when a white board gets damaged, they put the $9-at-Home Depot 4 x 8  sheet of waterproof wallboard up over them. This works fine at first, until the finish starts getting worn off, and the dry-erase ink doesn’t totally erase. Cheap, and oh-so-moderately effective.)

My whiteboards last year were damaged by custodians who accidentally used abrasive cleanser trying to clean off permanent marker. This left the whiteboard unusable, so they got most of the permanent markings off, then covered it with plastic laminating film. Like the wallboard, the laminating film works fine for a few weeks until the finish starts to wear and then all the dry erase ink doesn’t erase. Plus, in putting up the film, they had some big air bubbles and creases that never got smoothed out. Writing on a white board with numerous speed bumps led to illegibility, so I mostly wrote around them. This gave my board a somewhat Dr.Seuss feel, with sentences resembling roller coaster blueprints.

Did I mention that in the rooms I have had that did have smart boards, they were mounted in odd locations with skewed sight lines and also mounted over prime, usable whiteboard space?  That is also an issue all over the area; installation locales frequently defy logic.

This year, I’m doing quite nicely with my ELMO, slide-show screen, chalkboards and colored chalk – thank you very much.

There is one small glitch with my retro-feel set up: the chalk leeches all of the moisture out of my hands, and at the end of some days they resemble bleached-out beef jerky. Hand lotion doesn’t help much, as I mostly end up with pastel mud on my hands.

What I really need is good ol’ Madge, the Palmolive lady. Remember her? Her television commercials always featured Madge giving a woman a manicure; while she worked on one of the woman’s hands, the other hand was soaking in green, Palmolive liquid. When a dishwashing liquid was revealed as the cuticle-softener, the woman would inevitably gasp, and pull her hand out while Madge calmed her, and, laughing,  put the skeptical hand back in the Palmolive.

Okay, truth be told, it’s not just the dry hands that are really the issue here. Maybe I’m just looking for a manicurist who will take care of my hands the way Madge did. And no, this is not some weird Madge fantasy thing from my teen years. Madge never did much for me. But I digress.

My new school has nice copiers (that actually work – another rarity in my time here) available for teacher use, though we also have a bit of a throwback at our disposal: a Duplo duplicating machine.

Yeah, a Duplo. Remember the mimeograph machines of your school youth, the purple-inked, smelled-of-that-mysterious/mood-altering duplicating fluid? We have a much more contemporary version that lets you program various settings, adjust quality, much like a copier – and in black, not purple.

But this thing still uses a rotating drum and real ink and who knows what all to make copies. Each teacher has his/her own carton of ink that must be put in/taken out for each use – less some other teacher come along and use up your ink to make copies – so it’s not like just walking up to a copier, punching in some codes and hitting ‘start.’

I haven’t seen, let alone used one of these things, in at least fifteen years.

Its messy – most of the teachers I have seen using it wear latex gloves when handling the ink cartons – but the copy quality is good, and as we are apparently supposed to use it only for big copy jobs of thirty-five copies or more, so I probably won’t be using it much.

Still, I need to order my box of ink so I can relive the thrilling days of yesteryear today.

Then get a memory card for my ELMO so I can make my classroom as interactive as it can be.

And I need to find my ‘Madge’.

Hey, its 2011. Real men can get manicures – or at least blog about them wistfully.  All of that dusty chalk…


On long family trips when I was
six, seven, eight, nine – cowboys,
Indians, soldiers and animals
romped in a nappy, synthetic
dark-blue rear-window meadow

other times, that Plymouth field
was simply a ledge on which to
fold arms, place chin, lean on

watching the highway behind us
fade to black while my mother
half-jokingly admonished me to
“Turn around – see where you’re
going, not where you’ve been.”

But I was a pensive-traveler child

At times I still am.

Something concrete

My sons and I spent a good chunk of last weekend pouring concrete as part of our front yard beautification efforts. At ages 15 and 12 it was the first major outdoor project they have both been equal participants in. Part of that is due to the fact that after we moved from Minnesota to New Orleans in 2008, we were renters until last October when we bought our house.

We now have projects to be worked on.

High school sophomore-to-be Will and seventh-grader-to- be Sam were in charge of mixing and stirring the concrete, and for shoveling the concoction into the faux-cobblestone mold were we using while I did most of the placing of the mold and the finish work.

That worked pretty well, and in the 90-plus degree New Orleans heat, the performed admirably, mixing up ten separate batches of two 60 pound bags of concrete per batch. Not an easy gig, but they worked together and well. The boys were also in charge of cleaning up all the tools, and general use of the hose for adjusting said concrete mixture. And what kid doesn’t enjoy hose duty?

Midway through our Friday afternoon pour, I was kneeling on the ground waiting for Will and Sam to finish mixing a fresh batch of concrete, watching them strain at the thick mixture, Will using a full size shovel, Sam our loaner trowel.

I took a swig of water from my water jug, and suddenly it was 1974, and I was the kid mucking around awkwardly with the concrete.

It wasn’t a father-son moment that I flashed back to. My father, for all of his wonderful attributes, was not a construction or handyman whiz, which he would freely admit. Just not his thing, in part, and as we were renters until I was in junior high, we never really had much in the way of that sort of thing to mess with.

My summers at Horseshoe Lake were another matter entirely.

Ivar and Lila Andren were originally our landlords in south Minneapolis, owners of the Oakland Avenue duplex I called home the first ten years of my life; they lived downstairs, we lived upstairs. By the time they retired to their place on Horseshoe Lake, in the scenic lake country of northern Minnesota, they were essentially grandparents, and from the time I was six, I would spend the bulk of my summer vacations with them at ‘the lake.’

Ivar was a retired plumber, an old immigrant Swede with a hearty laugh and Santa-like countenance, Lila a diminutive German immigrant and retired accountant. The place they built on Horseshoe Lake was right next to the home of Ivar’s best friend Elving Holm, another old Swede with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and a hearty laugh available at any time. Elving was a retired house painter.

Over the dozen summers I spent at the lake, I spent nearly as much time hanging around with Ivar and Elving and some of the other retired guys, who spent their time in all sorts of hands-on, blue collar endeavors, as I did with the other kids who also summered on the west  side of Horseshoe.

I loved both phases of my summers on Horseshoe; swimming and hiking the woods with the Senness kids, fishing off of pontoon boats, just goofing around. There were always frogs and crawfish to hunt and play with, beaches to be dug up. There was always some lumberjacking to do; pines to be felled and hauled to Shogren’s sawmill. There was a communal garden on property owned by Old Man Reed that always needed weeding, or later in the season, had potatoes and corn to be harvested. Plus, Old Man Reed (Harold was his real name, but nobody called him that) was always willing to share a beer, a 7Up and fascinating conversation with Ivar and I should we happen to wander by.

There were also the volunteer projects; a plumbing fix here, helping somebody set up a new pump from the lake there, any number of things for Marie Wheeler, the charmingly eccentric and hard-of-hearing widow four houses down. There were ample opportunities for me to pick up and actually utilize the blue-collar basics, and I became proficient in chain saw, monkey wrench, paintbrush,hammer, vice, screwdriver, shovel, logging chain, wheelbarrow, pitchfork – to name a few.

One mid-1970’s summer saw it all coming together in a big project that had been in the works for a long time; the building of the Mission Township Firehall.

As a rural, unincorporated township in the piney woods of Minnesota lake country, there were not a whole lot of public services or amenities not provided by the county or state. There was a township dump, the Mission Township Cemetery and the volunteer fire department.

The fire department needed a permanent home, and for a number of years, the local residents had conducted a wide array of fund raising efforts to get one built. One of my personal favorites were the dances and bingo games at Anglers Edge Resort, and the north end of Horseshoe.

Ivar and I were frequent visitors to Anglers Edge, and friends of Joe & Gloria, the husband and wife proprietors. Our stops were usually made coming back from some plumbing job somewhere, and Ivar would indulge himself with a beer while I would get a bottle of Coke or an Orange Crush, and also a few dimes to play a Dean Martin song on the jukebox, or a couple of games on the old electric bowling machine. Many an afternoon contained a quick stop at Anglers Edge

As I got into my teen years, Ivar would occasionally bring me to Anglers Edge in the early part of an evening for bingo, which was sometimes followed by a dance. The bingo games were a regular fundraiser for the fire hall, the dancing was less regular, but more lucrative. If Ivar and I stopped later in the afternoon on a day when there would be dancing, benefit or just a dance, Joe would let me prep the dance floor by sending me out to sprinkle dance wax over the worn pine floorboards.

l should remember to add that to my ‘acquired skill’ set.

It was either the summer of 1973 or 74, when I was fourteen, fifteen, that we finally got the fire hall built, starting with pouring the concrete slab. The building was pretty good size, and along with the space for two fire trucks and other firefighting gear, there was a small kitchen and meeting hall area, so the place would be a de facto town hall of sorts and available for hosting small gatherings.

What I remember most is the communal nature of the project, a coming together of a bunch of folks I knew from my travels with Ivar, a lot of whom really didn’t seem to know one another. There were even some people helping out and working together that I know didn’t really like each other much. There was a good cross-section of full timers (those who lived on the lake year around) and a bunch of summer residents, who either had summer only cabins and stayed the summer, or just came up from the Twin Cities on weekends. The camaraderie and laughter was infectious.

There were retirees (most old Norwegians and Swedes, but a few Germans and Slavs – the stew of dialects helped me develop the good ear I have for such sounds) and some young folks, a few second generation Mission Township residents, a couple of grandkids who were there only grudgingly…and me; joyfully taking it all in, conversant with most of the adults on hand and greeted warmly and lovingly teased by many of them.

Once we got the slab poured, it had to cure, and then later they started in on the actual cinder block shell, and once that was finished, it was time to get the insides done. Ivar and I popped in a few times to work on some of the plumbing, although the main pipe work had been done by some of the younger guys. Eventually, the building was about done and it was time to pour some the last concrete for the sloped driveway in front of the fire hall.

It was the day I learned the fine art of using a trowel and working concrete.

The tutelage was always blunt, often humorous, and came from a variety of sources. As I was seemingly the only kid there of my own volition, I got out of most of the grunt work of lugging around buckets of water and actually learned some masonry arts. I was having a grand old time, and toward the end of the day, there was some leftover concrete in the truck, which the guys in charge had the driver dump in a pile off to the side. I was assigned the task of taking the leftover aggregate mixture and forming some spillways around where the downspouts would be dumping rainwater.

They ended up not looking too bad, though I’m not sure how useful they really were. I think I got the gig just for the spectacle of letting the old guys watch me careen haphazardly through my assignment. In the end, I got a lot of pats on the back a lot and was thanked repeatedly for my service to the fire department and township.

I was one of the guys.

Fast-forward nearly forty years, and that fire hall (at last check) was still standing on the east side of Crow Wing County Highway 3, about halfway between Merrifield and Crosslake. The concrete spillways I made were long ago replaced with more professional work, and that’s okay – because I helped build the Mission Township Fire hall. My dimes (okay, Ivar and Lila’s dimes) bought a lot of those bingo cards, I spread the dance wax before those benefit dances.

As I was kneeling there in the Louisiana heat watching my sons laboriously mix a wheelbarrow full of concrete for our little, decorative sidewalk project, I thought about those experiences of my youth, and how they carry on to my kids in their own way. I took a swig from my water bottle, put it down, grabbed my trowel. “All set to pour, guys?”

Now I just need to find them opportunities to learn the fine art of chain sawing, and we might need to find something to paint. Maybe a pipe will start leaking…


Culture shocks

The ‘Beat Generation’
now needs a pacemaker;
they can still Howl – but
it’s mostly in discomfort

Hippies now take a drag,
teeter on artificial joints
Peace, love, rock-and-roll?
Viagra, naps, Metamucil

Culture they unleashed
now subjected to leash laws
yet I admire their restraint
in not pandering to regret


Graduation from high school
meant moving on, getting on
with life, trying something new
somewhere else – leaving

Graduation gifts were practical
to the situation; a typewriter,
a briefcase, cash, sage advice…

a contradictory set of luggage,
gifted by mom and dad.

Not wanting me to go, knowing
I must; wary, hopeful, resigned
questioning all the inevitability
that raising children nurtures

A matched set of five brown
vinyl bags; two suitcases, under-
seat tote, garment bag, shaving
kit, all filled quickly, portaged
across multiple states, stages,
careers, life transitions – stuffed
with the tactile accoutrements
of a life, with room remaining in
corners and zippered pouches
for moments, memories. A life.

A few quick Junes from now
my eldest son reaches the same
well-trod crossroads, whether to
go or to stay will not be the point;
moving on a given, a goal reached

The temptation will be to send
him on his way much as I was; a
laptop, a briefcase, cash, debit card
and a large, sleek, shoulder-carry,
nylon duffle bag along with prudent
counsel to travel light while still
taking it all in; to bring it with him
when he comes back, take it all
with him when he leaves again, but
most importantly of all, to use it
along the way, carry himself well