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…



First Love

The young ballplayer drags his bat to the plate, leaving a neat,
shallow furrow in the dirt in which the seeds of success are now
sown; there is purpose to his gait, no fear. He is resolute.

He practice swings the bat in a warped, pendulum loop while his
oversized, red plastic helmet acts a boa constrictor trying to
digest his head. Dogged determination shapes the boys eyes

He stands beside home plate, tongue protruding from the lower
left corner of his mouth in intensity; his face drawn in pseudo-
sneer, he spreads his feet, digs toes firmly into the sacred dirt

The boy is ten.

He looks every bit the ballplayer; body language poised – just
shy of cocky; seriousness finger-painted in bold red dirt streaks
across the white script team name adorning his uniform shirt

His bat slowly rises, coming to rest on his shoulder as he fixes
a nearly-hardened gaze on the adversary forty-six feet ahead;
takes a deep breath, wrinkles his nose to move the sweat off

The pitcher looks at him, cocks his arm, throws. Bait not taken;
a ball! The bat in the boy’s hands wobbles alongside his head,
goes still a brief moment as the next pitch approaches before

whipping violently from his shoulder, thrust in a swept-sword
arc at the hurled sphere coming; arm muscles strain, elbows go
straight, torso and hips spin wildly, eyes close as bat meets ball…

Momentum causes the boy to teeter briefly, before an ungainly
burst from the batter’s box sends him lurching toward first as
the ball, like a flat stone on water, skims the infield dirt, kicking

up four quick puffs of diamond dust and the boy’s thought is of
only one thing; the sudden grandeur of a double – a double! – as
he rounds first, and the ball comes to a stop in the outfield grass

The boy playing right field for the opponents charges in, plucking
the ball from the turf where it has come to rest while in the same
odd, Quixotic-windmill motion he catapults it toward second base

Then it all happens so fast.

The boy has ducked his head rounding first, doggedly running
fast as he ever has or ever will, only looking up in time to see the
ball jutting from the webbing of the glove suddenly before him

the sight alerts the boy’s baseball instincts to his only option;
intuitively he launches his feet out from under him, left leg fully
extended, right leg tucked beneath him, curled at the knee

his left buttock slams into the dirt with a cloud of dust, his body
sliding to a stop a full foot in front of second base, he sees the
glove smack his shin, hearing a soft, excited voice; “You’re out!”

Lying there looking up into fading afternoon sun he can make the
silhouette of his vanquisher; arms raised in exultant triumph, ball
in one hand, glove the other, and a look of surprised satisfaction.

From flat on his back he lifts his head to focus, and through the
dissipating cloud of grit the face of his rival comes into soft focus
from beneth her frayed bent cap brim. No gloating countenance,

the gentle face is a wide smile, large eyes – framed by two tightly-
braided, long, dangling, swaying pig-tails; near the end of each
dangle shiny plastic barrettes the exact hue of her cap and jersey

There is an oddly comforting lilt to her voice saying “You’re out!”
He doesn’t hear moans of disappointment from his team’s bench.
Still on his back, chin on chest, he smiles, repeats; “You’re out.”

His head flops back on the dirt. She leans over him, still holding
the ball, hands on her knees, he again repeats, “You’re out.”
The girl nods. “Yep” she repeats with a broad smile, “You’re out.”

From that moment on, though he will often try, he can never quite
accurately articulate or explain to anyone (even himself) his inate
passion for baseball, his true love. His love of the game.