Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Drive through Time

Faithful readers of this column might remember that last week marked phase one of our “gotta see the kids” late-summer tour, with a trip to the Moorhead, MN/Fargo, ND region to visit our older son, Colin, and his family. We were anxious to see how they’d fared in the northern plains, with our daughter-in-law experiencing her first year as a full-fledged college professor and Colin working as a chef in a region seldom featured on the Food Network except on programs about lutefisk. meatballs and lefsa. We also wanted to hear about life in a region where 30 below is considered kinda balmy and what it’s like to stack sandbags in a blizzard (Fargo/Moorhead is the home of the now-famed Red River of the North.)
And, for me, there was the constant, irresistible lure of backroads travel. And believe me, there are a lot of options in a region where secondary roads often trail quickly into dirt tracks through deserted miles of hidden lakes and virgin forests.
We saw a lot of lakes. We saw a lot of trees. But, most interesting to me was the sight of an America that I thought no longer existed except in the memories of those of us who slogged through the upper midwest in search of that perfect family vacation of the ’50’s.
We took Geri, our daughter-in-law, plus a willing granddaughter, on one of those forays one sunny day, as we headed east to search out a perfect swimming hole for their family to enjoy for the rest of the summer. There are, of course, lakes o’ plenty in the land of 10,000 lakes, but what really caught my eye was the steady stream of signs proclaiming “resort” at nearly every turn. After a few false starts and dead ends, we finally caught sight of some of the places those signs were advertising, and I was immediately swept back into a time long before the advent of the mega-developments, casinos and fun parks that now seem to dominate every pretty lake in America. Instead, these resorts were the good old mom and pop places that I remembered from the long drives my family used to take in search of an ideal spot for my dad to fish, while my mom got a chance to sit in the sun and read a book and my siblings and I experienced the joys of fresh, clear water and sandy lake bottoms. The places we saw had names like Whispering Pines, Bear Paw, Sleeping Fawn and Sunny Point. They were the kind of quiet little resorts, featuring shorelines dotted with fishing piers and tiny cottages, that generations of families visited year after year until someone finally decided WiFi, water parks and fast food were more important than sunsets, rowboats and great fishing. They’re still there, existing, somehow. And I’m glad they are.
The drive home was planned as a two-day wander in search of a little nirvana of our own. We found it that first evening in a Minnesota State Park with a familiar name--Father Hennepin--on beautiful Mille Lacs (Thousand Lakes) east of Brainerd. We discovered, to our delight, that we remembered how to set up our tent and that our air mattress still doesn’t leak. After a shoreline hike, the evening was spent gazing into a campfire, accompanied by the cry of loons and the occasional chug-chug of fishermen trolling the lake. Even a late-night thunderstorm failed to dampen our spirits, as we found, to our relief, that our tent still doesn’t leak, either.
The next morning started dangerously, as our navigator (that’s me) carelessly directed us on a winding, “where the heck are we, anyway” route that inexplicably took us across the river marking the upper Minnesota-Wisconsin border a total of four times before we settled on a straighter path that would take us down through east central Wisconsin. I say “dangerously,” because, despite all our intentions to “let the road take us,” four aimless border crossings with no progress towards home are apt to turn any second honeymoon into something more akin to the second world war.
Our good humor revived, we proceeded through a unique Wisconsin landscape featuring wooded hills and bluffs, more lakes and postcard-pretty dairy farms that are seldom seen unless you get off the well-beaten tourist-track of the interstate highways and other busy roads.
And there were the towns. There aren’t many of them. Just enough, I think, to provide schools and churches and commerce for the surrounding countryside. Some of them feature small cheese factories that turn the fruits of their neighbors’ labor into a rich, creamy product with little or no resemblance to the over-processed stuff found on supermarket shelves. They are, universally, neat-as-a-pin, prosperous-looking places that, it might seem, continue to thrive through hard work and the relative absence of any nearby big cities that might draw away retail trade and tax dollars.
My favorite was a town called Plain.
Perched on a steep hillside, it’s an appealing little village, with an active downtown, nice homes, a nifty nine-hole golf course and a huge church and shrine on top of the hill. But it was the name that caught my attention from the moment we hit town. Some research after I got home showed a couple of historical options. One states that the name was “widely rumored to have been selected as an homage to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Maria Plain in Salzburg, Austria.” Another, though, said that it was “called Plain because the inhabitants were plain people." A letter to the local newspaper in 1915 from an anonymous reader made this offer:
“ I for my part would suggest a name not yet found in Wisconsin, and in order to avoid unnecessary criticisms and hallucinations, I reserve three in petto, [secretly] promising at the same time that they all will be delighted at its beautiful sound and easy spelling."
Apparently, those three ideas never flew, and the name stayed plain, but to a small-town boy like me, Plain was beautiful, all the same.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Report from the Road

I’m on vacation. Sort of.
It’s kind of hard to tell sometimes, I know. Ever since I “retired,” so to speak, from my career as an advertising agency creative director due to a bout with cancer, my schedule has been pretty easy going. Like fruit picking, life guarding and ice fishing, my Star Courier gig is rather seasonal, with the busiest times occurring during fall and winter high school sports and the slowest time happening during summer. On the other hand, I’m always kind of on hiatus, with no regularly scheduled office hours or business trips, no neckties or high pressure client meetings, and a lot of flexibility that allows me to slow down when I need to.
So, you’d think summertime would be just the ticket, especially since my partner in crime has her break from school going on now, too.
But, after a June dominated by home projects, like gardening, cleaning the catacomb we call a basement and otherwise preparing for a festive Galva fourth, we realized something startling: School starts in less than a month.
But it’s just July!
The fourth was just a couple of days ago, wasn’t it?
Long gone are the days when school started after Labor Day and football was strictly a fall sport. Instead, kids and teachers swelter in hot classrooms, while coaches and players pray for the cooler weather yet to come.
In any case, the threat of a waning summer has us energized, as we fill late July and early August with trips to see our kids. As I write this, we’re visiting older son, Colin, and his family, who live in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the (formerly) raging Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. Next, we’ll head to the coastal plains of North Carolina to see son Patrick and his family.
It figures, then, that we’d leave town just as my previously slow summer schedule has begun to--like summertime weather--heat up. Between a pair of pretty big volunteer projects, a couple of freelance writing jobs and some fast-approaching Star Courier events like Hog Days and pre-season football, I find myself needing to work and report on the road, which, thanks to technology, is an easy enough thing to do.
Late July-early August travel is a familiar thing to us. When our kids were younger, we always waited for the end of swimming lessons, camps and baseball season to go on our actual out-of-town vacations. As a result, we found ourselves visiting places like Disney World and various Florida beaches and other attractions during a time of year when those venues are just slightly cooler than the surface of the sun.
It’s a little different here in Fargo/Moorhead, where the natives start to complain and perspire when the temperature crests 70. And later on, when we visit North Carolina, we’ll probably manage to capture enough sea breezes to make the mid-Carolina summer tolerable.
But the whole point of these trips is, of course, not so much the weather as the company. We miss our kids and grandkids when we’re not around them, and look forward to a chance to be involved in a little part of their lives.
So, we’ll pour over maps, plan routes and hit the road again and again.
Summer will be over soon.
There’s no time to lose.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's Just Baseball

There’s something going on in the park across the street from my house. It’s not like a little action in and around the tree-filled, grassy square that was once supposed to be home to a college campus is unusual.  Quite the contrary, it is a veritable hub of activity, with a great playground, basketball courts, a pavilion and gazebo and a lot of green space for kids, adults and families. The roads that surround and enter the park are favorites for walkers, bicyclists, dog owners and runners, and there’s even an ice skating rink in wintertime.
But recently, there’s been something else going on. Something downright American.
The little grass diamond on the east side of the park has been filled with a bunch of kids of varying ages playing the great American pastime. It’s not little league or farm league or pony league or, in fact, any league at all. There are no set teams, uniforms or even equipment, aside from gloves, a couple of bats and a ball.  
Except me, of course.  And I’m minding my own business.
Now, I’ve got nothing against “organized” baseball.  I played and coached it myself for years. But for the most part, my younger days were filled with the kind of pickup games I’m now seeing in action. We played during every school recess and, when summer hit, managed what must have been a full 164-game season between diversions and chores like swimming, bike riding, paper routes and lawn mowing.  We played in empty lots, backyards, streets and the same Wiley Park ball field I’ve been watching from my front porch.
But things change.  Over the years, a lot of parents (including us) started getting more directly involved with each and every aspect of their children’s lives. I can remember, as a little league coach, watching a crowd of parents got way over-involved in the game we were playing.  They were yelling at the players and screaming at the umpire when I called for time out.
I walked over to the bleachers and said this: “Hey folks, it’s just baseball.”
Because, in truth, that’s all it is.
A game.  A kid’s game to be played and loved and remembered for all the fun it was.
The kids I’ve been watching are playing without the benefit of coaches or equipment or even much in the way of rules, except those that seem to get made up on the spot.  They strike out, miss fly balls, let grounders roll between their legs and argue each and every call.  The other day, in fact, things got pretty heated over a close play at first. For a minute, I thought that maybe I should amble over and help them out a little. Heck, I’ve got an old catcher’s mitt and mask in our basement I could let them borrow. And maybe they could even use an umpire (he was safe, by the way.)
But then I thought better of it,  I thought about kids with bleary eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome from too much TV and too many video games. I thought about living in a time and place where everybody but me seems to have an iPod, and nine-year-olds with their own cell phones put their friends on hold to take another call. I thought about
kids who think they’re playing a game because they play it on Wii, and about kids who only play a game outdoors if their parents organize it, schedule it, deliver them to it and supervise every last moment of it.
Then I sat back down to watch the game across the park.  A loud, disorganized game, played just for fun.
They looked like they were having the time of their lives.
They looked like they were doing just fine without me.
Play ball!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This Old House

This old house has been around. Built in the 1860’s by a Bishop Hill trustee for his daughter and family, it became a part of my family’s history when my immigrant grandfather came to town in 1909, looking for a chance to open his own business and start a new life for his growing family. He rented a room in this old house, then eventually bought the place and set about turning it into a home. The remodeling was significant, with considerable cosmetic changes both inside and out, plus the addition of more living space in the already good-sized structure. An important add-on was a large, wraparound porch on the front of the house, with a gently sloping, overhanging roof that helped changed the look from Victorian to an appearance that was more contemporary for the time.
My mother and her two brothers grew up in this old house as part of an extended family that included her parents and various aunts and uncles. My grandfather’s business thrived, the family became a solid, well-liked part of the community, and life was good.
“We had wonderful times in the house,” my mother remembered. “It was a gathering place.”
The stock market crash of 1929 created a ripple effect that had severe consequences throughout the county, even in small towns like Galva. Chief among them was a lack of what would now be called "cash flow." Very quickly, my grandfather's successful business became consumed by debt. My mother would later tell me that the reason for the reversal was that he was unable to bring himself to pressure the neighbors and friends who owed him money, as he knew they were unable to pay him. The end result was that his business failed in 1930 and the family was forced to leave this old house.
For over fifty years, the house was occupied by other families until, in the mid-80’s, it went on the market just about the time we were looking for a larger, better-located home for our young family. I thought, at first, that it might remind me too much of what began and became a sad chapter in my family’s life. But, we chose to make it our own, thinking, correctly, that it could also become a symbol for the wonderful way life works out.
And so it has.
We’ve lived there ever since, raising our family, while trying to keep pace with the never-ending chores and projects that come and come again with a big, old house. It remains, as my mother said, “a gathering place,” that has seen celebrations of birth, death and all the life that happens in between. It can--as it did this past holiday weekend--hold a dozen extra family members and friends without a whimper. There is room inside for both privacy and companionship, for both peace and celebration.
And sometimes, like on the rainy Fourth of July, the the sprawling, park-facing porch is the place. A place to meet and greet and sit and smile and laugh and sing and remember. A gathering place for old friends, new acquaintances, and even family members who have been separated too long by time, distance and circumstance.
This old house is all of these things.
This old house is home.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

An Independence Day Memory

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
-From a letter written by John Adams to his wife, Abigail, on July 3rd, 1776.

Founding father John Adams missed it by a couple of days, mainly because the actual document--our declaration of independence from Great Britain--was dated July 4th. But, otherwise, his prediction has come true, as Americans of every ilk take time to celebrate the date “from one end of this continent to the other.”
We certainly celebrate it around here. My holiday activities and responsibilities in Galva have kept me from sampling other communities’ celebrations in recent years, but I can say, for sure, that they do it up right in my home town.
Of course, no matter how many parades, games, shows and municipal fireworks displays we’re offered, there will always be those for whom the fourth means one thing:
Not the big ones that everyone gathers to watch on the evening of the fourth, but the not-so-legal ones, smuggled across state lines for the guilty pleasure of making a bit of noise in one’s own back (or front) yard.
It was interesting to discover that there are still 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow a full range of consumer fireworks to be sold. Illinois and five other states allow sparklers or other novelty items, while five other states ban all consumer fireworks.
I’ve actually never been a huge advocate of the right to blow my fingers off, though that doesn’t mean I’ve never been guilty of trying. But I come from a long line of incendiary rebels, as illustrated by this memory.
My family rarely went on vacation. My father owned the local drug store, where he was the sole registered pharmacist. One year, though, my mother somehow convinced my dad that our young minds required a trip to Washington D.C. It was a great trip. I was all of six years old, but I still remember climbing the Washington Monument, visiting congress as they debated Alaska’s impending statehood, and my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was on the way home that my older sister and brother and I somehow convinced my parents to stop at a fireworks stand. This was amazing times two, as my thrifty father would have, no doubt, looked at buying fireworks as akin to blowing up actual dollar bills, while my legal-minded mother would have expected immediate retribution for breaking the law.
She got her wish.
The car--my dad’s 1951 Packard--had been suffering from a mysterious malady called vapor lock as we traveled through the mountains of Pennsylvania. Some guys at a gas station gave us a coke bottle filled with gasoline, with instructions to pour the raw gas directly into the carburetor whenever the car started acting up. My 12-year-old brother was given the task of pouring the gas, as my dad operated the controls. Anybody with a basic understanding of internal combustion could probably predict what happened next: The gas ignited and whooshed into the air. I still remember the size of his eyes as my startled brother dropped the coke bottle. The resulting maelstrom briefly filled the engine compartment with flames. We all jumped out of the car, leaving--you guessed it--the fireworks, locked in the glove compartment of the car.
“I knew it was my punishment for letting you kids buy those things,” mom said said later.
It would have made a better, more exciting story if the family car had erupted into a shower of man-made pyrotechnics, but, fortunately, that was not the case. The flames were quickly extinguished and the car--apparently frightened into good behavior--got us home without further incident.
A few days later my father, with the tacit permission of Galva’s Chief of Police, set the things off in our backyard. It wasn’t much...a few roman candles, a couple of pinwheels and a small ground display.
But to my young eyes, they were the most beautiful fireworks I’d ever seen.
In my mind’s eye, they still are.