31 March 2006

Where we are today

So my office is on the fourth floor of a 90 year-old building. I have a great view from up here, but only on cloudy days. When the sun is out, I have to keep the blinds closed or the light just washes out my computer screen. On the upside, there are something like 250 cloudy days per year up here in Michigan (if only they'd dig a canal along the southern border with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, it would be an island), so I get to have the blinds open quite a bit.

My window isn't original equipment—if I had to guess, I'd bet that this floor was an attic when the place was first built, so it's not much window compared to what you find on the lower floors—but it's not particularly new either. It's basically an ill-fitting aluminum slider with some sort of tinting film on the outside that's peeling off and that has a couple of whistles when the wind blows (in not-quite-harmony). And the wind is blowing today.

That's where I am.

In about half an hour, I'm going to call the hospital up in Minnesota to see where (and how) Mom is today. Last I heard they had her temperature down and were actually thinking about taking her off the ventilator. She apparently was more responsive yesterday—turning her head and nodding in answer to yes and no questions—and in general it sounded like she was making positive, if incremental progress. So that's good.

29 March 2006

Enervating days

"Enervating" is the adjective that probably best describes the last week or so — and no, I'm not going to send you looking for a dictionary like I usually do to find out what it means (on the off-chance that you don't already know). Here's the entry from Dictionary.com:

adj. (ĭ-nûr´t) Deprived of strength; debilitated.

My mom had a heart attack last Monday night. She survived it, but they transferred her from the local hospital to a cardiac care unit in the Twin Cities for more tests, where they decided that she was going to need multiple bypass surgery. I found out on Tuesday, and Kathleen drove me over to Chicago on Wednesday morning, then my older brother Mike and I headed up to Minnesota together that same day. (BTW, I did not take a suit with me, and neither did Mike.)

Initially, they told us the surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning, so we figured we had to be up there by Wednesday night. We went straight to the hospital, and when we got in, we found out they'd canceled Thursday morning and were now saying Friday because they hadn't completed all of the tests. She had eight blockages, and they were talking about repairing five of them. They were also contemplating a repair or replacement of a valve and maybe cleaning out her carotid arteries as well.

By Thursday morning they had the other test results, but canceled Friday's surgery in order to allow her get stronger and to coordinate a bit more among her various doctors and the surgeons. They rescheduled the surgery for this Tuesday. I'd been off work since Wednesday (and wasn't much good to anyone after I found out on Tuesday), and at that point I pretty much knew I wasn't going to be able to stay through the weekend and stick around for the surgery.

So we spent as much time as we could at the hospital with her, then my brother and I headed back to the Chicago area late Friday afternoon. I caught the Amtrak back to East Lansing on Saturday and got in about 8:30 Saturday night.

It seems like it was an incredibly long few days. I didn't have Internet access up there—we stayed at the house of a friend of Mike's who lives out in the country, and although he had a wireless network in the house, he was out of town for a snowshoe race in Vermont and we neglected to ask him for the key. It was an old DSL set-up, so there wasn't even a network cable I could plug in. And to be honest there really wasn't a lot of time for doing e-mail and stuff like this anyway.

So after I got home, I answered a few messages and sent out some updates, helped run the softball clinics on Sunday and was back at my desk and trying to get caught up on Monday and Tuesday.

When I talked to Mom on Monday night, she seemed pretty stressed out and more than a little angry about how things were going: She was getting a different surgeon than the one she'd been talking to, a different cardiologist would be taking over her case after the bypass , and they trying to move her to the room she'd be in when she came out of surgery. She didn't even want to talk to my youngest daughter Sarah — just asked me to tell her that she loved her.

Since Mom and I (and my daughter Rosie and my late grandfather) share essentially the same personality, I could imagine how she was feeling. I would have been wound up and ticked off too. When Mike and I were up there, the most troubling about the care she was (or wasn't) getting was the uncertainty. It seemed like no one was quarterbacking things, and that a lot of what was going on had more to do with the hospital bureaucracy and scheduling convenience than it did health care delivery and her best interests.

She was supposed to go into surgery at 8:30 AM yesterday (7:30 her time), but because they had some concerns about the ventilator tube that they needed to put in while she was under (she'd basically told the nurses the other day that she'd try to yank it out because it made her claustrophobic, anesthesia or no), they wanted to check the records of her last surgery at the local hospital to see how she tolerated it there. And the answer was that she tolerated it — at least until she got into recovery, which was where she said she tried to remove it.

But all of that took time and someone else got in the queue ahead of her, so she didn't go in until about 10:50 AM. They told us to expect her to be in there for 4-6 hours. Paul called to update me around mid-afternoon, to say things were going well — about as they expected. But when I hadn't heard anything more by 5 PM, I was getting a little worried.

Paul finally called at around 6 PM, while we were waiting for Rosie to finish softball practice up at the Complex. He said it went pretty well, that she got through the surgery okay—quadruple bypass (instead of triple) and they did replace the iffy valve with a mechanical one. He said she'd probably be kind of out of it and would likely be on the ventilator for 5-6 hours, but was expected to do okay. I asked him to give me a call and an update this morning.

The update this morning wasn't so encouraging. Mom's in ICU and they can't seem to get her blood pressure back up. They've gave her 3 units of blood overnight and are using four medications to try to get her pressure up where it should be. According to Paul, they're giving her "maximum support." She's also got some kind of external pacemaker and is still on the ventilator, in that kind of dopey, post-op haze. So she may not even know what's going on, although Paul says she turns toward my sister Betsy's voice and wiggles her toes.

Meanwhile, Kathleen — who is probably the world's most efficient Googler when it comes to medical stuff — found this, which may or may not be relevant, although Mom does have a bunch of the risk factors they associate with it:

Postoperative bradyarrhythmias, heart rhythm disturbances where the heart beats too slow, require permanent pacemaker implantation in 0.8 to 4 percent of patients. Risk factors include concomitant valve surgery, older age, preexisting bundle branch block (abnormalities in the conduction system that alter the flow of electrical impulses through the heart), certain solutions used to arrest the heart beat during surgery, and long duration of time on the heart-lung machine.

And a few minutes ago, I ran into Sandra — my colleague, friend and boss — out in the hall, and she told me that her father had gone through a similar thing after his bypass surgery (including getting "Code Blue" and the paddles three times) and he got through it okay, although the first few days were touch and go.

So both of those things give me some cause for hope. Which reminds me, and RN named Hope, who actually works in a cardiothoracic ICU and is a member of one of Captain Marvel e-mail lists I belong to, also sent me an encouraging private note this morning.

Mike just called and gave me an update: They backed off one of the meds by 50% and nothing changed, which they think is a good thing (as opposed to her pressure dropping, I suppose). They also said she's able to breath a little on her own, but that they'll keep her on "assisted breathing" for now so her body doesn't get exhausted from just trying to breathe. And basically, the message is that while this isn't common, it's not unusual either. Some people take longer to recover after you saw open their sternum, stop their heart and hook them to a machine for a few hours. Imagine that.

In any case, there are a lot of folks out here who are pulling for, praying for, thinking about and sending good thoughts for my mom, and that's very much appreciated. Now all she's gotta do is get well so I can tell her about all the attention she's been getting...

20 March 2006

The Legend of Arnold

March 24, 2016: I originally posted this a little more than ten years ago (March 20, 2006) on a MySpace blog. It was during a kind of outburst of enthusiasm for blogging on my part, across that and this site. When MySpace decided to shut down their blogging feature, they let users download their old posts. I grabbed mine—there only were three—and am reposting them here, in the correct spot on the "timeline," but annotated to explain where they came from.

Back in the late seventies, I was a freelance artist/designer. One of my regular gigs was as the "Advertising Assistant" at the St. Croix Boom Company, a former bowling alley, turned night club on Main Street, Stillwater, Minnesota.

I had an apartment directly across the street from the Boom Co., upstairs from the printer that did most of their advertising materials. It was a handy place to be, both for access to the club and to deliver the artwork when it was ready to go. An older guy named Arnold

Anyway, Arnold was slowly descending into mental illness. He was quite open about how he got messages about his life over the radio and from the jukebox that non-existent people were coming to visit him, or were out to get him and eventually he just snapped.

It was a Sunday, and all afternoon I was hearing this kind of flat "crack" noise coming from Arnold's apartment. It sounded like someone slapping a broomstick down on a counter. I didn't know whether he had a gun, but decided it probably was better NOT to go over there and ask. So I went about my business.

Late that afternoon, a buddy of mine Tom "Jake" Jacobson who'd recently gotten out of the Marine Corps came by to visit, and I asked him if that sound could be gunshots.

"Nahh," he told me. Still, I was starting to wonder.

Jake left, and a few hours later, my roommate, Greg Johnson, got home. I heard him running up the stairs, then he slammed the door and locked it and said something to the effect of, "That crazy SOB is shooting up the place back there!"

We were still discussing what to do when the knock came at the door. We decided not to open it and to pretend that nobody was home.

After a lot of knocking, then a lot of uncomfortable silence, we heard Arnold head down the stairs toward the street. We turned off the lights behind us and peeked around the curtains, out the window.

Yes, Arnold was carrying a pistol in his hand. He took a couple of random shots at streetlights (he missed), glanced up at our window, then he went into the Boom Co., across the street.

We immediately called the bar and got Tony, the manager on the line. I asked him if Arnold was there.


I asked if he had a gun.


I asked if I should call the police.

"No, that probably wouldn't be a good idea right now."

I asked what we should do.

"Why don't I get back to you on that."


I found out later what was going on. Arnold had come into the place, sat down at the bar, and put a couple of rounds into the wall in the middle of an old horse collar that was hanging above the bar "to let them know he was serious."

Then he started rambling about how the messages from the radio and jukebox weren't letting him sleep, how he hadn't eaten for days, how people were coming over and standing outside of his door and banging pans together when he was trying to sleep, how my roommate was sneaking into Arnold's apartment with strange women and having sex with them in the shower, how he thought I was "okay" when I first moved in up there, but now he knew I was "the cabbage man," and that he knew Tony was "in it" with me.

Obviously, no one wants to hear a guy with a gun talking like that.

Fortunately, being a Sunday night with no band playing, there were only a handful of folks in the place, among them a guy we all called "Crazy Eddie." Eddie's father was a successful businessman (I think he owned a car dealership), but Eddie himself was more of a ne'er-do-well and a local character. He was the kind of guy who drank too much every night, and who might try to punch out a window at your apartment as he was leaving a party, while at the same time thanking you for inviting him. You were never quite sure what he was going to do. But he was also a fiercely loyal friend to Tony and saw himself as kind of a guardian angel of the Boom Co. in general.

So Eddie sat down at the bar right next to Arnold.

"Nice piece, Arnie. Can I see it?"

Arnold handed him the gun!

Eddie empathized with Arnold's troubles for a minute, then suggested they walk up to the Oasis Café (just up the highway outside of downtown) to get something to eat. Arnold said okay. Eddie put the gun in his pocket, and they headed out. Tony called the police.

Arnold never got to the Oasis, but presumably they fed him at the jail.

As it turned out, Arnold had a whole arsenal back in his apartment. He'd spent the afternoon shooting up a makeshift skylight he had in the ceiling there, and when he got tired of that, he shot out the window that overlooked the back roof, where we'd walk out to drop our trash into the dumpster below.

He told the police he'd shot "someone" out there, and as they came up the stairs to check out his story, I heard one of them complaining, "I don't need this on a Sunday night." I had to wonder what night would have been any better?

Fortunately, there was no body out there, it was just another of Arnold's delusions. The police confiscated all of the guns, and Arnold went away to the psych ward on the eighth floor of St. Paul-Ramsey Hospital for a couple of months.

During Arnold's stay over there, I got a call from Tony. Arnold's doctor wanted Tony and I to come over and "visit" with Arnold, as part of his treatment. We got there, and one of the things that the doctor told us to prepare us was that Arnold told him he'd been part of a "mop-up" squad during WWII, that went around knocking on doors in German towns, then shooting whoever answered.

I have no idea whether that was true, or if there even was such a thing, but the troubling part was that Arnold THOUGHT it was true, and that he'd come knocking on MY door with a pistol in his hand.

The meeting was...interesting. Arnold basically glared at us the whole time, while the doctor asked him questions like, "You know now that these fellows aren't any sort of threat to you, right?" and "You don't want to hurt them, do you?" Arnold answered in monosyllables, obviously saying whatever it was he thought seemed likely to get him out of there.

I left convinced that if Arnold DID get out, I was going to have to move. And sure enough, a few weeks later, we got word that he was coming back, and that our well-meaning landlady was going to allow him to move back into the same apartment.

Arnold was going to be on medication that supposedly would keep him "normal," and there was going to be a van that would pick him up every couple of days to take him to get the shot, since he couldn't be trusted to take that medication on his own.

Greg O'Malley who was also living downtown, at the north end of Main Street in a place that had become known as "The Ghetto," basically swapped apartments with us, because he didn't figure in any of Arnold's paranoid fantasies and didn't think he'd be in any danger from the guy. O'Malley's place was far enough away that I figured there was enough distance to keep me out of Arnold's way and off his radar.

Eventually Arnold started missing his meds and getting weird again. I heard he once again was stockpiling weapons from St. Croix Outfitters, which was only about half a block from his apartment. And legendary Boom Co. bartender Mike Seggelke, who was kind of Arnold's self-appointed minder for a while, took GREAT delight in looking over my shoulder and saying, "Oh, hi Arnie," when Arnold was nowhere to be seen.

Eventually Arnold had the hemorrhage or whatever it was that killed him, and I guess they found him under the outside steps behind John's Bar, next door to the print shop over which he still had his apartment.

The story went around for a few hours that I'd killed him, and I suppose that might have sounded believable since Arnold was found outdoors and since a number of people had heard my roommate and I promise one another (always after a few drinks) that if Arnold got the other guy, the survivor would get Arnold.

But I was a dozen miles away, at work, when it all happened. No Mark, no ice pick, and a rather mundane ending to what was a pretty unusual time.

Doin' those things we do

With three daughters, it seems like our family has something going on every night, and some nights different things for each daughter: volunteering at church and their schools, Kathleen running three Girl Scout troops, me serving as the president and she as secretary of the board of the local girls' softball club. So we kind of go through life juggling.

One of the things that really helps is finding friends and other parents who are willing to pitch in, to volunteer with the troops or the club, to pick up or drop off our kids, or to just have them spend the night before they're all supposed to go someplace.

This weekend has been a pretty good example. On Friday night after work, Kathleen drove over to Grand Ledge top watch Rosie perform in the high school concert band competition, while I went home and fell asleep in the recliner.

I was supposed to be taking Emmy and her friend Alisha shopping for the various supplies they were going to need the next morning for the softball club round-up and pancake breakfast, an event that they organized as their Silver Award project for Girl Scouts. But it was a long and busy week, so I dozed off. And Emmy let me sleep until Kathleen got home.

Then we all went out and did the shopping—Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Kroger and Meijer, each place for different things that the girls had researched and identified as the best prices for what we were going to need—after which we went over to the high school to pick up Rosie at a little after 10 PM when the bus brought her and the rest of the band back from Grand Ledge. (They did well over there, BTW—scored all "ones," which is the top score.)

When we got home, we unpacked all the groceries and then repacked and arranged them with the roaster oven, the griddle, a couple of coolers, various utensils and other stuff we were going to need the next day. By around 11 PM, the rest of us went to bed, while Emmy and Alisha stayed up and worked on some posters. Alisha spent the night at our house, so we all could be back at the high school at 7:30 AM to start setting up for the breakfast.

That meant we were up at about 5:30 AM on Saturday to get everyone ready and pack the cars, so we could be over at the high school a little before 7:30. But it was worth it. We had a little better turnout than we'd hoped for (we planned for about 75 and got about 80), signed up 30 girls (including a handful of newcomers to the club—more registrations this early than any time in recent memory), and made back all of our expenses plus about a hundred bucks, which was good because this was intended as a marketing event, not a fundraiser, and it was possible that it would end up costing us money.

Best of all were all the coaches and parents who came out and volunteered, assuring that everyone got fed and that anyone with any questions about teams or leagues could get them answered by someone who was actually involved in the club.

After getting everything cleaned up and cleared out, we went home and put away all of the stuff. I updated the club website, then headed back out to take Emmy (and her friend Elena) shopping for an outfit to wear to the symphony on her middle school band trip to Chicago this coming weekend.

Emmy is a good kid, and has learned to be responsible about stuff like this. She actually did the research online and found some slacks and a shirt that were on sale at JCPenney. As it turned out, she got a different shirt—silk, regularly $50, marked down to $15—and the slacks that were on sale for $20 were marked down to $15 as well. Kathleen picked up a couple of other things, and that totaled enough to reach the $50 threshold, which meant we could use a $10 off coupon that the cashier directed us to. Then we got 15% off the final price for using the Penney's card. By the time we left the store, I was wondering if they were going to have to pay us to carry the stuff away!

Next it was down to the Girl Scout cookie booth at Sam's Club on the south end of town, where Emmy and Elena had to work for two hours. When Emmy got home, we took her over to Alisha's house to spend the night. (She was invited for dinner as well, but they were having fish and Emmy doesn't like fish, so she kinda dragged her feet. As you might imagine, Fridays during Lent are tough on her.)

Next I headed over to Kroger to do a little more grocery shopping—we'd invited some friends to join us for a late St. Patrick's Day celebration with corned beef and cabbage on Sunday night. By the time I got home, I fell into bed and didn't get up until nearly 8 the next morning.

It was actually a pretty quiet morning on Sunday. I checked my e-mail, did another update on the website, had some breakfast, got a shower, then headed over to the high school again for the weekly softball skills clinics.

It was a beautiful morning, a little chilly, but bright sunshine and whiff of spring floating on the breeze. So naturally we spent the next couple of hours indoors. But it was a useful couple of hours, probably the best single day we ever had at the clinics in terms of kids attending and coaches and parents showing up to help out.

We had a huge crop of first-time pitchers, and that’s a good thing. Most of them were girls who will be playing U10 this summer—the age when they start pitching—and one of the goals we have is to develop not only players, but pitchers who can one day pitch on the high school teams. Pitchers win the games for you in softball, and the more we develop, the more successful both our program and the high school program will be in coming years. We also had two batting cages going in the auxiliary gym, and a handful of coaches in there, taking them through some work on the batting tees, then soft toss, and then into the cage. Good pitching is important, but you have to score runs to win as well.

Emmy and Alisha missed the clinics this week, because they were working at the cookie booth. Rosie brought her friend Kam, who is playing softball for the first time on the high school team. Sarah was there as well, her usual autonomous self, going from station to station on her own, working on her hitting, her throwing and her catching.

I heard good things about all three girls who were there.

Rosie’s summer coach told me she saw improvement in Rosie since the last clinics two weeks ago, most likely attributable to her practicing every day with the high school team. None of my daughters are particularly gifted when it comes to natural athletic ability, so it makes me proud when they work hard and are successful as they’ve been.

I heard from two different coaches that Kam was doing well, and that she listens when they coach her and seems to pick stuff up pretty fast. She’s a martial artist and a good learner, so I’m confident she has what it takes to be a good player, despite her lack of experience.

And Sarah’s coach said she did a great job in the batting cage, really hitting the ball. That was good, because she didn’t hit much last year, although in the tournament, when they really needed a hit from her to keep the rally going at the end of the championship game, she came through and they won.

After the clinic, I headed back out to the grocery store. I’d invited Alisha’s family to join us for dinner as well, so now we were up to 14 people and I needed a couple more things. Then it was back home to make Irish soda bread and rice pudding. I had the corned beef already cooking in two crockpots up on the counters and a big casserole dish in the oven, each one with a different mix of vegetables; cabbage, red potatoes, carrots and onions. There was even a little garlic in one dish, although I’m not sure garlic is typically part of Irish cooking. But I find it hard to cook without garlic.

Meanwhile, Kathleen worked on laundry and finished cleaning the house, then was off to the cookie booth again, from 4-6 PM.

People started showing up at 7, we served the food by 7:30, and everyone was fed and on the way home by around 10. We didn’t play Apples to Apples, which disappointed Rosie, but these are folks we really like, so it was good just sitting with them, talking and kind of unwinding. Kathleen and I worked on the dishes, and for the first time since Thursday night, we went to bed with all of our daughters home and with no extras.

Anyway, I was reminded over the weekend that I’ve been working somewhere for the last 36 years, since I was 14 years old.

I started in a movie theater as a janitor and an usher for $15 a week back in 1969, and helped out a friend of mine at a local bakery a few times a week, in return for him helping out at the theater on particularly busy days. From there I went to work in a bed factory, at a ski resort, and back to the theater again, this time as assistant manager.

In the early seventies, I tried going to college for a few years, but bailed out in flames in early 1976 because my heart wasn’t in it and my GPA was bottoming out. I stumbled across a temporary job in a community college bookstore in March of that year, and parlayed that into a regular civil service job there by August, after spending the summer working on the river boat.

That December I began freelancing as a advertising designer, brought a friend of mine out from NYC to help me manage the workload in fall of 1977, and eventually opened up a Studio 1050 in downtown St. Paul for a couple of years in the early eighties, where I hired a variety of freelancers, including, for a time, my dad. I closed the studio but kept freelancing when I went back to college to finally get my degree, and kept working in the bookstore at least three-quarter time during the entire period, even when I eventually went to work on a retainer as an art director for a direct marketing company in Minneapolis for a few years. Then I was hired by the Foreign Service in late 1988.

I served in the Foreign Service—in both Washington, DC and Mexico City—until summer of 1993, getting married to Kathleen (who was a fellow officer) and having two kids along the way. When we left government service and moved to Texas, I became “Mr. Mom,” but also opened a home-based business called River City Advertising and freelanced for local businesses around central Texas, as well as for a I guy I knew from back in Minneapolis, who was now out in San Diego.

When we moved to Indiana, we had a third daughter and I kept on as Mr. Mom, but continued freelancing (dumping the River City name and going back to calling myself Studio 1050).

And a few months after we moved up to Michigan, I started freelancing here as well, picking up a contract with a local school district that ran from just before Thanksgiving to mid-March. A year later I got hired by Michigan State, which was the end of being Mr. Mom. But I still do some freelance work for my pal out in San Diego.

People tell me I’m a team player and that I work hard. I think I do a good job at the things I undertake. I’ll also admit to being an organizer, but I like to think that’s because when I see something that needs doing, I want to help get it done. And if I can get others to join me, it’s going to get done quicker.

My oldest daughter and I were talking about softball this weekend, and one of the things that came up was another player who was on one of our teams—a skilled, even gifted athlete—who I always thought had the capacity to be a leader, but who never led. And we talked about another girl who was on the same team who had a lot less skill, but who was never afraid to speak up and take charge when the team started to lose its focus.

I have no idea what it is that makes people do what they do. I don’t think people set out to be leaders (or not be leaders), I think they just respond as they’re able to the needs of situations in which they find themselves—they offer what they have.

Kathleen and I have been married for 16+ years now, and when people say that’s pretty good, I tell them that our secret is that I just do what I’m told. And while that might be a bit of an exaggeration, that is my comfort zone. I’d much rather have someone else do the thinking and the planning and just tell me what they need me to do. I’d rather be part of the team. But that’s not always possible in every situation, so when something needs to get done and no one is stepping forward, I’ll go ahead and do it and try to get others to join me.

And near as I can tell, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 36 years.

17 March 2006

Another look at a story...

March 24, 2016: This one is kinda strange. It was originally posted on a MySpace blog and referred readers back to this blog. But now that MySpace has dropped their blogging feature, I'm moving the handful of posts I was able to download over there to this site. Anyway, following is the original post, including the editorial comment at the top:

Earlier today I posted a story over on my Studio 1050 site about a trip on the St. Croix River aboard the Jubilee II, back in the summer of 1976. As I was poking around my archives here, I realized that I'd written about it back in 2002 as well. It was interesting to note the differences. I still think I remember it, but in terms of a couple of details, I don't remember it exactly the same way now as I did then.

I was a deckhand on the Jubilee II, a paddleboat on the St. Croix River back in the summer of 1976.

One time we had an afternoon excursion with about 200 folks from a nearby nursing home aboard. For whatever reason, the captain decided he was going to pilot the boat that afternoon, even though we had a couple of the regular pilots along.

We were waiting to go through a railroad bridge in a narrow channel down by Hudson, WI, and the captain steered that big, flat-bottomed boat right up onto the sand of a nearby island, while making way for a barge or something to go through.

Well, the captain had a few drinks in him (as was often the case), and instead of asking one of the more experienced guys for advice, he just put the thing in full reverse.

Now think about the way that paddlewheels work. When you're going forward, they kick all kinds of water back behind the boat. So when you put them in reverse, that water goes into the engine room.

Of course the captain is in the pilot house, two decks above, and he has no idea that water is pouring out from under the doors of the engine room and flooding the main deck. The old folks are beside themselves, near panic, thinking we're going down.

We explain to them that we're ALREADY on the bottom, that's why the captain is trying so hard to back us out, but that doesn't do much to reassure them.

Anyway, one of the pilots goes up and throws the captain out of the pilot house, takes control, and with a delicate manipulation of the two paddlewheels, manages to get us off the sand and back out into the channel.

The other deckhand and I start cleaning up the water (there were only a couple of inches at the worst), and the captain settles the passengers down in his usual inimitable style: He opens up the bar and offers free drinks to everyone.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day

Okay, so it turns out that I did write about seeing the leprechauns. I just had to burrow deeper into the archives to find it. Here's what I wrote back in 2001, about my time in Northern Ireland, more than 40 years earlier:

I was pretty young. My dad was in the Foreign Service (or the diplomatic corps or whatever you want to call it) and he was assigned to the consulate in Belfast as a vice consul (visa officer) back in spring of 1957.

We lived in a government-rented house in Bangor, a little ways outside of Belfast, that had a good-sized yard, holly hedges all the way around, and a "fairy tree" in the back yard. Behind that, there was a small apple orchard. Inside, there was no central heat, so we had coal-burning fireplaces in the main rooms, and kerosene heaters in the hallways. There was a coal bin around back, and a coal scuttle by each fireplace.

This was apparently during a lull in the Troubles, since no one was shooting at anyone else, and the Orangemen (the Protestants) could have their annual parade (which I attended with my dad, at least once) and no one reacted badly.

I recall riding on one of those double-decker buses (but being disappointed that we didn't go up on top), taking the Picky Walk down to the ocean and seeing thatched roof cottages along the way (although it was always gray out, and never warm enough to go in the water once we got down there). I recently discovered that MapQuest works for locations outside the USA, and had it map our old neighborhood. I was surprised to find out how close to the sea we actually were.

There was a guy who came around at dusk to light the gas lamps on the street outside of our house, and a guy from the bakery would come around to the door every couple of days with a big tray of baked goods (I liked to take one of my parents' trays and pretend to be the baker).

It all seemed very normal and unremarkable to me at the time (I was about Sarah's age when we left), but looking back on it now, I'm amazed by how old-fashioned it all was by comparison to what I encountered when we moved back to the United States.

Oh, and there were the two occasions when I saw leprechauns.

I don't quite know how to explain them—as I say, I was pretty young—but I remember (or at least I remember remembering) seeing a tiny man with a wrinkled face and a pointed leather cap sitting inside one of the holly hedges around our garden, watching me one afternoon. I didn't find it particularly remarkable at the time—I was a kid, and fairies and leprechauns were things I heard about from my parents all the time, so seeing one in a place where I'd always heard they were didn't seem like such a big deal.

Anyway, he was there for a while, with his chin in his hands and his head kind of tipped, then he was gone.

At the end of our time there, when we were on the train, beginning our journey south, where we'd board the SS America and return to the States. After we'd pulled out of the railroad station, I saw another little man alongside the railroad tracks. He waved to me and I waved back—that was that. But I swear he would have been no more than up to the knee of the various railroad porters and others that I'd just seen out the same window as we left the station.

Of course, I can think up all kinds of reasonable explanations now for what I saw then, but I guess I'd prefer not to. Better to have seen the leprechauns.

Who I am—or was, nearly 20 years ago

Back in 1988, I was jumping through various hoops and over the obstacles that they put in front of you if you want to join the Foreign Service, something I kind of thought of as "the family business," since my dad had been a Foreign Service officer when I was a kid. One of the requirements was to submit a "narrative autobiography." Here's mine:

I suppose every little boy imagines his own adulthood by observing his father and deciding to be just like dad. My earliest memories are of living in Northern Ireland, where my father was a vice-consul in Belfast. If Dad had been a lawyer or a businessman, I would have wanted to be a lawyer or businessman, but because he was in the Foreign Service, that was my first goal too.

But, like every other kid in the world, I changed my mind as I got older. Over the course of the years I wanted to be a cowboy, a lawyer, a comic book artist, a teacher, a commercial artist, a writer, and finally... a Foreign Service officer.

I was born May 11, 1955 in the Colony of Gibraltar, my dad's second post. The backdrops to my first four years of life changed with my dad's assignments: back to the States, Washington, DC and Northern Ireland. When he resigned in 1959, we returned to the United States on an ocean liner, crossed the country in a Volkswagen bus, and settled down in Minnesota. That's not a huge amount of travel, but it was enough to convince me of two things that stayed with me: the world is a bigger place than just my hometown, and the world is a smaller place when you've had a chance to be out in it.

We ended up in Stillwater, Minnesota, the kind of place where people tend to underestimate Norman Rockwell, because it looks like all he ever did was paint scenes of our town. The image of the United States that I'd brought home was primarily a result of the only American TV show the Irish station carried: "The Lone Ranger." I knew I was an American, so I supposed I wanted to grow up to be a cowboy—a good one that fought for justice, of course.

I went to public school and did pretty well. I discovered a couple American institutions: baseball, a game of rules and strategy, and Perry Mason, who used rules and strategy to discover the truth in a TV courtroom every week. Since I was a good student and only an average athlete, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother was thrilled.

In junior high I was in the band, on the baseball team, and editor of the school paper. I was a Boy Scout for a while, won an American Legion award, and got a paper route. The paper route allowed me to indulge in the major vice of my life: collecting comic books. So in ninth grade, when assigned a social studies report on what career each of us wanted to pursue, I wrote about becoming a comic book artist. It sounded like the kind of job that would allow me to be creative and work in a field that fascinated me.

When I got into high school, I discovered girls and rock 'n' roll, got rebellious, and let my hair grow long so I could be different—just like everyone else. Mom and Dad hated it. The only adults with whom I had regular contact that didn't seem to be bothered by the length of my hair, were my teachers. I figured there must be something about teaching that keeps a person's brain receptive to new ideas, and decided that education was the career for me.

In spite of my show of rebelliousness, I graduated from high school with honors, and after a year off, enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

I probably shouldn't have taken the year off, or I probably should have taken more years off right away. In any case, by the time I'd stumbled through about two and a half years of college, I'd managed to achieve a miserably low GPA, amass about a year's worth of credits, and rack up a formidable list of incompletes. I left before they could ask me to.

It was winter 1976, I was twenty-one years old, and I hadn't a clue what I wanted to do.

I have to assume that there was some kind of auto-pilot buried in my subconscious that helped me make some of the decisions I made after dropping out. I was not qualified to do much, but I'd recently held a job in the college bookstore at River Falls. It was blind luck that on the morning I woke up and decided to look for some kind of job, there were two bookstores advertising in the "help wanted" section of the paper. One was a nearby B. Dalton; the other the bookstore at Lakewood Community College. The B. Dalton job was permanent, full-time. The Lakewood Bookstore job was two weeks, temporary, with the possibility of regular employment developing by fall. In spite of my disaffection with college, I pursued and got the Lakewood job. I never followed up on the other one.

When the initial two weeks were up, the manager offered me a full- time position beginning in August. I accepted without hesitation. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was forcing myself to reexamine my feelings about college by once again making a commitment to one. It worked. The daily exposure to books, teachers, and people who were excited by learning and committed to the educating process eventually seduced me.

It took six and a half years, but in fall of 1982 I went down to River Falls during the first week of school, convinced the registrar that this time I'd be a good risk, and re-enrolled.

There was only one regret in going back to school. During my hiatus I'd begun doing freelance commercial art, first for a local nightclub, and eventually a wide variety of clients in the Twin Cities' entertainment industry. By 1981, I'd set up a studio in St. Paul with a friend of mine, and had expanded to include more mainstream advertising and T-shirt design. Had I not gone back to school, I was determined to carve out a career as a commercial artist, as the head of my own agency. But school was something I'd left undone, the studio was small, and I wanted that education. Drawing is something you do with your hands, and my brain wanted something to do.

It took four years to get the mess I'd left behind straightened out. I attended school part-time, worked at Lakewood part-time, and slept part-time.

I'm proud of the job I did at River Falls. As an English major/ professional writing minor, I dragged my GPA to within a fraction of 3.5 (of a possible 4), won two departmental scholarship awards, was a runner-up for a third, won a national writing contest sponsored by the National Association of College Stores, was vice-president of the local chapter of Kappa Sigma (the English honor society), and was awarded a gold R (a merit award) upon graduation in 1986.

As I worked through those four years, I discovered I had a facility for writing, and considered a career as a professional writer. However, writing always seemed to be more a tool to use in the practice of other jobs, rather than a job unto itself. I reviewed my interests and options and tried to decide what career I should aim for after graduation.

I'd been taking a lot of geography, history, and political science classes as electives, primarily because that kind of thing interests me. I love to read the paper, the editorials, the news magazines, the debates in the media over policies and ideas. I'm fascinated when National Public Radio or the Canadian Broadcasting Company focus on a particular region or country for an extended report. I like to know what's going on out there in the world.

And sometimes what's going on makes me mad. Sometimes I say to myself, "What can the people who made that decision be thinking? That's certainly not what I'd do!"

Sometime in 1985, I realized what I wanted to do. I signed up to take the Foreign Service exam. My reasons go all the way back to when I was a kid, and they still are the things that motivate me today. They might look a little silly and idealistic on paper, but I guess sometimes our aspirations do.

I realized that I want a job where a person can work for his or her ideals, like the Lone Ranger fought for justice and Perry Mason used his strategies and the rules to discover truth. I want a job like my teachers had, where I'll have to keep my mind open and not be misled by superficial appearances, a job where learning about new things and meeting new people are important elements. I want a job like an artist or a writer, where what you have to offer depends as much on what's inside of you as what you can do, a job working with the things that fascinate you.

Let's have a reality break for a second. I understand that we're talking about a bureaucracy here. But remember, I've worked in one for over eleven years now. My job at Lakewood is a civil service position. I understand that one person doesn't march in and turn things inside out or upside down to satisfy some personal whim to tilt at windmills. Thank heavens.

The size and inertia innate in a bureaucracy can function as both its strength and its weakness. If change could be caused too easily or occur too readily, the system would be in a constant state of flux, or worse, collapse into chaos. If a change is desirable, it will occur as a result of a consensus. It will occur slowly, and by increments, allowing the entire system to adjust to the change. Ideally, of course. This is supposed to be a reality break.

I've got this Frank Capra-esque notion that if you want to change things, you do it by getting into the system and trying to make it work the way it's supposed to, not by standing around on the outside complaining.

So when I add all of it up, I end up back where I started. I want to be a Foreign Service officer. I knew it thirty years ago when I was a little kid in Ireland, I just didn't have a good set of reasons. I think I do now.

The one thing I didn't mention in the above, that also played a significant role in my career choice at the time is that during my next-to-last year at River Falls, I'd pretty much settled on taking the LSAT and then going on to law school. However, when the time to register for the test rolled around, I noticed that it was the same Saturday in December when they were offering the Foreign Service Exam. More important, it cost $50 to take the LSAT and the Foreign Service Exam was free. I was a college student and money was always tight. So that Saturday in December, I kept my $50 and the world gained a diplomat—for a while at least—and was spared another attorney.

The significance of 1961

People who know me often get the impression that I'm a collector, because I have a lot of stuff: books, comic books, old toys, records, whatever. But the truth is, I'm more of an accumulator, or as some might say, a pack-rat. Every time I see one of these professional organizers (or "clutter-busters" or whatever they call themselves) on TV or in the paper talking about how we all need to get rid of all of our old stuff because it somehow traps or imprisons us, I just cringe.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: All of that "stuff" is my external memory. And the "human need to collect" runs strong in me, as my wife will tell you.

The same holds true for e-mails. Lots of folks think I'm crazy because I don't delete my old e-mails—I archive them instead. Reading back through them—especially the ones I wrote, which are almost like a journal or diary at times—helps me "see" what I was doing and where I was at those times, kinda like the way hearing an old song will sometimes remind you of a person or a place from back when.

I've been looking through old e-mails today to see if I've ever written about the leprachaun sightings I experienced as a kid in Northern Ireland. So far it seems that I didn't, but I keep running across other interesting stuff, which is why I'm posting so much today.

While talking with other collectors (or accumulators) a while back, we noted that many of us seem to have a particular affinity for a certain year or years.

For example, I seem to have an affection for things from 1961. Comics, toys, catalogs, baseball cards, stuff like that.

It's difficult to sort out exactly what 1961 represents to me, but it feels like it was an important time in my young life. In a lot of ways, it was the year I became an American—that I settled into the culture—even though I already was one by birth. I'd lived overseas for about half my life until 1959, but it wasn't until 1961 that we stopped moving around and I started to feel like I belonged somewhere and was part of something bigger than my immediate family.

We moved into our own house in May of that year, after having lived with the grandparents (on both sides) for nearly two years after we returned from Northern Ireland. I started making a circle of friends in my new neighborhood, some of whom I'm still friends with today. My sense of belonging somewhere, embracing the place I grew up, and the role those things payed in shaping my identity really began to solidify that year.

My home state, Minnesota, got a professional baseball team that year, my grandpa started teaching me how to play baseball, I discovered comic books and baseball cards, I discovered the Sears and Wards Christmas catalogs, I started watching a lot more TV. I played cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood kids, and I learned their games like kickball, tag, ditch, kick the can and the rest.

I suppose it was a transitional year between what I'd been (a Foreign Service brat with no roots) and what I'd become (a Minnesota boy, more specifically a Stillwater boy, who lived in a very Catholic neighborhood on the South Hill), and subconsciously that made a deep impression.

The weird thing is, I didn't set out to collect stuff from 1961, it was just a pattern I saw developing over time when I looked at the things I was starting to accumulate.

For some reason, 1965 resonates in my collecting as well, but not as much. I haven't given that as much thought, but if I did, I'd guess that it was the year I started "growing up," although I was only 10 years old. But it was also the year the Twins went to their first World Series, the year I really got into Marvel Comics, my last year in elementary school...

But I guess I can dissect that another time.

Clayton Moore: The Lone Ranger

When Clayton Moore died back in 1999, some online friends and I got to talking about what he'd meant to us, growing up in that cowboy-drenched era of the late fifties and early sixties. Here's what I had to say:

Back in 1957, my dad was a vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was just old enough to have started watching TV, and during the week my favorite show was "Watch With Mother," an innocuous package of benign marionettes and cute creatures. But come Saturday afternoon, it was something decidedly more exciting: "The Lone Ranger" and his blazing six guns, which, besides being a completely new kind of thrill for me, also provided my first introduction to the culture of my native country.

My first lessons in telling time came from the Lone Ranger—if I recall correctly, the show aired at 2 PM on Saturday afternoons, and I knew exactly where the hands on the clock had to be when it was time for that show.

Then from our living room in Bangor, I'd sit transfixed and learn about the United States and what it stood for, ironically, not from my Foreign Service father (who was actually representing our country abroad), but from the Masked Rider of the Plains.

Besides being my first exposure to abstract notions like justice and living by a personal code, I also became convinced that everyone back home (which was really just a hazy memory to me) lived in log cabins. So I was sorely disappointed when we finally returned to the States in 1959 to discover that my grandparents' house was really just clapboard siding. (Well, it WAS horizontal like the logs...)

There was no question of my devotion. When I go back and look at my dad's slides of Christmas in 1958, there I am, 3½ years old in full Lone Ranger regalia and mask, riding my hobby horse and pointing my chrome six guns at the camera.

Back in the States during the years that followed, I discovered new heroes—first Popeye, then Superman, and later Spider-Man. But despite these new, colorful characters, I never lost sight of my very first hero, the Lone Ranger.

Throughout the early and mid-sixties, I rarely missed the program. Even when our television was on the fritz (a relatively common occurrence), you'd find me at my grandmother's house at 5:30 in the afternoon, ready for my daily dose of those "golden days of yesteryear."

One Christmas, Santa Claus left me the Aurora model kit of the Lone Ranger, which I assembled immediately. Then I took that model into my dad's study where it became more than plastic and paint—I could listen to Dad's scratchy, old recording of "The William Tell Overture" over and over, and astride Silver, the Lone Ranger would leap across the plains of my imagination, in eternal pursuit of unseen outlaws, as in those wonderful opening credits.

About a dozen years ago, I had to write an essay, as part of the application process to enter the Foreign Service, like my father before me. In that essay, I reflected on the heroes of my childhood, and how they'd taught me that an individual can make a difference in the world—how I hoped to do that myself in some small way, if I entered government service. Of course, foremost among those whom I mentioned was the Lone Ranger.

So I guess no one will never call me an intellectual—when I hear that music I always think of the Masked Man first, and of the hours of enjoyment and the lessons I learned from that show and from Clayton Moore, the man who was the Lone Ranger.

The Jubilee

While I was looking for something else this morning, I ran across a note from my old pal Swany (a/k/a Danny Swanson). He's not much of an "online chatguy" (to use his own words), but a few years back he e-mailed me an article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that revealed the ultimate fate of the riverboat—Jubilee II—that I worked on back in the summer of 1976.

Here’s the story:

PIONEER PRESS Posted on Tue, Dec. 09, 2003
STILLWATER: Onetime St. Croix craft sinks off Florida coast

The Jubilee, a paddleboat formerly owned by the St. Croix Boat and Packet Co. in Stillwater, sank last week in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida.

The 100-foot-long, flat-bottomed paddleboat got caught in bad weather on Wednesday and could not navigate the waves that ranged as high as 7 feet, said Petty Officer Robert Suddarth of the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The seas were rough, and they were having trouble with propulsion because the paddle kept getting knocked out of the water," he said.

Coast Guard officers rescued the Jubilee's crew of four after the boat began taking on water about 65 miles northwest of Tampa, Fla. The Coast Guard had been trying to tow the Jubilee to shore, but a big wave sank the craft about 100 miles northwest of Tampa. The crew was transported by a Coast Guard cutter to Panama City, Fla.

The Jubilee was apparently headed to Virginia via the Gulf of Mexico, Suddarth said. The new owner was not available for comment.

Dickie Anderson, owner of the St. Croix Boat and Packet Co., also was not available for comment, but a spokeswoman for the company said Anderson sold the boat at the end of October. He had owned the boat, used for tourist sightseeing and cruises on the St. Croix River, for about six years.

The Jubilee was just a flat-bottomed barge, but it had real paddlewheels, driven by a pair of big Caterpillar engines. In those days she was owned by Carr Griffith and Griffith Marine, with offices in the Lumberman's Exchange building next to Downtown Hooley's. She basically worked the St. Croix River out of Stillwater, doing as many as four cruises a day, as far north as Marine-on-the-St. Croix, and as far south as Prescott, where the St. Croix runs into the Mississippi. I worked as a deckhand on her for just one summer.

Jeff Giossi and I were hired as deckhands in early spring of 1976 by Captain John Eyles, when the boat was still tied up south of Stillwater, down near the NSP plant in the "warm channel" where it had spent the winter. (The warm channel—also known as the Alan S. King Plant discharge canal—was basically the result of NSP using river water to cool parts of the electrical plant, then discharging it back into the river. Or so I was told.) For the most part, "deckhand" is what you call the janitor on a boat.

Captain John was a character and he knew it—he'd greet us every morning the same way: "Get my f***ing boat cleaned up, g*****it!" The guy used profanity the way the rest of us use punctuation—no sentence was complete without it. And by the end of the summer, I found that my own repertoire of adjectives and exclamations had narrowed considerably as well.

The Jubilee had a small crew in those days, as well. Besides us and Captain John, there was a pilot named Fred and a guy we called the chief engineer when we weren't calling him "Old Bud." He was probably in his forties or fifties, but from the vantage point of my 21 years old, that was ancient.

Fred was a younger guy—in his twenties—and as the pilot, was responsible for "driving" the boat. I knew him from working up at the Snowcrest Ski Area the year before, where he was on the snow-making crew. He wore really thick glasses, which worried us some at first, but it turned out that he was probably the most reliable guy to have at the wheel.

Old Bud was good at whatever needed doing, had a background that included an amazing range of jobs and experiences and seemed to know at least a little about everything—which he frequently would share with us.

One morning Jeff and I were talking about that and decided we'd ask him about something so esoteric that, for a change, we'd be able to stump him. After a fair amount of discussion, we settled on padlocks—how they worked, how they were made. Turns out that Bud once worked in a padlock factory, so he launched into a 20 minute description of how that was done.

We quit testing him after that, although I was always tempted to see what he knew about nuclear reactors or cold fusion.

At some point, Jeff and I started working the cruises as well—originally all we did was clean up the boat, then go out to Square Lake for a couple of hours of snorkeling until it got back. The Captain would pay us for those hours so we wouldn't spend them drinking beer. Eventually it occurred to him that there was stuff we could do on the boat, during the cruises, and he had us start coming along.

We decided that if we were going to be stewards (or something—we weren't quite sure what were going to be doing, but we figured it was a step up from deckhand), we should have uniforms of some kind. So we went out and bought white bell-bottoms, blue and white striped t-shirts and got some sort of yellow braided cord with tassels on the ends that we used as belts. We showed up in those for a cruise and Old Bud about fell into the water, he was laughing so hard. The Captain came down to see what all the merriment was about, and told us we looked like "the Ethiopian Navy." Heck, I didn't even know Ethiopia had a navy.

As it turned out, it was the belts with the tassels that they found the most comical, so we got rid of those, but wore the shirts and bell-bottoms when we went out on cruises from that point on. Later, some of our female friends were hired to serve drinks and tend the bar on evening cruises, and they basically came up with a variation of what we wore—a white skirt and the same striped T-shirt.

I recall throwing one of them—K.D. Ryan—off the top deck and into the river when we were tied up on the levee down in Stillwater. She went plunging past an open window next to the Captain's Table, screaming at the top of her voice, while Captain John was sitting there and meeting with a prospective client. We didn't get fired, but he cussed us out pretty good. The thing is, with the quantity of expletives he used in routine conversation anyway, it was hard to tell if he was mad, or just amused.

The part in the story of the Jubilee's last voyage where the article describes her taking on water reminds me of one of the more interesting cruises we had back in the summer of 1976. It was a morning cruise, a brilliant sunny day, and a fairly large group of senior citizens from a nearby nursing home were our guests. For whatever reason, Fred wasn't available to pilot the boat that morning, so Captain John decided he would. He had his pilot's license (so did Old Bud), so he was qualified to do that.

This particular cruise went south to Hudson, where the plan was to turn around and head back upriver to Stillwater. That was a typical 90 minute cruise, and to get all the way down to the I-94 Interstate Bridge, we had to go through a narrow channel where the railroad bridge crossed the river just north of there. To open the railroad bridge, a section near the middle rotated, so only one big boat a time could go through.

Certain boats get priority, so at the wheel of a recreational boat, Captain John had to get out of the way to let them through. He headed over toward one of the islands in the middle of the river and promptly ran the Jubilee aground, nose first onto the sandy beach.

There's a right way and a wrong way to get out of a predicament like that with a sternwheeler. The wrong way is to throw both paddlewheels into full reverse, because doing so kicks water from the wheels back into the engine room. And if you keep doing it, that can be a lot of water, enough to flood the engine room entirely and start pouring out onto the lower deck. And of course that's what Captain John did.

We had quite a few seniors down there because that deck was enclosed, and they found it more comfortable than the open upper deck. At least half a dozen of them were in wheelchairs and had no choice about where to sit anyway, since there was no way for them to reach the upper deck in their chairs. And none of them were comforted by the sight of water pouring across the floor after feeling the jolt of us hitting the beach.

The natural question was, "Are we sinking?" Jeff and I assured them that we were not—that the root of the problem was that we had already encountered the bottom, and the water was a result of the paddlewheels in full reverse. But it was still a little unsettling for everyone.

By that time, Old Bud was cussing under his breath and heading up to the pilot house to take over. Captain John came down to the lower deck where he addressed the increasingly restive crowd. He said, "Open up the bar, boys—drinks are on the house!" And with that, everyone settled down while Jeff and I got out the wet-dry vacuum and started cleaning up the water.

It was a great summer, though. Jeff and I would get down to the boat at 7:30 or 8 AM so we could have it in shape in time for a 9 AM cruise, and sometimes the mist would still be rising off the water as the sun cleared the hill on the Wisconsin side. There's a rhythm to the river that gets inside of you. On board the Jubilee it was always there, kind of whispering in the background and gently rolling the deck beneath your feet. Some nights we didn't head back up the hill until nearly midnight, and the work could be hard. But it was the best "office" I ever worked in, and now it's at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

That August I went to work in the bookstore at Lakewood Community College, where I'd be for the next 12 years.

Like so much from my old hometown, the Jubilee only exists in memory now, but even after 30 years, those memories have stayed with me.

UPDATE: I was poking around in my archives and found another version of one of the stories I posted in this entry. Check here to read it: http://blog.myspace.com/mluebker

An old photo

One of these days I have to scan all of the old photos I've got sitting around at home, not to mention Dad's slides that he gave me back when he moved to Mexico in 1986 or so. (I got a slide scanner a while back, so my only excuse is that I don't manage my time well enough to actually get around to it.)

Meanwhile, I just ran across a pic that I did scan a while back, so I figured I'd try post it, in order to see how hard that might be.

“I want a blog!”

I sent an e-mail around to a handful of folks yesterday, letting them know that I'd been updating my blog. Among them were my daughters. Here's what my youngest said, in an e-mail reply titled "I want a blog!"


Could you show me how to get a blog? It seems like everyone in this house has one. What is a blog anyway? Is it kind of like a diary online that other people can read, because that's what it seems like; because you know how much I enjoy exploring cyberspace, don't you?
Spud :-)

I told her that would be fine, although we have to have a conversation about ground rules first.

I mentioned it to Kathleen this morning (she's just back from a trip to Boston) and she tells me that a lot of Spud's contemporaries (kids born in or near August '97—it's a long story, but Kathleen is on a listserv with a bunch of moms who all had babies then) have their own blogs already, so she can join an existing community and have some readers right from the start. Probably more than me!

16 March 2006

Everybody's a critic

My oldest daughter, Rosie (who's been blogging since she was about 2—actually, I think it's been a bit more than a year) is not impressed with my blog here. She's says it's "creepy" to see her daddy's face staring out of that elegant graphic up there. (Actually, she didn't say "elegant graphic," but despite being unsettled by it, she said it was a good job.)

I asked her what she thought of what I wrote, and she said "It was a lot of words, so..."


But I guess other than the words and the picture, everything is okay.

Unreasonable expectations for myself

I'm sure I don't have enough to do trying to make some occasional comments here, so naturally I started another blog. Actually, I set up one of those MySpace pages a while back, and I realized that it offered the blog space. So I figured, "Why not?" You can find it at: http://blog.myspace.com/mluebker

(Hey, I don't know what anyone else thinks, but I get the feeling that MySpace would be a place with sticky floors and the pervasive smell of cheap perfume and pheremones if it existed out here in the real world...)

Anyway, I now have two chances to forget to update a blog regularly, and that doesn't even count the one I started over on Greatest Journal so I could read my daughter's blog there...

As long as I have the space...

March 24, 2016: I originally posted this a little more than ten years ago (March 16, 2006) on a MySpace blog. It wasn't a site I used often—only three posts, then I sort of stopped. MySpace has changed a lot since then, from a sort of a sleazy alternative to Facebook to some sort of music site. Anyway, the blog feature is going away, but they were kind enough to offer folks the opportunity to download old blog entries before they turn off the lights. I grabbed those three old posts and, for the sake of keeping like things together, I'm moving them over here and dropping them in among my older posts where the originally would have appeared.

So, another blog space. 

I've been posting stuff over on Blogger from time to time, not necessarily because I'm trying to disseminate it publicly, but because it seems like my memory is getting a little dicey as I blow past 50, and I kind of appreciate the opportunity to use these online spaces as a kind of external memory, for reminiscing and recollecting stuff that I'm probably otherwise going to forget.

Before my old pal and running buddy Jim Crea died back in 1997, I told him he needed to work a little harder at staying alive, if for no other reason than because if he didn't, there was an awful lot of stuff that we did when we were younger and that we went through over the years that only I'd remember. 

And the problem with that was that I knew there'd come a time when I'd be thinking things like, "Did we really do that?" or worse yet, when I'd start forgetting things wholesale. And if no one remembers something, did it ever actually happen?

Anyway, there's also a chance that someone I knew back home might run across this and get in touch with me, and as I get older that starts to seem like it might be a good thing. (This from a guy who's never attended a class reunion.)

It's kind of irritating that when you join something like Classmates.com and you give them your info, but they don't really give you much in return. While they compile a big database of names and contact info, you don't get access to it unless you pay them. And there are already enough people with their hands in my pocket.

So even though MySpace.com smells suspiciously like a singles bar in a bad part of town, the space is here, no one has to pay to look around, and you never know who might wander in. 

Which means I'll post here occasionally and if someone who knows (or knew) me blunders across my recollections and says, "Hey, that's not how that happened," maybe they can help straighten me out before I turn into one of those intransigent old guys who "remembers" a reality that never occurred. Or not. Who knows?

Anyway, the main blog is over at http://studio1050.blogspot.com/
There's no particular plan or reason for what I post or when, but  that's also the model by which I've lived a lot of my life: let's see what happens and where inspiration takes me next.

15 March 2006

Stillwater stuff no one else is writing about...

So it's fairly obvious that I'm not going to update this very often. But that's okay, the intervals give me time to think about what I want to say next.

A little while ago I was using the Google blog search to see if I could find people writing about stuff that interests me. (Duh.) And a lot of what interests me has to do with the Stillwater, Minnesota where I grew up back in the sixties. Stillwater is a lot bigger place now—more a bedroom community for the Twin Cities than a self-sustaining town (or a tourist destination for those who still live over in the Cities)—and there are a heck of a lot more people living there than I could have imagined back then.

But somehow Stillwater seems less substantial to me now, certainly less cohesive than the place I remember, when I've gone back to visit. As I said to a guy from the Washington County Historical Society (if you aren't a member yet, JOIN!), I'm not even sure the town that I grew up in exists anymore, except maybe in people's memories and in the history books.

But the history books seem to be more interested in the early days of the community than in the Stillwater where (and when) I grew up, so I have to work a little harder to find information about things and places that I remember.

Back to the blog search. I grew up on the South Hill. So I Googled "South Hill" and "Stillwater" and nothing came up. No one has written about it. I guess that means it's my job.

Back in the sixties, a lot of local people still seemed to define themselves by where they lived—the South Hill, the North Hill, downtown, Dutchtown, whatever. The subdivisions were just beginning to sprout up—part of my paper route back then included all of Forest Hills, behind the cemetery and the "new" high school (which is now the junior high, because there's a new new high school) but for the most part the town I knew was still built on the grid of streets that started at the river and sort of faded away west of Owens or Sherburne on the west. Anything on the other side of Lily Lake or Lake McKusick was pretty much the wilderness, as far as I could tell. Those places were on the outskirts, the frontier. The same was true with Orleans Street on the south (although they built Oak Park School out in the middle of a field there, surrounded by tall grass and dirt paths) and probably Wilkins on the north, although being a South Hill boy I can't say for sure where civilization ended up there.

It seemed like everyone knew everyone else, that our parents and grandparents had all gone to school together, and that you couldn't go anywhere in town where someone didn't know your mother or grandfather. There were cousins or aunts and uncles about every half mile it seemed, so screwing up out where anyone could see you was not an option. The good news was that there were plenty of places a kid could go that were out of the public eye, starting right on the block.

In those days, there was usually a network of paths through the interiors of blocks where kids lived, between houses, behind garages (and sheds and even barns!), from back yard to back yard, sometimes from garage roof to garage roof. There were steps made from piled stone, cuts through shrubs and bushes, gates in backyard fences, all kinds of ways to get just about anywhere on the block without having to set foot on a public sidewalk or street.

And we could run those paths in the dark of night as easily as we did in the light of day—and often did when we played "ditch," a night-time version of hide-and-seek that encompassed the entire block, all of the back yards, gardens, weed patches, climbable trees and open garages. You'd win if you hid yourself so well that the other side couldn't find you and eventually gave up and went inside. When I think back, I suppose we could have saved ourselves a lot of running around in the dark if we'd just gone inside, watched TV and said we were going to hide. But there were only 4 decent TV stations then (WCCO 4, KSTP 5, KMSP 9 and WTCN 11—in those pre-Big Bird days, no one watched the "educational channel," KTCA 2) , and since winter seemed to last about nine months anyway, we spent time outdoors when we could.

The climbing trees were something as well. I got my start when I was only 4-5 years old, back when we were still living with my grandparents over on 4th Street, before we bought the house on 3rd. Down the block, across the street from South Hill Hooley's (which I also Googled and got no hits, so I'm going to have to say more about that place later), someone had a big pine tree in the back yard. It could have been Jack Anderson's house (his mother, Doris, was a cashier over at Hooley's), or it might have been David Belideau's house next door. This was more than 45 years ago, so you'll have to excuse me if I can't be more precise.

I don't think I was even supposed to be down there, and I'm pretty sure my parents would have had a fit if they knew I was climbing a tree for the first time, but that was the direction the sidewalk took me, there were other kids down there, and what child of 4 or 5 could resist such temptation?

Anyway, after watching some of the bigger kids do it, I climbed up the interior of the pine tree, which was as easy as climbing stairs. I discovered two more things about pine trees that day: one, it's really fun to get up high and swing the top of the tree back and forth (they don't break, they flex, but the belief in the possibility that they might break makes the whole experience even more fun); and two, that the branches are full of pine pitch that gets all over your hands and legs and clothing and pretty much announces to your parents what you've been doing. So it was a while before I climbed that particular tree again.

But there were other trees to climb. One thing that you realized early on was that oak trees were NOT among the climbing trees. The branches started way too high up, so you'd pretty much need a ladder to reach the lowest ones. Maple trees were good for the bigger kids—you'd have to get a boost to reach the lowest branches, then pull yourself up, and they seemed to offer lots of substantial limbs to sit on. The elms—before the Dutch elm disease got them all—were a mixed bag. Some of them (like one in our back yard) had branches low enough that you could swing on them like Tarzan (not that we cared much about Tarzan—that was my dad's generation), while others were these towering things that formed a cathedral-like ceiling high above the streets that they lined. Apple trees (which were everywhere in our neighborhood) or the odd ornamental plum were much better for a young tree climber.

That's not to say that apple trees weren't without their hazards. We had a scraggly one back in the far corner of the yard (where all the mosquitos lived) , and every year it looked worse. Around the time I was eight years old, it fell over with me sitting up in it. I probably was no more than eight feet off the ground, but it knocked the wind out of me when I landed, and I thought for sure I was going to die.

Probably the favorite tree in the neighborhood was "The Mape," a middle-sized maple tree in the front of Danny Swanson's side yard. It was right over where home plate was when we played kickball in his yard—baseball was off-limits, owing to some half-forgotten accident or event when his older brothers were playing out there—but the grass was worn away there and The Mape kinda stood by itself. We used to sit up there to hide from the little kids, we'd pick up books of matches at Reed's Drug Store and "shoot" them at the sidewalk below, and when we were (almost) old enough, we even climbed up there to drink a beer or two.

I'm hoping it's just my 50+ year-old brain misremembering, but it seems to me that the last time we were up in Stillwater I saw that they'd cut that tree down.

There are a lot of trees that were around when I was a kid that aren't around anymore. I already mentioned the apple tree and the two elms that were in our front and back yards. There was also an oak over where the shortstop would have played if we ever had enough kids to play full teams out in the side yard at my house, a smaller maple or elm that was along the property line in what would have been foul territory on the third base side that blew over in a thunderstorm and landed on the neighbor's car, and a birch that just fell over one day, on the other side of our "field," nearer first base and the house.

That birch was also next to where our dog was buried. Or one of them. During the time I lived there we had three: Kritzer (a fox terrier my parents got in Germany who was shot by a cop, tossed in the dump out on County Road 12, and eventually buried in an old bread box under the birch tree after my dad found her there); Ole, who was Kritzer's pup and part beagle; and Casey, my brother Peter's untrainable white dog who eventually wore away all the grass in the back yard and ate I don't know how many fence pickets.

It always surprised me that Mom and Dad let us play baseball in that side yard. I don't think a year went by when we didn't have someone hit a ball through a window. But they just replaced the glass and I don't remember anyone ever bawling us out for that—they just sort of took it in stride.

Of course I don't think we ever actually played nine to a team out there. Most of the time it was two against two, with one guy pitching (overhand, but soft toss) and one covering the whole field, while the other two batted. We'd do ghost runners if we needed them, but with only one fielder, we weren't stopping a heck of a lot, so the runners made it around pretty regularly. Looking back, I don't know how we ever got anyone out.

Sometimes our neighbor to the south, Kenny Campbell, would get in his bedroom window and act as a combination announcer and umpire. He was a few years older than us, and most often that would end with Kenny telling us we were cheating, which meant we vociferously argued rules we didn't understand or even know existed.

Kenny also liked to play a variation of home run derby in his back yard, and when there were no other "big kids" around, he'd let us play. He was probably 2-3 years older than we were, and he seemed like a giant because he was so much taller. I saw him years later, working in an auto parts store, and was stunned to discover I had at least 3-4 inches on him as an adult.

Anyway, the way it worked was Kenny pitched a worn tennis ball at a strike zone he'd chalked or painted on the end of a shed at the back of his house, and we'd try to hit it, using a cut-off broom stick with electrical tape wrapped around the handle. Kenny threw hard and he called balls and strikes on you. You got three outs. If you walked, you got a ghost runner. If you hit the ball over the hedge behind him it was a home run. No other hit counted. Most of the time Kenny stuck us out—it was probably two years out there before I ever actually hit the darn thing, and I don't think any of us ever beat him.

It didn't seem odd to me at the time, but that shed was one of two or three ad hoc additions that had been made to the back of Campbell's house in years past, one after the other, each one built off the previous one. They extended well beyond what was the property line in other yards, because Campbell's owned the property all the way from the 3rd Street side of the block over to 4th Street. On the 4th street side there was a small, box of an apartment building, built right up against the sidewalk with no yard, 4 units in it and room to park four cars in the dirt driveway behind it.

On the other side of our house was another bigger than normal yard with more unusual buildings. It belonged to Frank Aiple (of Aiple Towing fame) and was a corner lot. Besides a big house, there was a two-story grarage that looked to me to be as big as a lot of the houses in the neighborhood. That had a shed attached to it and attached to that was what seemed to be almost a lean-to barn, that extended all the way to the back of the Aiple property and that was never intact as long as I lived there.

Some of the subsequent owners tore the lean-to barn down, but as kids we enjoyed climbing on the roof (which came down to about waist height as we'd walk along the edge of the retaining wall between Swanson's and our yards—who could resist that?) and occasionally sneaking inside for a look. It was also a good roof to skip apples off (they'd go all the way to Hancock Street) and at one point one of the neighborhood kids—his name was Earl—went on kind of a rampage and tore off a bunch of the roofing.

We had what was probably once a free-standing garage and a shed, connected by what we called a rain shed—basically a flat roof built on some two-by-fours that ran between the sides of the shed and garage, just below the eaves, with a corrugated metal back. We'd park bikes in there sometimes, but mostly we'd climb up through that roof onto the garage and shed roofs. For some reason we enjoyed getting up on the roofs wherever and whenever we could. And because the elevation of Swanson's property was a couple of feet higher than ours—hence the retaining wall—we could jump from the low edge of our shed roof, over the white picket fence that was on top of the retaining wall, and into Swanson's yard. Probably no more than four feet vertically and a couple horizontally, and miraculously no one ever got impaled.

There's more to talk about. Each thing I write about here makes me think of something else I want to say. I've already blown past half-a-dozen digressions that I could have made in order to end up here. So I guess next time I'll try to pick up this thread again and see where it takes me...