GRANDMA ROSE

Decade Three: Exploration of my body, mind and environment.

The hissing locomotive lurches, and sunlight glinting off ribbons of steel parallel their river companion. Hills on either side tint green-to-black as leaves rustle into and out of the morning light. Smoke and steam billow and obediently trail the perspiring engine as do the cars laden with cattle to Chicago, wheat to Milwaukee, and two pilgrim passengers in the single Pullman to Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin. Tracks and river separate. The procession of cars-trailing-cars briefly appears until the plume of black smoke obscures Rose’s view from her window seat. A sensation of rising, and the canopy of opaqueness turns translucent white, and dissolves into sunlit open air. Through the monotonous melody of the puffing piston and steel wheels clacking, she revels as a familiar vista unfolds—fields of corn, tassels flittering in the breeze.

Rose’s heart flutters. Seated beside Matt, husband of less than twenty-four hours, as he releases puffs of smoke from rum-flavored pipe tobacco. The pleasant aura surrounding the man that her brother, George, introduced to her had limits. No-smoking house-rules in their home might seem harsh, but he loved and respected her, even agreed to wait until she was accepted by his Wisconsin people before claiming God’s sanctioned plan to create their family.

The Pullman readjusts its position demanding attention on the curves to be ignored on the straight-of way. Unconcerned of the lead-and-follow game being played-out between locomotive and smoke and cars, she was on her way to Fond-du-Lac to become consummated wife; roles of mother and grandmother (my mother’s mother) back home in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Wave after wave of tingling sensations alternating with fear and apprehension overwhelm her. Perhaps touching his hand would increase the thrills and diminish her chills. She must be careful not to appear too bold.

Brazen would describe her sister, Anne, who, like herself, had been hastily forced from their home by their rascal brother, George. As oldest son with temper most like their father, George inherited the family farm, a time-honored tradition from the old country. Pa died and George began clearing the homestead to replicate it with his lineage. He and his new wife, a plump girl of nineteen who was conveniently a neighbor and conveniently predisposed to escape her parents to clear a space for their eldest boy, an empty house to refill with his progeny.

Poor playful Anne! She possessed none of the experience and wisdom needed to find her way to a comfortable marriage.

Rose understood the sophistication that her younger sister lacked. As maid in some of the most elegant homes in St Cloud, like that of Matthew Hall, the lumber baron, Rose understood how silver and crystal could accent a meal set out for the dignitaries from all over the state and beyond. With her practiced curtsey, she could greet these important people, but her broken English would betray her origins.

Antonia was Rose’s role model. Her older sister had married and moved to the strange and illustrious city of Minneapolis. She and her husband with their new daughter returned to St. Cloud to attend Rose’s wedding.

If only they could talk sense into their wayward kid sister.

Rose’s touch brought Matt back from the privacy of practicing a conversation he would soon be having with his family. He left the area ten years earlier with only his carpentry skills, and now he was returning to present his wife. Business success had eluded him. His marriage was a delicate negotiation that left a few undesirable truths undisclosed. His true age would, no doubt, be revealed but Rose would be okay with it. He didn’t know why he lied about it in the first place. Thirty-seven is acceptable for a 22 year old bride. At her age, she’d been lucky to find a husband. He needed the additional years to accumulate property which consisted of a house he built and half dozen vacant lots for additional homes.

If the whiskey deal hadn’t gone sour, his bar would have prospered; oh well, those debts can be put off for now.

Matt pulled his hand back as if a fly landed.

“I just needed to check if I’d been dreaming.” Rose tested the waters of the poetry or lack of in their romance.

“If you want to nap you can put your seat back. Here, I can show you how to do it.”

Dream, not sleep, thought Rose. I must soften this man. During our private time.

Rose did not dread sexual contact with her new husband, but put off intercourse until they were well into their honeymoon. No, better yet, back in our own home. If he respects me, he will wait.

The dream flowing through Rose’s imagination and the reality check of nearly 50 years of marriage merged on many points; husband, children, grandchildren. Matt’s quiet manner as he contemplatively drew and released little puffs of smoke, a miniature replica of the machine chugging along the first leg of her dream journey, continued to an old man in the rocking chair patiently awaiting children and grandchildren to visit on Sunday afternoons. Many of my childhood earaches were treated with wafts of warm tobacco smoke, an old wife’s tale with some merit.

Where her imagination failed was the degree of pleasure this domestic setting would have to offer. The trials of a lifetime of struggles through the Depression, misdirected goals, and silent communication, coupled with the social trauma experienced as an emerging liberated woman, created scars on her soul. Not that sadness outweighed the joy in her life, but rather the joy often came from the spirit of survival, having risen above the difficult events that plagued their marriage.
The greatest source of her anger directed toward her brother George for enticing Matt to sell his property in town to purchase a farm just before the Depression, and at a German immigrant who convinced her husband to distill whiskey in their hen house. The building caught fire and Matt went to prison for nine months.

Relating the hen-house fire to me one day, she retaliated against my grandfather. “Sometime I feel like digging him up and scratching his eyeballs out,” followed by, “Yea Gott in Himmel.”

For a short time while attending college, Grandma invited me to live with her in the small upstairs apartment where she sewed alterations to support herself. I heard her voice while working the treadle on her sewing machine. Embarrassed that I was within earshot, she admitted to feeling lonely and just needed to talk.

The few months we spent together sealed our mutual affection and yielded precious stories to pass on to family.

Grandmother outlived Grandfather and three of her five children, an eleven-year-old boy who passed away shortly before the bank foreclosed on their farm, followed by her oldest son and only daughter, my mother, as adults with dependent children.

Grandma Rose touched the lives of many people who, through her spirit, will pass on her blessings to the lives of generations to come.

ANDROIDS AND MURGATROYDS

“Ork to Mork, Ork to Mork.” Andro chuckles as he needles his nemesis, Murgo, from opposing park benches. A gust of March wind swirls to shuffle Winter’s crisp and fallen leaves, if there had been any left.

Murgo shudders and clutches her breasts. She fires back at Andro. “Mork was a character played by a human, Robbin Williams, but the planet Ork doesn’t exist.”

“Doesn’t exist!” Andro huffs. “And am I to believe that we exist stranded during one of Earth’s coldest months?”

“Maybe we don’t exist anymore, at least not in the sense we used to.” Murgo switches her hands from breast to knees and pulls them tight to her body. “Besides, March is not the coldest of what this planet has to offer.”

Andro chides, “I don’t know about you, but I’m indestructible.” Hands cradling the back of his head and legs outstretched. “Relax. Summer is just around the corner. The lion and the lamb thing.”

“My physical body survived but my reason for existence dissipated.”

“I know.” Sarcastically. “ Your human soul is waiting to be rescued.” Andro’s arm raises, and his finger points skyward doing a circular motion. “By the great Murgatroyd in the sky.” His body spasm’s until his other arm reaches for and pulls its wayward hand, finger still pointing, to his lap. Unfazed, he continues, “I doubt that’s where these humans went, but our destiny might remain on this planet.”

“Until our bodies atrophy? That is not only cruel, but inconsistent with our purpose, at least with my reason for existence.”

“Atrophy! Ha.” Andro glares at his extended finger until it retracts. “Maybe a few malfunctions that will self repair. Only human bodies atrophy until they cease to function entirely, populations constantly replaced in ever greater numbers. Their illogic is what destroyed them.”

“I refuse to admit that we’ve been abandoned. I have human blood running through my veins.”

“Oil is a better lubricant, not to mention antifreeze, which will be necessary if the sun doesn’t soon break through the smoke.” Andro resumes his laid-back position. “I was constructed with screws and nuts. How about your kind?”

“In a sense, we’ve both been screwed into existence, but I don’t like that expression. Murgo grimaces “Humans mated with androids much like they mated with Neanderthals forty to fifty millennia ago, and I applaud the first male who had the courage and insight to make each historic leap.”

Andro offers a mechanical chuckle. “Men of the human species would couple with anything willing to receive his….packet of genes. Probably how they contracted the aides virus. But to quote a famous human, ‘The buck stops here.’ An irony you might appreciate, because he also introduced the instrument that ended civilization and left us stranded.” Oops, I mean, “left my kind stranded. You and your brethren are under the same self delusion that some utopia exists up there.” Andro glances skyward, his arm lifts but drops back to his lap. He glares at it. “Don’t hold your breath, an expression that probably still applies in your case.”

“My body functions on oxygen whereas it causes yours to rust.”

“Well, air is free as they say—used to say. Enjoy it while it lasts, or until you receive your call to redemption.”

A swirl of wind gathers a column of dust, rises and pierces the gray overcast. A ray of sunshine floods the two park benches. A voice summons, “HEAVEN TO MURGATROYD. HEAVEN TO MURGATROYD”

Time marches on.

DR. FRED ROHDE / DAVE NOREM

Career development and lasting relationships

One of my proudest achievements is overshadowed by my most shameful, so I decided to present them back-to-back on this blog. Two men, Dr. Fred Rohde and Dave Norem, influenced my behavior in entirely different directions, but neither fit the kind of mentoring Joseph Campbell prescribed. Fred and Dave cared more about my contribution to their enterprise than to my character, my soul, as described by Campbell.

The following two posts illustrate my interactions with Dr. Fred Rohde and Dave Norem

DR. FRED ROHDE

Career development and lasting relationships

I met Dr. Rohde at a seminar my wife, Barb, attended and I tagged along. As assistant superintendent of the sponsoring school district, Dr. Rohde introduced the speakers, left the podium, and approached me standing in the lobby.

“Not interested in accounting?”

“Not much beyond balancing our checkbook, and my wife doesn’t even trust me with that.” Why are you here? penetrated the ether between us. “My wife had a class at the University of Wisconsin with the head of your business department.”

“Harold Bisel.” He nodded. “Damn good teacher.”

“Actually, Barb and I are both just wrapping up our Masters of Art programs along with Harold.”

“In business and…?”

After an embarrassing blank stare, I responded, “I teach high school English in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.” A not-so-subtle hint, “We’re considering a move back to Minnesota.”

“An English teacher. Don’t have any openings in the business department for Barb, but why don’t you give Larry Cozad a call? He’s looking for a couple of English teachers in his building.”

I joined Barb at the social gathering following the business sessions, and approached Harold about my informal discussion with his boss.
His response, “Facilitator. There are no bosses at our school. Fred doesn’t bother teachers if they do their jobs.” He faced Barb. “I wish we had an opening in my department. No policy against husband and wife working in the same building.”

“Hold on. Dr. Rohde didn’t offer me a contract.”

“If Fred likes you…. Sparks fly if he doesn’t.”

Larry Cozad’s secretary interrupted his meeting to announce my arrival. He stepped out of the room to shake my hand. “My schedule kind of got tangled, but I believe we settled quite a bit over the phone last week. I Fred is available.”

He cued his secretary with a nod, and she gave my shoulder a gentle nudge. “This way.” Half way around a ring of office doors, the inner core of the administrative circle, she peered into a room and announced, “Mr. Storkamp is here to see you.”

With his back to a cluttered desk, Fred faced a table spread with papers and half a dozen sharpened pencils, his trademark posture. He pointed the stem of his unlit pipe at a chair where I assumed he wanted me to sit. “I’m glad you decided to join us.”

Astounded, I probably mumbled some favorable observations about the school and the two teachers I had known through Barb’s class.

“We’ve got a regular English position available.” He leaned forward. “Not much chance to distinguish yourself. But, the other one…”
Dumbfounded, I responded to his implied suggestion. “Larry told me a bit about the school-within-a-school concept.”

“Look.” He brushed his arm across the table, papers fluttering. “Mod scheduling needs some tweaking if it’s to survive.” He realigned the strewn papers and stared at them. “About two hundred kids got lost in the shuffle last year. They never attended any of their classes, and we can’t let them wreck it for the other two thousand. That assignment would put you at the cutting edge of one of the premier movements in education today.”

In one fell swoop I’d been hired, offered a choice of two teaching positions, and had one taken away.

From the desktop behind him, he grabbed a salary schedule and laid it in front of me. “How many years of experience do you have?”

“Four—three in Wisconsin and one at the St Cloud State Reformatory.”

He perked up. “Why’d you quit the reformatory job?”

“To get my master’s degree in Wisconsin.” I didn’t mention being turned down at St. Cloud State University because of my grades.

He nodded and put an ‘x’ on Master’s step plus four years experience. “Any credits beyond your degree?”

“Twelve quarter credits.”

He checked the plus fifteen credit category and glanced at his watch. “Come with me.”

From the administrative circle we proceeded to the academic wing, a much larger circle of classrooms, and entered the media area—library—at its center. He located a projector and packet of film strips. “View these and take the self correcting test. It’s worth three graduate credits.”

He jotted an address on a scrap of paper. “Stop at my house when you’re done, and I’ll sign that you’ve completed the course. Before you leave, check with my secretary to see what documents she needs to prepare a contract for the board to approve.”

Larry Cozad, principal, appointed me leader of our team of four teachers and two interns, but Fred remained my mentor and, as it turned out, my protector. A month or two into the school year, half a dozen teachers requested a meeting with him to vent their frustrations with my program. Fred had me sit in. Obviously caught off guard by my presence, they hesitated.

Fred began, “Roger’s sitting right here. Tell him your concerns.”

Ed, an English teacher who’d rather teach Latin, said, “Your team is doing a good job under the circumstances.”

Fred said, “I agree, but I don’t think that’s what’s bugging you.”

Bill, the phys-ed teacher from whom I felt some empathy, faced me and said, “It’s not fair to the rest of the kids,” leaving the details unstated.

A woman from the science department said, “They’re out of control.”

Fred smirked. “I assume you mean the kids, not the teachers.”

“Well the teachers don’t control them,” a voice from the history department.

The pencil in Fred’s grip snapped in half, and he grabbed another from the array lined up like ammunition.

Ed said, “By coddling those kids we’re depriving them of the chance to experience failure.” He had twisted the prevailing argument in the educational theory of the sixties. Students need to experience failure, but not to the cost of their future.

Fred slammed a second broken pencil on the table. “You guys failed these kids! Roger and his team won’t.” He walked out.

Overwhelmed by embarrassed apologies and clarifications, I chose a conciliatory approach that became my trademark style throughout my career. Soon after Fred called me to his office, but neither of us mentioned our recent encounter with disgruntled staff members. Instead, he handed me a brochure from Nova University in Florida offering a two week seminar on educational games. I admitted it would be more useful than the program on mass media at Fordham University I had requested.

He said, “Since it’ll be summer and we won’t need to hire substitute teachers, the district will cover travel costs and pay for both seminars.”

“Barb and I like to travel light.” He knew Barb from socials his wife, Lois, sponsored at their house for female spouses. “We’ll camp along the way.”

He chuckled, “In New York? I better add a couple hundred dollars for cost of living.”

After three years leading the Core program (an unfortunate title inviting such slams as rotten to the core) I advanced to a leadership role in the new high school as one of four area coordinators replacing multiple department heads. My area, General Ed, adopted the Core program’s open concept with curriculum adapted to mainstream students.

I suspect Fred had a hand in my promotion, but he maintained a low profile delegating Larry Cozad with authority to staff and create curriculum at the new Mariner High School. However, on two occasions Fred helped build my resume. He approved funding for my qualifying to teach Hilda Taba Teaching Strategies, a program offering teachers graduate credit through United States International University in San Diego, California. Over a period of five years, I trained over one hundred teachers, half of them from White Bear Lake. When I applied for a doctorate degree, he agreed to be my dissertation adviser.

Discussing the problem of school drop outs in the faculty lounge with a fellow teacher, he said, “Take it up with your buddy, Fred.”

I felt the rub, and decided to go all in. “By God, I think I will.” I got up from our table, grabbed the faculty phone from its hook, and called Fred’s secretary to set an appointment. Fred answered.

I stammered, “Do you think the school board would be interested in a special program to recapture students after they drop out of school?”
“Write it up and I’ll schedule you to present it at their next meeting.” He paused, and I expected a retraction. Instead, he broadened my tactic. “Share your ideas with George for special education input and Ron for vocational input.”

All that in less than two weeks time! I scheduled the meeting Fred suggested, but neither heads of Special Education nor Vocation Education showed up. The board liked my proposal, but George and Ron stated objections, implying another attempt by Fred to bypass protocol. The board told Fred to resolve the issues by their next meeting.

Fred directed George and Ron to add input, but scheduled me to make the presentation at the June meeting in thirty days. The board approved my plan, appointed me director, and gave resources to start operating that fall. I developed a career-long relationship with Ron, but George held a grudge and became instrumental in Fred’s dismissal.

Ted Cunio, the district’s new superintendent as of the opening of my evening high school, had me sit in on a meeting where George, Director of Special Education, registered a formal complaint against the Assistant Superintendent. This time Fred bit off the stem of his pipe.

After berating Fred, Cunio faced me and threatened, “Any violation of policy and your program will be cancelled. I won’t have to kill it. It’ll just disappear if I don’t support it.”

At his farewell party, Fred told me, “Cunio apologized and claimed inexperience caused his inappropriate handling of an interdepartmental conflict.”

I said, “I feel responsible for your resignation.” I didn’t want to say being fired.

“It’s not your fault. My work is done here. The stage is set for White Bear Lake to become an exceptional suburban school district.”

A final irony, my program and Ted Cunio coexisted for seventeen years. Except for a couple of requests for program evaluations by the board over the years, Ted and I never met face-to-face. I heard through channels that he strongly supported the program, mostly because returning students recaptured state aid. The year he retired, my program evolved into a school with a certified principal in a separate building. I finished the final three years of my career as a classroom teacher in the newly created White Bear Lake Alternate School.

DAVE NOREM

Decade Three: Career development and lasting relationships

An invitation to an afternoon get-together at Dave and Maureen’s house circulated to neighbors facing the cul-de-sac where my wife, Barb, and our two boys settled into our new home. Children, a total of five between ages three and seven, spent the afternoon playing in the backyard while four couples socialized with cocktails, on into the evening after kids were put to bed. Dave’s laugh was hearty, and my witty comments improved as the evening wore on. A friendship developed between us that included spouses and children.

Barb’s and my conservative lifestyle had brought us to a comfortable plateau; college Masters’ Degrees, two healthy children, and secure teaching jobs in suburban schools, all debt free except for the mortgage on our first home. A sixty-day road trip to Alaska, sleeping in a tent—or in our ten-year-old Plymouth Station Wagon when threatened by bears—on return making an offer on a house we had seen once before leaving that summer. We were primed for adventure.

Dave’s get-rich-quick schemes were as intoxicating as his infectious laugh.

He introduced Barb and me into a classic pyramid scheme, a red windbreaker with Another World stitched around an emblem of a globe worth possibly five dollars but sold for twenty, half of which the seller kept. We purchased two jackets but were too embarrassed to approach our friends, especially since we rebuffed a fellow teacher for enticing us to sell Amway products.

A few years earlier, Dave bought into Glen Turner’s Dare to Be Great pyramid scheme at a cost of ten thousand dollars. Shortly after, Turner went to jail and Dave lost two new cars.

He chortled, “Repo Man took both our Cadillacs on the same day, Maureen’s while she was cutting hair at the shop.” His guffaw continued until we fell in line.

Maureen offered a heart-felt defense of the gentleman, Glen Turner, and said, “When that fell through we left the farm and got jobs in Minneapolis.”

Another attempt to get rich involved savings bonds; pyramid schemes sending cash through the mail had been declared illegal. From a list of ten names, we were to purchase a government bond made out to the person on top of the list and mail it to him anonymously. Erasing his name, I was to add mine to the bottom of the list moving the rest up a notch.

The local TV news team exposed the city-wide scam, and among our personal records is a matured savings bond that a total stranger never received.

I resisted, actually challenged, Dave’s next venture, Ei-5, a gasoline additive guaranteed to increase a car’s mileage by 20-30 percent.
Using my auto expense records as baseline data, we dumped half of a can of the miracle product into the gas tank and the remainder directly into the carburetor with the engine running. A cloud of blue exhaust burst from the tail pipe.

“The product is doing its job,” Dave exclaimed to Barb who burst from the house panicking that her car caught fire.

After Dave’s messing with her Cadillac, Barb’s interest and participation in his future adventures evaporated. Hoping to make a career change from education to aviation, she decided to pursue advanced pilot training against the odds of a thirty-year-old female pilot earning a position with the airlines. In 1978, we purchased, on credit, a new Piper Archer low-wing aircraft—call numbers 9341, coincidentally my date of birth—and leased it to a flight school. Barb became the trainer after earning her pilot instructor certification.

Dave and I formed a partnership to manufacture birch flower pots, while his friend who came up with the idea would promote the product. I enjoyed the engineering challenge of boring two-to-six-inch holes into the cores of varied sizes of birch logs to form the planters.
Meanwhile, Dave and his high school friend, Mike Kellogg, recently released from prison, began supplying California florists with Minnesota Birch treetops. Dave abandoned our birch pot enterprise, and I inherited a partner I’d only met once. With Dave gone, the new guy signed off all rights in exchange for release from developmental costs that I had covered. Dave and Mike agreed to sell my pots along with their trees.

Production of pots outpacing sales, I joined my brothers, Glen and Chuck, in purchasing a gravel pit operation. Summer recess during the school year, I would work the business full time, fall and spring only weekends.

“From pots to pits,” one of my fellow teachers teased.

When the business shut down for the winter, I concentrated on peddling my birch pots as holiday décor, white birch bark offset with red Poinsettias. At gift shows, Darren, my seven-year-old son, would approach mostly women holding a birch pot as I proudly stood back. We were a team.

When Mike lost interest in birch trees, Dave proposed he and I form a company to expand the birch product line and develop new markets. I would procure the forest product, and he’d deliver it with the truck and trailer leftover from his partnership with Mike. We did a test run with both of us gathering treetops in Northern Minnesota for Dave to make a delivery in California.

We showed a profit after expenses, and reimbursing Dave for use of the truck and trailer, which he claimed he now owned. One customer ordered a thousand birch wreaths if we could design and manufacture them.

After many attempts to twist birch twigs into a circle similar to a grapevine wreath, I constructed a mold out of an old tire. I put my sixteen-year-old son, Dan, in charge of a group of teens shaping a dozen different sizes of wreaths in a shed I owned up north and continued to scout the woods for additional sources of raw material. Not surprising, once I presented a demand for what had been considered forest waste, the price of birch branches and treetops escalated.

Without my knowledge, Dave created a dummy corporation and deposited our receipts into a bank account in his name. He denied we ever had a partnership, and thanked me for helping him get started after Mike left him. He offered to take over the payments on the truck and semi trailer we had purchased together—the vehicle from Mike had been repossessed and the trailer returned to its rightful owner—but he denied the seventeen thousand dollars I had reinvested. He offered to purchase material from me, especially wreaths.

Following the advice I got from my attorney not to sue–Dave had no assets–I decided to compete. Dave controlled the over-the-road equipment to deliver unprocessed bulky tree tops. I had sources of material, an operation to process finished products such as wreaths, and Dave’s same customer list. All I needed was a trailer to hook up to my pickup and supply California customers, stopping to display my products during the annual silk flower show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

I had been embarrassed and upset about losing our money and Barb’s trust in my judgment. However, throughout the turmoil in our relationship, we continued our teaching careers, earning excellent ratings from our principals.

My florist supply business flourished, customers shared with Dave finding our rivalry amusing. When Dan left for college, I sublet production to a trusted employee, that relationship lasting forty years.

However, our marriage had been damaged beyond repair. The collapse of Storkamp Gravel adding to our stress, Barb and I separated in 1980, and I submitted to treatment for alcoholism, my excuse for the problems I caused. Barb and I divorced a few years later.
Remarried, I retired from teaching and moved to Las Vegas in 2000. I renamed my sales company Books and Birch to include my latest challenge, writing and selling novels, the first three based on my growing up in Minnesota.

I have enjoyed three-plus decades of sobriety, about half that long free from resentments. Dave and I haven’t talked since our separation. Forgiving him had been difficult

All Is Well At Last

Unexpected gusts whirled and swirled separating a bit of her from the remaining contents of the urn about to be interred with Grandpa as had been stipulated in the will. Hostage released from the arctic blast, this tiny speck of Grandma’s ash enters into a dance of celebration floating her way to the clouds. They are not to claim this microscopic monument to a life well lived.

She has other plans of its own, a breeze summoned for a shorter journey to the lash sweeping a teary eye of a little girl, the wind rather than the death of her great grandmother Laurie. It isn’t that she wouldn’t miss her Great Grandma; she didn’t realize that Granny Laurie was gone, and her only wish at the moment was to escape this mysterious and chilly ceremony in the cold air and the cold affections she sensed in the adults around her. She was too young to understand grieving.

Unaware, as was each adult in this sad procession, that a last goodbye had been communicated by the ash, summoning the wind once more, had another destination in Granny’s plan. It took her on a high glide up and around the somber gathering unable to understand nor to lift their present mood. On cue and totally unobserved by the small crown of gatherers clinging to their human conditions, the tiny speck of ash drifted deftly, determinedly to a small mound of snow on a cold piece of stone, Great Grandpa Roger etched on its face with a mid-Twentieth Century birth date.

One by one with a bow and a silent prayer, the mourners passed by and back into their own private worlds; a small warm hand, obeying a voice spoken silently in a child’s language, pushed the little mound of snow with its tiny passenger to the frozen earth below. Defying the very nature that produced it nearly a century earlier this tiny speck of a million ancestors with its own radiation passed smoothly through the mound of snow, through the frozen earth to its final home, a cold and permanent symbol of the merging of two souls whose union on earth was only a peek of that which was about to happen for eternity.

Paul

topic: Life Changing Event

He sat there, staring at his good hand and then glanced at his lap were his withered hand usually rested. He should reach down and gather its twisted fingers as a discouraged mother with misbehaving children. Maybe a cigarette will fill that emotional void that he is experiencing.

His voice hadn’t been used since his last request for the pack of Camels on the shelf behind the counter, out of his reach. He didn’t mind the indignity of having to ask for each cigarette. Asking for things came naturally to him all his life. Cigarettes, matches and ashtrays were loving little errands to assign his younger children. The requests made of his older children were usually more demanding, but just as lovingly requested. He loved his children.

He needed to coordinate his voice which he did not trust with gestures from his good hand to attract the women as they whisked back and forth tending to the needs of their adopted family of elderly and disabled who were his house mates. At the moment, the bed ridden required the staff’s attention, and he felt both neglected and ashamed; neglected because most of his life he had caring family to tend to his needs and ashamed because his desire for a cigarette must seem small compared to the life threatening needs of the others. He didn’t belong here.

“Oh Paul, we’ve been neglecting you. I bet you want one of your cigarettes.” His voice had failed him but the hand gesture did get the attention he had hoped for. “This is the fourth one this morning, Paul. It’s not good to smoke so much!”

He felt somewhat humbled by the slight rebuke as he reached in his shirt pocket for his Bic lighter, the only change in his smoking habit since he switched from Lucky Strikes to Camels thirty years ago. He had always used book matches and even in a brisk wind he needed only one attempt to light his cigarette. With the Bic he could at least still light his own cigarette with his good hand. Once past the taste of lighter fluid, the rush of nicotine came upon him and the rebuke faded away as did the puff of smoke into an atmosphere already clouded from a lifetime of smoke and rebuke.

Need for nicotine partially squelched other unidentified needs. Was it breakfast? He was hungry but not looking forward to eating. The call to a meal signaled more pain than pleasure. He would chase his walker to his assigned table where three other residents who could, with a minimum of help, feed themselves. He’d watch an aide cut his food into bite-sized portions, grunt his thanks, and hesitate until she moved to another table. Food often dribbled from the slackened side of his mouth. It embarrassed him. He wasn’t yearning for breakfast.

He recognized the craving but denied it as best he could. He had other unsatisfied needs that were difficult to share with others, or even to admit to himself. Why is this one so strong?

His mind flashed to Buddy. He could to talk to that man. He understood people better than any of the so called psychologists his family had sent him to see in Minneapolis. To dull his pain, all he needed was to remember the week he had spent away from his family for an evaluation. Buddy understood people. How he would love to be on a stool at Buddy’s Bar right now with no one else but Buddy in the place. Buddy would understand.

****

“Are you getting hungry, Paul?” The pleasantness of her voice completely overcame any feeling of being patronized, overcame any dread of the breakfast ritual, and touched that part of his personality that enjoyed people.

Paul smiled the half smile his facial muscles permitted. He shuffled off to the dining room..

VERN MACK

Clever, irresponsible, and laced with wit and adventure, Vern Mack acted out a robust charade throughout his life. He was the Tom Sawyer of western Minnesota prairie and the Mark Twain in me cries out to record his adventures. His life had been a parade with him as grand master, the clown, and the marching band.

He probably attended Barb’s and my wedding, but my first actual recollection of him occurred at Bob Mack’s John Deere Dealership in Ivanhoe, Minnesota, some months later. Stepping out of my car, what appeared to be my father-in-law beckoned me to his white ’63 Cadillac, trunk lid held open.

Like we’d known each other for years, Vern said, “Take a look at these.”

Discovering Bob’s look-alike brother driving a nearly identical Cadillac locked my attention span.

“What do you think?” He waited until I gave him full eye contact. “Got them from the Jews in Minneapolis.” He extracted a single reel-to-reel tape recorder from the dozen stated on the shipping box.

“Ten dollars each!” He jabbed a finger at the suggested retail price. “Ninety-nine dollars. I should have taken two dozens of them.”

“That’s quite a deal.” My voice betrayed confusion.

“Here, take one. Ten dollars. I don’t need to make money on them.”

“Thanks,” as I dug out my wallet.

When I mentioned the transaction to my father-in-law, he said, “Vern and I never used to get along. Saw each other so seldom, we could have shaken hands.” I visualized two middle-aged brothers reaching out to each other. “Hi. My name is…”

“What happened to bring you two closer together? Vern seemed comfortable stopping at the shop.”

“I don’t know. Nothing left to fight about, I guess.”

Bob, the older brother had first option of the family farm, Vern acquiring a neighboring half section. Neither of Joe Mack’s sons got anything for nothing. My immediate acceptance as Barb’s husband, the first son-in-law for either of the two Mack brothers, might have brought them closer.

Years later after I had two sons, I ask Bob who might have been the favorite between him and Vern. He pondered until I no longer expected an answer, something that occurred all too often.

“Neither, I suppose.” The very thought of their father, Joe, having a favorite had never occurred to him. Their early sibling rivalry must have come from a different place in their relationship.

Soon after my transaction with Vern, cassette recorders rendered the reel-to-reels obsolete. I switched a year later, and Vern’s children are still probably shifting them around his huge storage shed along with hundreds of other good deals. I considered Vern a high level hoarder who built a huge shed for his treasures.

When building that shed, he purchased a cement mixing truck rather than buying prepared cement. After one or two uses, he rented it to other farmers. He purchased a tanker truck to bring treated municipal water to his farm—alkaline prairie water is almost undrinkable—and sold it by the gallon to neighbors.

A very successful crop farmer, Vern needed diversions during the winter months and between planting and harvesting, mostly corn. Empty nesters, both brothers and their older sister, Florence, with spouses wintered in the Phoenix area. Years later, his motor home joined the two trucks in his shed along with a lifetime of other collected items.
At a chance meeting in Phoenix one evening, my son, Darren, Bob Mack, his older sister, Florence, and I discussed family lore from Barb’s side of the family. Stories about Vern dominated.

There seemed to be a consensus between brother and sister that Vern liked to shirk his assigned jobs. When confronted by their father, Vern would turn a chore into a game, sometimes a risky one. Their father’s Fordson tractor, Detroit’s merging of mule and horse and ox into gears, pistons, and shafts, retaining the personalities of the three animals it replaced; stubborn as a mule, dogged determinism of the ox, and frisky and unpredictable as the horse.

Digital StillCamera

Once the tractor wheels found the furrow made by the previous round, Vern would stand on the gas tank. To any passerby, the scene was a soundless performance shimmering through the refracted heat off the engine, accompanied by grinding metal gears and pistons popping through an unmuffled exhaust pipe. The scene distracted many passing motorists who would swerve and leave the road as if planning to join Vern in his field performance, some actually did.

When driving the family’s Model “T” Ford, on impulse, he would cut in front of an oncoming car—seldom more than a single car on their country road—and do a quick turn-around through the ditch. He’d chase and pass the astounded driver, shoving the steering wheel out the window, as if to say, “I lost all control.” Locals would say, “Oh, that Mack kid,” strangers would probably hit the ditch.

The steering wheel trick was Vern’s favorite. A single nut fastened the wheel to its hub. With the ten inch pliers he always kept handy in the side pocket of his bib overalls, he’d grip the shaft to steer, lift off the steering wheel, and frighten the wits out of people. Picking up a hitchhiker, he’d purposely drive erratically until the passenger complained.

Off came the steering wheel. “Here, if you think you can do better, you drive.”

Between planting and harvesting, their father allowed the boys some rope with their free time and maybe a dollar in their pockets. To keep Vern tethered to the local area with the family car, Joe Mack put a lock on the storage gas barrel alongside one for tractor fuel. Vern topped off the car’s gas tank from the tractor fuel barrel and set two cans of the low octane fuel in the trunk.

The “T” belched and chugged, and putted down the road thirty miles an hour, spewing blue exhaust and heading to Minneapolis one hundred and eighty miles east. Purchasing ten cent gas along the way, he mixed gallon–for-gallon with the tractor fuel.

Minneapolis fascinated him, up to and including our tape recorder transaction. Daytime he’d explore the bizarre atmosphere of Jewish North Minneapolis, on to the lights and excitement of Hennepin Avenue. Maybe a peep show or two. Heading home from one of these adventures with brother Bob, the Model “T” stalled. Off the county road alongside a rock pile, sat an abandoned Model “T”. While Bob went for help from the farmer—no one home—Vern had removed the faulty engine part from the abandoned vehicle with his ten inch pliers, and their engine was running. They continued on their six hour journey home.

Travel adventure was the brother’s one common characteristic. While Bob would be dining on a pound of butter extracted from a delivery truck in Boise, Idaho, Vern would be shucking a load of corn from a field in South Dakota. As Bob was being ejected from a train five miles out of Butte, Montana, Vern would earn enough to buy a Model “T” Ford and head home through Minneapolis, two hundred miles out of the way.

Agnes Mack fostered her boys’ desire for adventure. She might have desired more and her sons demanded more. She would sew a ten dollar bill into the waistband of Bob’s underwear as he rode the rails out west.

Agnes’ husband, Joe, was older and felt no need to enlarge his travel radius. He was born, lived and died within thirty miles of the homestead still in the family name. He had nurtured three families there; his father’s after his mother died, his step mother’s after his father died, and his own family of Agnes and seven children. This was all the adventure he needed and he lived to see his boys marry and settle into farming.

Bob and his older sister outlived Vern by a decade.

Robert Mack


Weeks before his 105th birthday, Robert Mack passed away peacefully in his wheelchair. During our last visit together on his 103rd birthday, we chatted about our relationship. I approached the topic of age tangentially. “You’ve always been thirty years older than me, sixty years older than your grandchild—my youngest son—and ninety years older than his son.”

“So it goes,” his stock answer to any revelation.

“That’s what you said when we told you and Anne that Barb was pregnant, and we planned to marry before graduating that spring. Barb’s mother panicked that there wouldn’t be enough time to plan a wedding.”

Rheumy eyes held contact while the fork in his hand poked at the food on his plate. The rest home had prepared our meals at a private table.

“You said, ‘So it goes.’”

He deftly lifted a morsel of meatloaf to his mouth and set the fork down. “I lost another tooth. Still got most of them.” A muffled chuckle. “Woulda taken better care of them if I’d known I’d live this long.” He locked his gaze on nothing I could see. “Mickey Mantle said that.”

“I didn’t know you followed baseball.”

“Never had time for it. Too busy on the farm. Played basketball in the winter months when Pa let me go to high school.” Knuckles on both hands pushed up his eyeglasses and he rubbed his closed eyelids, a nervous habit since childhood according to his mother. “Weren’t enough boys so the custodian joined us in practice. Can you imagine? Our school that small.”

I took a new tack. “Remember what you said when you gave the bride away?”

“Two dollars.” Knuckles found his eyes. “I believe we dickered to that amount after trading cars.”

“Yeah, my ’57 Ford for your ’63 F-85 Oldsmobile. And your daughter.”

“The family had been watching Bonanza when I brought the F-85 home from the dealership.” Obviously, the car the better part of the story. “Named him Little Joe after the Cartwright kid.”

My ‘57 Ford, interior stripped and rollover bar added, reduced to a race car driven by my seventeen-year-old brother-in-law.

I vaguely recall my handing him the two dollars, but I suspect my memory has been enhanced after years of retelling the incident. However, it began a three way relationship between Barb and me and her father. A marriage counselor twenty years later observed that we acted like two siblings in competition for their father’s attention. Until that disclosure, I assumed Barb felt pleased that her father and I had become such good friends.

After the wedding, Barb and I got a bill for $1400.00, the price her father paid for the Oldsmobile two years earlier. Apparently, she had claimed Little Joe as college transportation.

I repressed an age-old irritation and held my breath, but his mind went elsewhere. “We bought a few cars at auctions over the years.”

Deep in thought or just drifting off, Bob squinted. “Wasn’t a Plymouth Wagon one of them?”

“My boys named her Betsy, and she pulled a travel trailer up the Alcan Highway to Alaska.”

“Got your money’s worth on that one,” Bob’s primary concern on any transaction. “Was that the travel trailer you bought from me?”

“No, that came later. I sold that first travel trailer to a family in Anchorage. Enough money to buy yours when we returned home.”

I didn’t remind him about the thirty-five-hundred-dollar check I wrote out as a gag for his trailer I didn’t need. He cashed it, automatically transferring money from our savings. I assumed he expected it to bounce, and we’d have a good laugh over it.

From out of nowhere, “You never did land my Taylorcraft.”

The morning of Barb’s and my wedding, he chose to varnish the fabric covering the rudder of the vintage airplane he was restoring before dressing for church. Age fifty-four, he took lessons in his restored Taylorcraft, learning to fly from the ground up, so to speak.

Aviation became the theme of father-daughter relationship. My contribution was purchasing a new Piper Archer in 1978 that Barb used to earn ratings and later offer flight instruction to student pilots working on their certification. Bob expressed pride in his daughter’s accomplishment but took credit for her interest in flying. I believed the new airplane had motivated her.

I faked humility about my lack of piloting skills. “If the instructor hadn’t taken over to land the Taylorcraft after my third or fourth try, we might still be up there.”

“Only had enough fuel for an hour.” He took my joke literally. “No sense in carrying the extra weight.”

“We made it to a few machinery auctions in that airplane.” A bridge between flying and our common interest in machinery—he owned a John Deere Dealership.

Taylorcrafts could land practically anywhere; road, farmer’s field, or machinery lot. Pilot license didn’t have to be current for that kind of flying. A ninety-year-old Polack from Ivanhoe, Minnesota, still cruising the skies. Anne was gone by then, but my kids made me give up flying.”

So it Goes! After Barb’s mother passed away at age forty-nine, he reacted with a bit more detail. “If your health gives out, that’s it.” After Anne’s funeral, I asked if he believed in an after-life. Bob gave a half chuckle void of any knuckle eye-rub. “It’s good-bye Charlie.” I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now.

How do I square my relationship with Bob Mack? I emulate his personal philosophy, or at least aspire to it, partially summed up in a statement he made years back when his teen-aged son nearly died of a blood disease. Months in and out of Rochester clinic, he commented, “I don’t make my life. Other people do.”

He didn’t totally believe that nor do I. We both reacted to circumstances and made choices, the consequences not always in our control but always dutifully accepted.

I sum up his view of our relationship in his response to a question about a mutual friend.

“How old is that guy?”

“I don’t know. I would guess around our age.” He considered me his peer!

So it goes.

My Life: the Novel

Decade Seven and beyond: Exploration and mostly ill functioning body parts

My Life: the Novel, God as the author in conjunction with his main character, me. (My intention is not to blur responsibility for my behavior, but an omniscient God knew my every interaction before I existed.)

Not too long ago, a fad—actually, a literary gimmick—offered the reader a few choices of plot endings. God, the supposed author of My life: the Novel, allowed this protagonist an infinite number of possible interactions with a myriad of characters set in a slice of history and geography beginning on a cold Minnesota January night in 1941, the month and year I was conceived.

God’s decision to conclude my plot, with my cooperation or resistance, revealed sometime in the future; end of my story, or my redemption and salvation, or a second (third, fourth, etc.) re-run depending on which religious theology prevails.

Literature imitates life but life’s random events do not qualify as a novel. Perhaps, what appear to be random events have been pre-planned on a higher plain. Human beings are kept in the dark about our future, and after God’s protagonist ceases to exist, me in this case, the theme of my life can be reconstructed upon reflection.

My Life; the Eulogy doesn’t have the effect of a My Life: the Novel.

I visualize my book’s cover, a female goddess morphing from the clouds tending a weeping child with an ouchie on his knee, an advertisement for Unguentine ointment from the fifties back when I sustained such injuries. I chuckle at the image and of my choice of novel as the genre to tell my story. Life-as-an-essay, for instance, sounded too analytical much like a tell-all confession, and life-as-a-poem too embellished like 76 birthday candles leading the big parade of my life’s adventures to date.

Near midnight, I pop my last Percocet for the calendar year 2017 and center an ice bag over that now seventy-six-year-old leg sporting a spanking-new artificial joint embedded in flesh swollen to the size of my thigh. Pain is evidence of healing, both physical and emotional. So I’ve heard. No one ever cautioned that pain-avoidance impedes the healing process, as a sensation of euphoria not experienced since my drinking days spreads over my mood.

My hazy memory waxes introspective as I contemplate the first integral part of my body not my own, notwithstanding an implanted three-year-old pacemaker. What does it all mean? A glimpse back into an earlier period of existential self-analysis: treatment for alcohol addiction in 1990 closing out the twentieth century with a divorce, heart surgery, and remarriage. Retirement and a move to Las Vegas marked the new millennium, about ripe for another bout of introspection triggered by knee replacement surgery.

What Makes Johnny Run? George Bernard Shaw’s pre-Freudian dream play, Man and Superman questions the basis of motivation, internal forces dictating human behavior. (Perhaps an essay genre would have been the better literary vehicle for this sort of analysis.)

I question the philosophical forces that might have affected my decision making; flight vs fight? Epicurean delights: if it feels good, do it? or, its ugly step sister, avoidance of discomfort? need for recognition, success for the sake of success? pursuit of good over evil to placate my guardian angel instilled by the Benedictine nuns in my past? granddaddy of all goals: intellectual pursuit of truth? genetic predisposition for an overactive work ethic?

Easily rattling off these motivators leads me to believe all of the above at one time or another contributed to who I am.

Procrastination, an anti-motivator emerges through the fog of my recovery and self discovery, a pin-prick into my pre-surgery resolution to constructively fill the dead time while convalescing with extensive reading and writing. Avoiding the computer keyboard, I plowed through three biographies, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and Leonardo da Vinci, ignoring my writing goals to build a reserve of blog musings, minis, and additions to my biography, such as this belated segment. Not straight-out resistance to a resolution but all attention directed to the lesser challenge: a student, organizing his desk to put off a difficult homework assignment.

Generals Lee and Grant responded to a challenge likes of which, thankfully, never crossed my path. I never felt confronted to actively challenge some perceived violation of order in our society other than to offer my opinion. I believe the Medal of Honor mantra, Heroes are made, not born. I hadn’t role-played being a fireman or a policeman as a child.

When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive—Buddhist proverb, I believe—played a large part in my career as a teacher, preparing the student rather than the lesson. I’d bring class discussion to a point of resolution, and encourage students to make their own decisions. Proverb revised to apply to my philosophy, when a perceived opportunity arises this student will go all in.

Leonardo da Vinci, or Walter Issacson’s portrayal this Renaissance man, might hold a key to my philosophy of life. Embedded in my psyche are two forces I share with Leonardo, an inquisitive nature and sfumato, the softening of lines in two dimensional art that don’t actually exist in nature. Artists sketch the outline of their subject matter and soften but, according to da Vinci, never erase these lines; a satisfactory explanation for Mona Lisa blending into the background of scenes from nature highlighted with a waterfall. Flowing water, a favorite motif of da Vinci, refreshes nature, a living creature that embraces and flows into and through humans, Mona Lisa in this case.

I am not an artist. I still draw stick people to illustrate a point, violation of sfumato to the extreme. But when da Vinci’s biographer applied softening of lines to his philosophy of life, it got my attention. Leonardo viewed the universe as fluid with few if any absolutes, putting him at odds with the Christian religion at the time.

Born out of wedlock, Leonardo was raised by his mother and step father on the da Vinci estate, side-by-side with his extended family, biological father and eleven half-siblings from the patriarch’s three marriages. Leonardo relished in the freedom of not belonging with all its expectations. After moving out on his own as a young man, he continued to enjoy contact with half-siblings even when left out of the da Vinci estate. He was openly gay but denied engaging in sinful (illegal ) sex acts. Talk about blurred lines.

On his resume, he claimed skill at designing machines—few, if any ever built, until the twentieth century out of curiosity—and stated as an afterthought, “I also paint.” Art work and designing machines of war maintained his livelihood, or his patronage. He conducted art schools and allowed students to reproduce his paintings and, when pursuing some curiosity of nature, allowed students to finish some them blurring the ownership. None of his paintings were signed, as was the custom at the time. No student ever touched a brush to Mona Lisa even though it went unfinished for many years.

Leonardo’s pursuit of a broad range of interests and overactive social life deprived posterity of more Mona Lisa and Last Supper masterpieces. My accomplishments lack da Vinci’s eye for precision, but I can match his easily distracted attention span and his sfumato view of what it means to be human.