Thursday, April 6, 2017

Here and Now

“The good old days, thank God they’re gone forever,” my Dad used to say. He always laughed after he said it, as if it were part of some grand joke. I’m not entirely sure what period of time (if any) he was referring to, but I can guess. 

Often when a family is just starting out there may be enough love and laughter to go around, but often there is not a lot of extra food or money. I have no memory of going to bed hungry (unless I was being punished), and I have no recollection of having to “go without,” but I know we weren’t rolling in it when I was a boy. 

My father and mother had seen tough times before having grown up in the depression, and the memory of those lean years never left them, so much so that Mom had difficulty eating beans as she got older, as it had been a daily dietary staple in her childhood during the thirties.

One day last week, while I was in my office minding my own business, the good old days came back to me with three different visitors. John Murphy was the first one who walked through the door. Like any good farmer, he was up early getting things done. John was perhaps my first employer. 

When I was in my early teens, I stacked hay alongside him while his son drove the tractor. John was a big strong man back then, and he still looks like he could take care of himself in a disagreement. As part of the arrangement, he would pick me up in town and take me to his farm. Often I would spend an entire day out there splitting my time between the dusty, hot confines of the hayloft and the rack of a hay wagon rocking and reeling in a breezy meadow.

When it came time to eat I would wash up with a garden hose and a watering trough. I shared the white picnic table with John, his young boys and Steve Plonski, a farm kid and classmate who was there to help bale the hay. We sat there together under the shade of a big tree and ate a banquet of home-cooked food skillfully prepared by John’s wife, Mary. The memories of those days still sustain me.
On the AM radio during that time you would hear “Anticipation,” a song by Carly Simon. Although she wasn’t referring to young boys and baling hay, the lyrics to the song offered wisdom when she sang, “Stay right here because these are the good old days.”

About an hour or two after John left my office, my hay baling partner and friend of almost five decades, Plonski, stopped in to see me. We laughed for quite a while, as we talked about St. Patrick’s Day in Belle Plaine.

Later that afternoon, Rob Edberg, a real-life cowboy and one of my heroes, showed up. Rob had been a friend of my older brother. Rob was one of those guys that everybody liked and respected. A star athlete in high school, he still commands attention when he walks into a room. It seems that the Belle Plaine celebration had also given him reason to compare notes of the day with me.

Neil Diamond had a song where he sang, “These are the best years of our lives, the very best years of our lives.” It’s a similar message I give my daughter when I see her happy and busy with her two little fellows.  “These are the good old days my dear,” I tell her. Thank God for all of our days.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Walk This Way Again

Sometimes you can achieve different results by going over the same ground. Last Saturday I was walking down the sidewalk of Church Street in Belle Plaine with Tim, an old friend of mine. We had just left the St. Patrick’s Day festival in downtown and were heading to my truck, where we would once again leave the town that had raised us.

I knew the cracks, the dips and the rises of the sidewalk we were on. I knew the houses (now smaller) and the trees ( now larger). Just four blocks from the house I grew up in, we passed our friend, Cindy’s, childhood home. Cindy graduated from high school with us, and now she is quickly losing her memory, as Alzheimer’s takes a little more from this sweet woman every day.

As a child I had walked this street many times on the way to one of the hardware stores, the grocery stores, the drug stores and the bakery. They’re just a memory now, as none of them can be found downtown anymore.

In the next block we were in front of the church, the church of our youth. The truck was parked with the convent on one side and the church on the other.  

I had spent much of my childhood in that building. For several years I attended school there. I learned to roller skate in the basement of the church with kids from the Catholic school. I also played bingo and ate dinners there, including the two after the funeral services of both my parents. In addition to Sunday mass, I went to church five mornings a week. The nuns would march us outside from the school building to the front of the church. When the weather was bad we entered the back of church through a small door that led down to the basement, where we walk would to the other side and ascend an ancient set of wooden stairs up to church.

When I got older I would walk past the church and through the downtown to attend the public school on the other side of town.
Often times I walked with Tom and Andy, classmates and friends. We braved all kinds of weather; sometimes a sharp wind coerced us to turn our backs and walk backwards for a stretch.

Church Street, which ran in front of my house, was usually my preferred path. I knew the street and most everyone who lived on it. I was comfortable in walking it, even when it was past the old cemetery on a moonlit night. There were other routes to take, but they took me on busier streets and away from the quiet comfort of walking in the shadow of the church steeple.

Biking was often an attractive option, but walking provided a sure means of transportation that could not be stolen or mislaid. Plus, when mischief presented itself, walking could easily become running, as I made my way through the backyards of the well-known neighborhood.

I’ve since grown past the need to run from authority, or perhaps it’s because I am no longer looking for trouble. Having reached multiple destinations long ago using this same route, I now walk the street again with an old friend.

“You’ve walked this way before, haven’t you Jer?” Tim said.

“Yeah, but only about five thousand times,” I replied.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

All Wound Up

Saturday I experienced one of life’s great joys. I went to the mailbox and found inside a hand-written letter from my sister – a rarity in any relationship. It seems hardly anyone writes letters anymore.

Along with the demise of letter writing has come the dearth, if not the death, of pen pals. This is sad, as the regular exchange of letters once afforded children the opportunity to connect with someone they normally would have never met. I’m sorry, but email, texting and social media are poor substitutes to a well-thought out, hand-written letter.  

When my wife was growing up in Carver, her fourth grade teacher arranged for her class to get pen pals from Carver, Massachusetts. It was such a great idea that Rhonda from Minnesota and Lorinda from Massachusetts still write each other after more than forty-five years. 

Several years ago, when Rhonda, our kids and I were in Massachusetts, she and Lorinda made the necessary arrangements to meet each other. They even continued to be pals after putting a face to the pen.

There is a part of me that is a bit jealous of such a friendship. It’s one thing to be thrown together in a pool for swimming lessons or as roommates in a college dormitory and still remain friends decades later, but to a build a life-long friendship from pen and paper is to be marveled and honored.

The closest I ever came was a pithy weekly email exchange that began in February of 2009. I would not have had the pleasure of this friendship if a couple events had not happened earlier. In the latter half of 2006 I was invited to a meeting of some local folks and a couple editors from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The paper was contemplating neighborhood editions for the paper and wanted to get some feedback from some residents of the southwest neighborhood.

After the meeting, I hung around and talked to the editors and one of them asked me what I do. When I told him about my occupation he then posed one of the most pivotal questions I have ever heard. 

“What else do you do?” he asked.

When I explained that like to write, he suggested that I send him some pieces. In November of that year, I had my first column published in the Star Tribune. For the next year I had the joy of seeing my words printed in the paper, but at the end of that year the format was changed again and I was without a reason to write, and a place to be published.

It took me another year, but I found another editor willing to take a chance on me. For the last eight years, with some time off for dream chasing, I have been fortunate enough to find space for my commentary in a local paper or two.

Almost every Monday morning for those last eight years I sent my work in to Pat Minelli, editor of the Shakopee Valley News, and often we would go back and forth electronically trying to out wit the other one.  I lost most every time.  Pat always had the last word when he would give my column a clever title that drew the reader in. Now I understand my keyboard companion is leaving the paper, and I am left feeling empty and sad, as I will miss our weekly exchanges.

Pat, you have granted me the glorious experience of seeing my words in print. It truly has been one of my life’s greatest joys.  Thank you and good luck.  Write soon.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


I learned the hard way many years ago about the importance of unknotting your necktie at the end of the day. This will come as no surprise to many of you, but there was a time when I could not tie a tie and had to rely on my father for the task. Therefore, once a tie was fitted with a suitable knot at the proper length, I would simply slip it over my head at the end of the day instead of undoing the knot. In time, all my ties were left hanging together all knotted up, which I learned in time was bad for the tie and shortened its life.

The fact that I had to replace all my ties isn’t all-bad, for what passed as fashionable in the late seventies and early eighties would get the wearer arrested today, either for disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace (depending upon the tie). Some looked like a patchwork quilt, others so loud and screaming for attention that they had to be silenced and put away.

Although fewer men don knots in a necktie when they get dressed up than they once did, there is still a time and a place where being a shade overdressed is better than choosing comfort over class. Wishing a new couple well on their day, in addition to honoring the dead by visiting the living requires, in my mind, getting dressed up for the event.

I have been inconsistent in following my own advice however. My desire to remain flexible and spontaneous in my daily schedule can often get in the way of proper planning. For instance, the other day I was caught, not with my pants down, but without a tie knotted up.

With no time to make up for poor planning, I threw on my coat and hopped in my truck and headed south. I didn’t know the deceased well, a hard-working military veteran who had provided for his family, but I did know his son. At least, I did forty years ago.

To say I could have been kinder then, a better friend and someone I could be proud of now is an understatement. Unfortunately, there is no going back to right wrongs. As time passes and scars remain, all we are left with is the opportunity to make amends and smooth out the wrinkles.

Entering the funeral home, I looked for the man I once knew. Forty years, although changing me outwardly, had still left a need for some inner peace. Across the room I spotted the man I had to come to see. With hat in hand, I introduced myself and allowed the moment to sink in.  He acknowledged that he wouldn’t have recognized me, and I admitted that much has changed over forty years.

“I’m sorry for everything,” I said, not wanting to get into too much detail on the day of his father’s funeral, but at the same time hoping that forgiveness could be granted.

“I’m also sorry for the loss of your father. He was a great man,” I continued.

“Yes, he was,” my friend said. “Maybe I’ll see you this summer,” he said with a smile.”

“I’d like that,” I said, with a knot in my throat as I choked up.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Spring Cleaning

Spring, although not yet here, has caused a shift in our thinking. As I write this it’s still only February, and yet already I have seen sandals, shorts, motorcycles and collector cars out and about. Mind you, I’m not complaining, but spring-cleaning doesn’t seem far behind.

I suspect in the old days spring-cleaning meant dragging the rugs and carpets out of the house and then beating the winter dust out of them. When I was a kid cleaning the garage with Dad
was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. He would back the car out and we would then empty the garage of its contents onto the front lawn to spite the neighbors, sweep out the garage, hose the floor down and put most everything back in. What didn’t make the cut was thrown out as junk.

While attending school in St. Cloud, I lived next door to the Jackson’s, a couple well into their eighties. I would give Ray a hand with mowing the lawn and other chores. One day he wanted help cleaning out his garage. As Ray shuffled around the garage behind his walker, he directed me to move one pile to one side and another pile to the other side. This continued on for twenty minutes or more until he was satisfied that enough stuff had been relocated.

It’s a battle to manage your stuff; the more room you have and the older you get, the worse it gets. Many years ago my wife and I read a book by Don Aslett “Clutter’s Last Stand,” that addressed this very issue. We used to have a copy (we either got rid of it or it got lost in the clutter).

Uncluttering is not confined to spring-cleaning; it can be a daily battle. Nothing is off limits. For instance, I have had reason recently to take inventory of the medicine cabinet, and I found some areas that needed attention. We have all manners of cure-alls that include cod liver and snake oil, as well as incense, peppermints, liniments and ointments. I was specifically looking for something to aid me in my battle against a variation of a bad cold. I found a packet that seemed to hit most everything I had with a few glaring exceptions, and it was just past the expiration date, but still clearly within my range of acceptance. However, it was not within my wife’s – I was instructed to take something current and complete.

My cleaning quest has also included my closet where I found clothes that had not been worn when they fit me and certainly would not be worn now that they don’t. They were removed from the rotation. Clothes that I detest but are too tattered and torn to be donated will be sacrificed some Saturday when I will use them as armor against the shards and sharp edges of work around the farm.

As I move from room to room and building to building nothing is beyond my reach if I can just keep the right mindset: it’s best to get rid of the extra and the unnecessary in this season of my life, while I am still able.