On Thursday, August 18, we met Jack at DFW Airport (he had flown in from Lubbock), and headed north to Minnesota, to his commencement ceremony at Hazelden, where in April he had finished his M.A. in addiction studies.
Before getting on the flight, a nice Talking-to-Strangers moment. I spotted an older guy wearing a cap that read “B-17”; behind the big letters was embroidery of the World War II bomber. Mindful that of the declining opportunities to thank folks like him for his service (more than 1800 World War II veterans die every day in the U.S.), I engaged him:
Me (gesturing at his cap): “Sir, did you fly them?”
Him: “No, I built them. I was 17 years old, and I was riveting them together. Then, toward the end, I got in the infantry, they sent me to Germany, and I saw ‘em flying over me. I was glad to see those planes above.”
Me: “Thank you for what you did for us.”
Him (surprised): “You’re . . . you’re welcome.”
We landed in Minneapolis, picked up a Chevy Malibu (a nice car, by the way, proof, albeit anecdotal, that General Motors is indeed pulling itself together), and drove to Linda’s mom’s house. Jack’s last remaining grandparent turns 90 next year, and is doing pretty well physically and mentally, still living on her own; Linda’s next-youngest brother, who never married, lives with her and helps some. We had a nice visit. Next stop, shopping for Linda and Jack, while your scribe worked his e-mail, made a call, and snapped a photo:
About six we headed northeast across the Twin Cities to Forest Lake, to dinner with a couple of Jack’s Hazelden classmates and their families and girlfriends. I had walleye for dinner, my favorite Minnesota fish. After dinner, we headed across the St. Croix River into Wisconsin, and to the big yellow farmhouse of friends Edward and Karel Moersfelder, who kindly hosted us for two nights (they are also Jack’s godparents). It was so good to again sleep with open windows, a nice breeze zipping in.
Friday was graduation day. Jack peeled off in the rental car to hang with his buddies, and Linda, Ed, Karel, and I yakked the morning away on their deck overlooking wetlands, pasture, and woods.
After omelettes we dressed and drove to Hazelden for the ceremony. I’m a soft touch, and the sight of Jack processing in cap and gown brought tears of joy – and recognition that after some struggles he has found his life’s calling.
High point of the event was a gripping keynote from David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times and recovering addict. We read a Times excerpt from his memoir Night of the Gun a few years ago, and his speech recounted some of his former life, together with high praise for the graduates’ chosen profession. Carr described them as “the Navy Seals of addiction treatment, a great tactical unit. Speaking of those in recovery, he said, “they don’t need rehabilitation, they need habilitation. They need to learn what it means to be a human being.” It was, as they used to say about speeches, a stemwinder.
After hugs and photos, we headed back to the house, took short naps, and headed to a celebratory dinner in nearby St. Croix Falls, then across the street to the Festival Theatre, where Ed has acted in a number of plays. That night was improv from summer interns. By ten we were plumb wore out.
Up before the sun Saturday morning, pedal to the metal, winding down State Highway 35, the gentle Wisconsin landscape smiling at us: grazing Holsteins, brooks, woods and farms. Dropped Jack at the airport and took Linda’s mom to breakfast. She told us she remembered being hungry for much of her childhood. Again we are reminded not to take things for granted. We flew home, back to the more-than-100º heat.
And repeat: exactly a week later, I flew (solo) back to Minnesota. Time for the annual trip to the Minnesota State Fair. The plan was a bit different this year: get there on opening day. We landed about 12:30, I zoomed to my hometown, Edina, and picked up friend-since-1963 (and former workmate in American Airlines’ ad department) Steve Schlachter. Before departing, we visited for awhile with Steve’s mother, Marlys, 81 and going really strong. Such a joy to meet active older people.
Despite warnings that it would take a long time to get through various road construction, we were near the fairgrounds by 2:30. If I arrive early in the morning, I park on the street, but no spaces were open, so we wheeled onto a front lawn on Pascal Street, engaging with the homeowner, an ESL teacher in St. Paul, and her two young daughters, who were getting ready for the start of the school year. You can learn a lot about people in five minutes, and the teacher provided some perspective on the challenges of inner-city public education.
As formula dictates, first stop was the juried art show, celebrating its 100th year. As regular readers know, most of the art is for sale, and we’ve bought a work nearly every year since 1986. Although it was day one, the show was jammed, but I was determined, and quickly surveyed the more than 300 works on display, snapping iPhone pictures. To my great delight, an absolutely wonderful oil and acrylic painting, “Winter Cabin” by Minneapolis artist Tom Wolfe, was for sale, and I zipped out my debit card at the front counter. The quick snap of the work is blurry, so I’ll include it when I go north to retrieve it in some months’ time. Like all of the art we’ve acquired at the show, there’s a strong Minnesota sense of place – deep winter snow, a simple log cabin, evergreens at dusk, nearly faded to black. It’s just lovely.
We paused for a beer, then ambled into the Creative Activities building, #2 on the must-see list, to again marvel at the enormous skill of craftspeople working with yarn, with wood, with flour, and more. “These are our neighbors,” said Steve, “and we usually have no idea of their talents.” Once again, we were tempted to smash the glass separating us from blue-ribbon and sweepstakes-winning cookies and bars. Then it was south to the Horticulture building, to ogle the flower growers’ skill, the prize-winning vegetables, and more.
I was delighted that Steve wanted to spend time in the animal barns, really the best part of the show. All of the controversy about livestock raising – and there is much inhumanity in industrial agriculture – fades when you see young members of the 4-H exhibiting their rabbits, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. Walking through the barns, I am each year reminded of the gift of animal domestication, and I whispered my thanks to God. We chatted briefly with some youngsters, but our best Talking-to-Strangers moment was with Kathryn Loppnow, 4-H member from Goodhue County in southeastern Minnesota, who would show her Hampshire pig Rodney the next day. We asked about Rodney’s growth (birth to 280 pounds, 20 more than market weight in six months!), about her studies (finished her second year as a biology major, hoping to go to medical school), and more. She was exemplary!
We ambled back across the Fair, pausing for some treats: roasted corn on the cob, deep-friend cheese curds (so glad Steve was along, because it’s way too much for one person), the little donuts called Tom Thumb, rolled in cinnamon sugar – and more beer. The weather was lovely, and we had a terrific time catching up on stuff and watching the varied humanity amble past. Steve reckoned it was his first Fair visit in 40 years.
We drove back to Edina and visited for more than an hour with Marlys and Steve’s sister Nancy, who had just dropped her oldest child at Marquette University (Milwaukee) for the first year of school.
I was out the door at 7:25 Friday morning, back through my old neighborhood in Edina, and down to the Linden Hills district in Minneapolis for coffee with another pal from high school, Jim Grandbois. We were not close friends back then, but we’ve been connected for years (he and his brother Dick had a furniture business and they made us a lovely walnut dining room set which we still have; the parquet inlaid table is precisely where I am typing this update). Jim and I got caught up on family and more. He needed to get to work selling realty, and I shot downtown to meet another long-time friend, Martha Mars.
I first met Martha at the Slalom Bar (I think that was the name) in Zermatt, Switzerland, January 1974. She and a pal were traveling in Europe, and as I recall I heard the word “Minnesota” in the bar, and the friendship began. Friends, but I had not seen her for more than 25 years – we actually reconnected by e-mail in 2006, when she spotted my name in the specialized newspaper Advertising Age. So we had a lot of catching up to do, back to the mid-1980s, but even farther back. She and I both lived unhappy early lives because of alcoholic parents. It was a joy to be back in touch with her. We yakked for almost two hours. There was a common theme among us that morning: we all understood, decades ago, that there was a bigger world out there, beyond Minnesota. We’re all the better for that recognition.
I dropped Martha at the new Minneapolis Public Library, and put pedal to the metal, aiming the red Nissan Versa north, across the pleasant farm country of central Minnesota, up to the lakes north of Brainerd. First stop was the fourth friend of the day, George Rasmusson. We worked together at Republic Airlines, and we had a good visit. He’s taken a job selling for a big resort called Breezy Point, an interesting place with quite a history. He had been in the post for less than a month and seemed eager to get more done on a Friday afternoon (I was on vacation!), so I drove ten miles to the cabin of pal-since-1963 Tim McGlynn. Mac and his partner Sue were glad to see me, and vice-versa. It was my third visit to Big Trout Lake in four years. We yakked a bit, drove into the town of Crosslake for some food and beer. I hopped in the lake to cool off, and we motored over to Bill and Sally Terry’s cabin for a party and dinner (it was the same weekend festivities described in 2010). Great to see old friends and meet some new ones. My bunk for the night, as the previous year, was a comfy king in the back of Tim’s RV. Nice!
The iPhone alarm clock did not need to be set. I awoke Saturday at dawn, to the call of the loon, for me the signal sound of northern Minnesota. I just listened to the call for 15 minutes. Ambled down to the cabin and sat on the deck admiring to view and savoring the 52º. After breakfast, I connected with an even longer friend (since Mrs. Milward’s fourth-grade class 51 years ago), Ward Brehm. We took a long and brisk bike ride, at a pace fast enough for a workout, but gentle enough to ride side by side and catch up. Ward has done a great deal of work to raise awareness of African development issues, and we yakked about that, as well as a host of other topics. He’s the one of the nicest Republicans I know, and indeed that was one of the topics: we lamented the polarization that seems to be taking place, not only in Washington, but even among people who are (or were) friends. Just so stupid. How about a little flexibility, people?
After a zippy ride on one of Tim’s fast motor scooters (I was goin’ 60!), we got in the boat and motored through the chain of lakes to the Moonlight, the bar we visited in 2010 to hear a group of aging rockers, The Elements. And they were back. We had a blast there, yakking, dancing, and carrying on as if we were youngsters (my knees reminded me the next day). Almost too much fun, but there was more later, as we headed back to the Terry’s cabin for barbecue. I just had to leave early, because I wanted to get up at six for a last bike ride in the cool morning.
And that’s what I did, pedaling nine miles on Tim’s mountain bike before heading back to the Twin Cities. Last stop before flying south to Texas, and the heat, was a cup of coffee with Mr. Jensen, my 12th –grade English teacher and an early and positive life influencer. It had been a year, and it was great to catch up with him. He is a righteous person.
We like our life in Texas, but after back-to-back visits, my native Minnesota was tugging hard.