Friday, December 25, 2009

Not Your Usual Fluffy Christmas Rhyme


'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the shop
Nothing was stirring, you could hear a pin drop.
The sleigh was not ready, the toys were not packed,
Santa was fuming and quite lacking in tact.

"Pip!" he called out to the foreman on duty,
Where is your crew? And don't act so snooty!
Pip's feelings were hurt, but he wondered the same
Were they lost? Had they left? Were they playing a game?

"Never mind!" thundered Santa, while grabbing his sack,
"We'll do it ourselves: There are toys in the back."
So into the warehouse like madmen they flew.
Santa and Pip had much packing to do.

And then, down a corridor seldom in use,
They heard something like an hysterical goose.
But no, there were words in that hideous shriek,
It was music: now Santa was prone to critique.

Santa strode to the source of that hideous din,
Closely followed by Pip, who beheld with chagrin:
Three elves and four bottles and, there on a chair,
A boom box whose music was filling the air.

Santa stood for a moment, transfixed by the sight
Then he bellowed so loudly that Pip shook with fright.
"You! Chuckles! And Bubbles! And you, mister Suds!"
Why are you carousing while in your work duds?"

The fate of that threesome Pip would not relate,
Except to recall that the hour was late:
And Santa was anxious to fly in his sleigh,
And dealt with loose ends on the following day.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Dubious Tale of Aunt Abigail's Christmas Cake

The Christmas Cake is a particular sort of fruitcake, made especially for the holiday season. Comprised, I'm told, of: currants;, sultanas; candied cherries; plus enough butter and brown sugar to make your arteries harden, just looking at it. And, perhaps to make certain that no calorie-free void remains, syrup.

Prepared in the traditional manner, a "healthy Christmas cake" is an oxymoron: a contradiction in concepts. The entire point of baking a Christmas cake is to create a sumptuous and durable treat which, if necessary, can serve as a doorstop.

Which reminds me of Aunt Abigail's Christmas cake, baked not long after Disneyland opened.

Aunt Abigail mailed the massive fruitcake to her nephew's family, who had recently moved to California.

The nephew was touched by Aunt Abigail's kindness. He was also touched by the kind gift sent his family by his wife's Aunt Waverly: another fruitcake. Aunt Waverly's Christmas cake was tasted by the family. Aunt Abigail's was saved "for later."

"Later" stretched on, as weeks and months passed by. Around November of the next year, Aunt Waverly's cake had not been finished. The nephew weighed his options: and decided to give Aunt Abigail's fruitcake to a cousin's family.

And so the travels of Aunt Abigail's fruitcake began. Each year the mass of preserved fruits and nuts found itself in a new home: where it was admired; set aside "for later;" and ultimately sent forth to continue its journey.

Who knows? This year Aunt Abigail's fruitcake may arrive at your home.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Howard Leland and the SPCD

Someone wanting to drift anonymously through life shouldn't live in a small town. It's like the old joke says: "If you can't remember what you did today, ask someone - they'll know."

So, it was a bit of a surprise to be when I learned that Howard Leland, someone I've known for years, is a long-time member of the SPCD.

I made the discovery, talking about the news with him last week. I mentioned an article about plate tectonics, which led to Howard Leland explaining a few things to me.

For years now, America has been drifting away from Europe. Literally. At a rate of 2 point five centimeters a year. That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. The Atlantic is a dozen feet wider now than it was back in 1866 when the first trans-Atlantic cable was completed.

Obviously, Mr. Leland said, there has been a great deal of needless expense: repairing and replacing cables as North America moved west.

It's more than cables, of course. As North America and others drift recklessly around, their movement causes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions: and even, as mountains grow and oceans change shape, climate change.

The SPCD, or Society for the Prevention of Continental Drift, wants to change all that. They've sent petitions to Congress, and are raising funds for a national advertising campaign.

Mr. Leland was disappointed when I didn't sign the SPCD petition. As a sort of recompense, I thought I'd alert my readers to the perils of continental drift.

Howard Leland: It All Began With Butterflies

The full list of columns featuring Howard Leland, one of Loonfoot Falls' more earnest citizens, has been moved to "".

Here's where Howard first appeared:

Friday, December 4, 2009

The True Meaning of Christmas, Robot Dinosaurs, Designated Drivers and Julekaga

It's Friday again. Time for me to come up with another 250 words for this column.

There really hasn't been all that much going on in Loonfoot Falls, apart from people going half-crazy, trying to get ready for Christmas. Which, now that I think of it, should be good for twenty dozen words plus ten.

Of course, there's that tired old "and the true meaning of Christmas is" thing: generally something about feeling all warm and fuzzy all over. Sort of like my cousin George. He's the one who looks like he's wearing a sweater, when he takes off his shirt.

Or, there's being indignant about the crass commercialization of Christmas. Problem is, I really like seeing row after row of glittering ornaments on the store shelves, and suspect that most people do. Hey, somebody's buying that stuff. I don't do "indignant" all that well, anyway.

Then there are those weird robot-dinosaur toys. You've seen the ads. They don't exactly have artificial intelligence, but they move around. And one squirts water. The kids would love them: but I'm not so sure about the parents.

Of course, I could jump ahead and do a public service message about having a designated driver if you're out making an idiot of yourself on New Year's Eve. That's actually a good idea. The designated driver part, I mean.

Or, I could write about Julekake: pronounced "yuleh-kaga," for those of you who don't live near Norvegians, don't cha know. But I've run out of room.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Spiral Christmas Trees: Relics of Disco? Or Spaceport Beacons?

The day after Thanksgiving is known for two things: Black Friday sales in the stores; and Christmas displays lighting up in front yards. Headlines about the commercial side of today have phrases like "door buster sales:" and occasionally "doors busted during sale."

Somehow, that sort of excitement hasn't happened in Loonfoot Falls. The busted doors thing, that is.

Loonfoot Falls' household Christmas displays, on the other hand, came to life last night. And, if this year follows the pattern, there will be more lights shining and flashing along the streets as the next couple of weeks pass.

Some households put something new out each year.

The Engelbrechts, for example, added two corkscrew-shaped LED Christmas trees in their front yard. Flashing ones. One blue, the other white. Not a simple ‘on/off' flash, either: first one set of the LEDs light up, then the other. They run through their cycle three or four times a second.

I can't decide whether the abstract tannenbaums look more like decorations from the Disco era, or landing lights salvaged from a spaceport somewhere. Don't get me wrong: I like the things, but they take a little getting used to. Especially the white one. It's bright. Very bright.

I see that advertisements call those spiral trees "Pre-Lit LED Outdoor Spiral Christmas Tree Yard Art Decoration" Which seems redundant to me. I mean to say: have you ever heard of a yard that wasn't Outdoors?

Then there are the lighted wire animals: but that'll wait for another day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

H1N1 2009, Pigs, Turkeys, and Small Town America

I see in the news that H1N1 2009, or swine flu, is on the decline, at least in America. I can't say that I'm disappointed. I got over that cold I had last month, and am quite willing to go through the winter with no flu: swine or otherwise.

The schools here in Loonfoot Falls are inoculating students, starting next week. One of my nephews is getting the shot: and not looking forward to it. Not many people like being stuck with needles. In this case, though, it's probably worth it. One of the boy's friends came down with H1N1 recently, recovered: and assured my nephew that it's a miserable bug to have.

"Pig farmer" probably isn't high on anybody's list of glamour careers: but hog farming is big business in this part of Minnesota. And, an important part of Loonfoot Fall's economy. Which may be part of the reason why this paper hasn't been using the term, "swine flu," all that much. Besides, around here, the pigs are more likely to catch it from people, than the other way around.

Or would be, if the hog farmers weren't so careful with their herds.

Then there are the precautions turkey operations take.

Many of America's forty six million Thanksgiving turkeys start out around here. Approaches to the turkey barns generally have signs warning people off: Nobody that doesn't have business there, and is disease-free, is allowed near the gobblers. Regulations aside, there's a big investment tied up in each bird.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tofu Turkey: No Kidding

You may remember Howard Leland, proponent of the 'natural yard,' member of the Asclepias Society member, and defender of zombie ants.

He's decided that he won't contribute to the annual slaughter of turkeys this year. He told me that he's going to feast on a concoction of tofu, sage, rosemary and thyme. No parsley, though. The recipe also calls for vinegar (balsamic, not that ordinary kind), red wine, Dijon mustard, soy sauce, and a few other ingredients.

Turns out, "balsamic vinegar" isn't vinegar at all. It's not made from wine, but from grape pressings that get boiled down and aged. The source I used said that it got popular in America after chefs at upscale restaurants started using it. No wonder balsamic vinegar was new to me. I'm more a Captain Blimpo Lindenburger kind of guy.

I'd have thought that starting with five blocks of well-pressed curdled soybean milk would be enough soy product: but Mr. Leland showed me the recipe, and soy sauce is there, on top of the hefty dose of tofu.

And, I learned that there's a commercial product called Tofurky®: Made, naturally, in a very vegan way with no "genetically engineered foods." That must take some doing, since soybeans have been a domesticated plant for about 31 centuries now.

I had a very interesting talk with Howard Leland, learned how enthusiastic he is about his latest project, and suggested that he see if he could make vegan tofu turkey: with cranberry flavor mixed in before baking.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Holiday Decorations I Can't Forget

This is a very special time of year for stores. Shoppers are greeted by plastic pumpkins and inflatable spiders; paper mache turkeys and pilgrim hats; and ersatz evergreens with red, white, or silvery foliage and pre-mounted lights.

Retailers hope that they can sell this year's Halloween stuff, to make room for the next two big holidays.

The Loonfoot Falls Valderrama's manager, is no exception. They've got some fine-looking masks that could be the Scream mask's insanely happy cousin, with a metallic red finish. Then there are the plastic pumpkin buckets: dozens of them.

Dina Nelson, of Dina's Diesel Diner, by the Interstate, got her holiday stock on the shelf: including a very retro-looking plaque with an eagle and a turkey in front of a stars-and-bars shield.

Deuce Hardware's replaced garden supplies with snow shovels, de-icer fluid, bird feeders, and Christmas lighting equipment: including an inflatable snow globe. Somehow, "inflatable" shows up a lot in descriptions of holiday paraphernalia.

Rasmussen's is trying to keep this season's Titanic Transmogrifiers on the shelves in its toy department. They don't evoke the same warm, fuzzy feelings as outsized wooden nutcrackers and Christmas elves: but they're selling like hotcakes.

The downtown Coalworth store's gift section had something that caught my eye: "Nightmare Before Christmas" figures. Now I can't seem to forget a pair of them, Jack and Sally. I'll admit that Jack, dressed in a Santa Claus suit, is colorful. But they're rigged with little cables so they can be hung on a Christmas tree.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Belvedere Union Grand's Room 313

Most nights, the key to the Belvedere Union Grand hotel's room 313 is the last to leave its hook. Not that many guests sleeping there have complained: but as the owner, T. J. Baum, told me, it's the room that's the farthest from the stairs on the top floor.

And there's that girl standing outside the window.

The Belvedere Union Grand hotel is a landmark in Loonfoot Falls, the tallest building downtown. Its foundation was laid at the corner of Broadway and Center Street in1899, overlooking Railroad Park.

And, like many buildings a century or more old, it's got its share of ghost stories.

There's the sound of a ball bouncing down the stairs between the second and third floor, usually heard late in the evening.

Several employees have refused to enter the 'back room' in the basement: a storeroom with a small window opening onto an air shaft. Others heard voices outside that window.

Several guests in room 313 woke up in the small hours of the morning, thinking someone had called their name. Each reported seeing a young woman, with "poofed up" dark hair, as one said, standing quietly outside the window, looking in.

It's disturbing, waking up to see someone looking at you through the window. What troubled the guests even more was what they saw the next morning. The young woman had apparently been standing with nothing but about ten yards of open air between her feet and the cement floor of the basement's air shaft.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Coming Soon: The Story of Room 313

This week's column will come Halloween night, with the story of room 313.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Frankie and the Ferret Whisperer

First grader Jamie Johnson thought it'd be a fine idea to bring Frankie the Ferret to show and tell last week. Jamie's teacher, Frances Robinson, had brought her dog, Mr. Frizz, to class earlier in the year, and Jamie figured that if they liked an Affenpinscher, his classmates would love a ferret.

Jamie was right. About two dozen first-graders mobbed Frankie before Mrs. Robinson restored order.

And discovered that Frankie wasn't in his carrier.

And, apparently, wasn't in the classroom, either.

Mrs. Robinson, partly out of consideration for Jamie, and partly because the school had a zero-tolerance policy for unsupervised animals, called the office.

About two hours later a ferret whisperer arrived. By helicopter.

Actually, it was a wildlife specialist from the Minnesota DNR. He was under the impression that we had spotted a black-footed ferret.

I think I see how the false alarm happened. The DNR wanted, and got, a description of Frankie. Frankie's color pattern is the usual 'sable:' whitish muzzle, a sort of dark mask, and dark paws.

The black-footed ferret's an endangered species. Minnesota wasn't part of its old range. No wonder the DNR got excited.

And had asked that the school be evacuated. Which it was.

George Winters (he's the DNR ferret man) was a good sport about the false alarm, after he realized that they were looking for the sort of ferret you can get at a pet store.

He finally found Frankie: on Mrs. Robinson's desk, eating her corned beef on rye lunch.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Week Away From the Office

Here's another bit I pulled out of the Chronicle-Gazette's archives. I've run into the story a few times. I've tracked one version of it back to Nat M. Wills' 1909 "No News, or What Killed the Dog" – But I suspect that it's a tale that's been revised and retold since before Plato's time.

I edited this version to fit the column's space requirements.

A busy executive's doctor told him that he had a choice: a week completely away from the stress of work, or a heart attack. So, the executive gave his staff instructions and told his family he was going to a place in northern Minnesota that didn't have telephone or telegraph service.

A week later, refreshed and feeling better than he had in years, the executive stopped at a gas station and called his office. After giving a summary of the week's business, the secretary said:

"There's one more thing. You dog died."

"He was healthy when I left, but he was getting old: what happened?"

"The vet says it was from eating burnt horse meat."

"Where'd he get that?"

"Well, after the stables burned down-"

"How did they catch fire?"

"The fire marshal says it was sparks from the house."

"The house is gone, right?"

"Yes, sir. But they got your mother's coffin out in time."

"My mother?! How did she die?"

"The doctor says it was stress from the news."

"What news?"

"Oh, of course: You haven't heard. Your wife ran off with the cable guy."

Friday, October 9, 2009

'Gone Fishing'

Actually, I'm taking a short vacation. And, winterizing my house.

Some people in Loonfoot Falls haul in straw bales, stacking them one or two high around the house. One fellow, several years ago, put four mil sheeting around his place. The house looked like it was packed in shrink-wrap.

Me? I'm content to caulk the windows, put clear plastic sheeting over them, plug any leaks the doors might have developed over the summer, have someone make sure that the furnace is okay (it was), shut the inside valves for the outside spigots, and then check my work to see if I missed anything.

It's a sort of annual ritual for people living in a climate like this.

There are alternatives, of course: like waiting until it gets cold, fire up the furnace and hope you wake up the next morning.

There's a new regulation in Minnesota, by the way: as of August 1, 2009, "all multifamily dwelling units" have to have carbon dioxide detectors within ten feet of each bedroom. 'Single family dwellings' have to have CO detectors too. It's not a bad idea, actually. I've had CO detectors in my place for years.

It's not that I'm nervous or timid: but breathing is part of my lifestyle, and I don't want to give it up.

I don't think most people like higher fuel prices and new regulations, but I think we're seeing fewer houses blow up around the start of heating season now. I think that's a good thing.

Friday, October 2, 2009

October's Dull Gray Weather

It's been a dreary week, here in Loonfoot Falls. Rain, overcast skies, the ‘swoosh' of cars driving on damp streets. I seem to remember seeing a bit of blue sky, it might have been Tuesday: but apart from that, daytime has been shades of gray.

Rain falling listlessly on windows, but finding no rest: droplets gathering on the glass to form caravans before continuing their downward journey.

Drivers out at noon, headlights glaring in the sodden gloom.

Householders wonder: does the furnace work? The more forethoughtful among them have had someone come out and see what repairs need to be made.

Extra blankets on the bed. Hardware stores selling caulking and plastic sheeting to people who firmly intend that last winter was indeed the last for some familiar draft.

Flu shots at the pharmacy. Should I get one this year? Would it help? Could anything help?

Summer closeout sales have ended. Candy and strange, disembodied faces haunt the store shelves. Halloween approaches: perhaps the leaves will be dry by then.

Raking in the rain. Chilling rivulets infiltrate the jacket, finding no resistance as they run down my back. Leaves, heavy with rain that came too late for their all-too-brief summer. Why should I rake? The leaves are beyond cares of this world. Soon the winter's snow will hide leaves, grass, and that hoe I forgot to bring in.

As I contemplate the rake, the hoe, and the woeful drizzle, a truth: unbidden, unsought, unwelcome comes. I have caught a cold.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Dog's Tale

Going through the Chronicle-Gazette's archives the other day, I ran across a sort of biography of a dog. It said that he was a sort of Scottish Terrier mix, which would account for the stern eyebrows in the dog's photo.

He'd stood out from his littermates: mostly because his combination of huge paws, clumsiness and enthusiasm sent him careening into walls, off steps, and into water dishes more often than the rest combined.

As he grew, his body continued to lag behind his paws: but he became slightly less clumsy. And, if anything, more energetic.

He lived on a farm, so he had plenty of room to run. Which was fine, until the day when he, chasing some critter nobody else could see, ran into the business end of a combine.

His owner had seen the dog coming, and cut power, but the kinetic canine (I know: but that's how the dog bio put it) still had to be disentangled from the reel. The vet told his owner that it'd be kinder to put the dog down, but a bond had formed between human and klutz. The dog, now minus his right ear and a few teeth, went home a week later.

And kept out of trouble all winter. During spring planting, apparently in an effort to catch a seeder, he ran under the wheels of a truck.

This time the dog came home with three legs, and no hope of siring puppies of his own.

The dog's name? Lucky.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Disturbing Case of the Bored Husband

Loonfoot Falls has no shortage of Nelsons, but I haven't found a couple who quite match the "Mr. and Mrs. Nelson" I read about this week. Maybe they're from out of town.

Here's the email I read:

Since his retirement, Mr. Nelson had accompanied his wife each time she went to Valderrama. She liked having someone to carry packages.

His idea of shopping was to get in, find the listed items, and get out. Hers was to browse until she had what she needed, then visit another department or two.

Mr. Nelson got bored.

Then, Mrs. Nelson got this letter from the Loonfoot Falls Valderrama:

Dear. Mrs. Nelson,

Your husband has, over the last three months, seriously inconvenienced many customers, and interfered with Valderrama cooperators. If he does not stop his antics, we may be forced to bar you from this store.

His actions, which force us to take this step, are as follows. We have surveillance video of each incident.

June 2: In housewares, set alarm clocks to go off at five minute intervals

June 8: Approached an employee, saying "Code 5 in Housewares. Take care of it now"

June 23: Spent twenty minutes at the Service Desk, trying to put a Hershey's candy bar on layaway

July 14: While holding a rifle in the Sporting Goods department, asked the cooperator where antidepressants were stocked

The Loonfoot Falls Valderrama manager doesn't know of any similar incidents: so this email may have been a hoax. Still, it's a good story.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Ago Today

Today is the first time since 2001 that September 11 has fallen on a Friday, the day this paper is published. I suppose most people remember where they were and what they were doing that morning.

I'd started my freshman year at Foggton State University, and was between classes in Sivertson Hall. Someone had a radio going. New York City under attack or not, I had classes to go to, so it wasn't until around 4:00 that I could start catching up.

The Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette doesn't, as a rule, do national or even state news, but the September 14, 2001, issue was an exception. The lead story's headline was simply, "America Attacked."

It shared the front page with an article on the Loonfoot Falls School Board's approval of a referendum for an operating levy, and another about allegations that a feedlot operator approved his own feedlot proposal, misrepresented the plan to his neighbors, and walked away with a quarter-million dollars.

Since then, this area's Minnesota National Guard unit has been deployed in Iraq, and returned; the referendum passed, and the operator was convicted.

This week's paper isn't quite so dramatic. A story about the trial of a man suspected of burglarizing the Mighty Minn Mart last year is the lead. The other two are about a traffic stop that turned into a drug arrest; and the end of Loonfoot Falls Police Department's K-9 program.

Rambler the bloodhound has been patrolling with Daniel Brown since 2003.

But that's another story.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Labor Day Traffic Jam and Picnic: 1973

Afterwards, nobody seemed to know who first thought of repairing the U. S. Highway 73 bridge over the Loonfoot River during that Labor Day weekend, 37 years ago. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

That Friday afternoon, August 31, 1973, at 5:30, barriers went up and a crew began work on the bridge. The nearest north-south roads at the time were several miles away.

Work was almost completed Monday afternoon, when vacationers from Minnesota's lake country started pouring down Highway 73, past the detour signs.

No more than a hundred southbound cars were stopped on the highway by the time the Highway Patrol and police from several towns started sorting the mess out.

Frustrated drivers were getting turned around and pointed toward the detour, when a semi came barreling down the road. The cab went off the west side of the road. The back end slewed around. The wheels fell into the east ditch, dropping the fifty-foot trailer across the pavement.

Frank Anderson had been watching the excitement from his Lakeview Diner. Like good neighbors, he and his staff put together a sort of impromptu picnic. Those vacationers got home hours later than they planned: but they did get a free meal out of it.

Mr. Anderson explained to me that he figured it was worth it, in good will. It wasn't his fault that the 1973 oil crisis started about a month later. The Lakeview Diner closed its doors in the fall of 1974.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Loonfoot Falls Schools: Yes, the Students Get a Map

School's starting soon. From the Valderrama down by the Interstate to Coalworth's, stores have shelves full of pencils, pens, paper, and all the rest. The school building's wall hides final preparations for fall classes.

I don't know if a town's school building tells you something about the town, but I do know that towns have different sorts of schools.

Watab's school, for example, was planned and built as a unified whole: two-story lobby and all.

Loonfoot Falls' school buildings grew in a more impromptu manner.

Work started on the oldest part of the present school complex in the summer of 1908.

The old Chester A. Arthur building still looks about the same as it did a hundred years ago: from the outside. Inside, it's gone through a major remodeling twice: once in the forties, adding a new heating system and insulation; and again in 1999, mostly to remove asbestos.

Until the fifties, elementary students used the first floor and high schoolers had the second: a simple, neat arrangement. Then elementary classes were moved to a new building, an auto shop grew out of the back of the old school, and the Polk Middle School went up next door.

The latest development is the new JFK high school building, more or less behind the middle school.

If you think that sounds complicated, you're not alone. The student manual has a map of the school inside: and I've heard that a few students get lost around the start of each school year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Baum Media Productions: From Light Bulbs to Galaxy Cadet

Baum Media Productions, with its distinctive "When You See the Bee" logo, started as a studio lighting company in the early seventies.

"I sold equipment that filmmakers use: lights, backdrops, filters, cables, booms, the whole thing," Elton Baum explained.

"There were a lot of experimental studios then, in the San Francisco area. Creative people, but without much practical experience. They needed help."

"I saw the sort of stuff they were making - and selling! - and thought, ‘I can do this.' So I talked to some people I'd met, and started making films."

The early films, like "Jerome Doesn't Live Here" and "The Krakow Chronicle," were commercially successful without achieving critical acclaim. "So what? A critic buys one ticket. I'm interested in what everybody else likes."

Baum Media Productions moved its studio to Minnesota in the eighties. "Partly for the climate," Elton grinned. I'll admit I'm biased, though, I like it here."

I discovered that Stan Parks and his brother Xul had worked on a Baum film that never made it to production: "Dino Side Story."

"Two gangs of dinosaurs, the fangs and the claws. A boy from one and a girl from the other fall in love, wish on a new star, everybody ‘sees the light,' makes friends – and then the star falls on the city and they die." Elton Baum shook his head.

"The legal department said there were problems with it: and I'm not sure I liked the ending, myself. Oh, well: there's always the next Galaxy Cadet film."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rags to Riches to Rags: Sometimes

My dad once told me that the 'rags to riches' story often was 'rags to riches to rags' in three generations. It's not a universal rule, but the pattern exists.

The founder is born poor, but has energy, ambition, and a really good idea. A few decades later, the founder's children start taking over the business. Let's say it's one child.

The kid's smart enough: but doesn't have the founder's spark. The second generation keeps the business running, though. Or, is sharp enough to live on the interest of investments.

The third generation comes along. This wunderkind grew up surrounded by wealth, and has bold, innovative ideas.

Which turn out to be innovatively suicidal, when applied to the founder's business.

Or, the founder's grandchild isn't all that interested in the business, but enjoys spending money on things like sports cars and skiing in Vail: and spends two generation's accumulation of wealth.

There are many exceptions, of course.

Like the Adams family: the real one, starting with Samuel Adams, who helped stir up the American revolution and was Governor of Massachusetts for a while. Two centuries later, Charles Francis Adams IV was Raytheon's first president.

They're not as famous as the Adams, but Loonfoot Falls has the Baums. The family is into its seventh generation now, and most of Zachariah Baum's descendants have done pretty well. I've mentioned Elton Baum's efforts with Haskell's Corner Drug, and the I Love Fruit! stand. Next week, I plan to tell about Baum Media Productions.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Amber Defenders and the Zombie Ant

Howard Leland got bad news last month, from the Asclepias Society. It's official now, he told me: The society is interested in butterflies of any species. But not ants.

Mr. Leland is determined to save ants of the world from insensitive scientists, and is pursuing that goal with the zeal he’s shown for promoting butterfly preserves and sustainable leaf blowers.

Some people might have learned of the indignities suffered by a zombie ant, and remained unmoved. Not Howard Leland.

A lesser man might have been discouraged by the Asclepias Society's lack of cooperation. For Howard Leland, it was a call to action.

He's organizing the Amber Defenders: People protecting ants from indignities; even as amber has defended ancestral ants' remains from the ravages of time.

Looking at it that way, it's sort of heroic and poetic.

Howard Leland's told me, several times, the incident whose retelling inspired him.

About fifty years ago, an innocent ant got swabbed by oleic acid. No harm done, physically, but Mr. Leland’s sure the ant suffered emotional distress.

After ants have been dead for a few days they start giving off oleic acid. Ants rely heavily on smells to keep track of things, so that very-much-alive ant registered as "dead" to its colony-mates.

As far as other ants were concerned, they had a dead ant walking. For two hours, the zombie ant was picked up, carried to the colony's 'graveyard' pile, over and over.

So far, the Amber Defenders has three members, including Mr. Leland.

Related posts:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Big Lemon at the Grimm County Fair

Neighborhood lemonade stands are nothing unusual.

And you’ve seen lemonade concessions in portable huts, shaped like lemons.

What you probably haven't seen is anything quite like the I Love Fruit! (ILF) lemonade stand at this year's Grimm County Fair. It’s shaped like a lemon - nothing new there - with a big porthole instead of the usual rectangular opening. And, the giant lemon is still attached to a section of stem.

It's portable: although with a main section that's 12 feet long by nine and a quarter feet wide, it needs a 'wide load' permit to go on Minnesota roads. This colossal ersatz citrus has built-in refrigeration for its stock of lemons, and air conditioning for the staff.

Loonfoot Falls native Cherrie Baum has been involved with ILF's development for over a year now. 'I'd love it if people use these at county fairs,' she explained. 'The ILF concession is probably best suited for amusement parks like Valleyfair, though, and other areas where the stand can stay in place year-round.'

The ILF stand at this year’s fair is a test-run, to see how people like it.

Each year around 30,000 people come to the Grimm County Fair to look over farm equipment, eat fried candy, enjoy the midway, and check out livestock: so the ILF stand should get a good looking-over.

Provided that Saturday and Sunday aren't like today.

About three inches of rain thoroughly washed the streets this afternoon: and kept people at the fair in the exhibit buildings.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Frustrations of a Small-Town Journalist

Daniel Nelson graduated from Loonfoot Falls High School back in 1999, got a degree in Journalism from Foggton University four years later, and started work here a couple weeks later. He did a good job: although Nelson clearly wanted to get past merely assisting the editors.

On his own time, he'd study Loonfoot Falls, looking for the story that would put his name on the journalistic map. He became convinced that there was an expose just waiting to be written about Rasmussen's department store, downtown.

There'd been a Rasmussen's in Loonfoot Falls for about a hundred years. The current owner's grandfather started the store as a clothing shop, and some of the fourth generation is working there, learning the ropes. And, as often as not, there are "SALE" signs in the windows.

Dan Nelson found the store's frequent sales quite suspicious.

After three years Nelson gave up, dropped his notes and a letter of resignation on Mr. Johnson's desk, and left town. His notes, weighing about two pounds, made their way to my desk this year. My hat's off to Dan Nelson: he'd done a particularly thorough job, not just collecting information about Rasmussen's, but analyzing the store's records.

Those sales? He'd discovered that Rasmussen's was getting the season's stock off the racks to make room for new merchandise. Not every store has sales that often, but there wasn't anything illegal, or unethical, about them.

Don't worry about Dan Nelson. He's now the editor of Morlock's Voice, down in Minneapolis.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"I am a Feather for Each Wind that Blows" and Other Cheerful Thoughts

A chill wind drives leaden clouds across the sky. Trees wave their branches: beckoning, perhaps, for sunlight and warmth to return; or gesturing supplications against the boreal force.

It's been downright chilly in central Minnesota this week. Winds like this and highs in the sixties are fairly normal during autumn: but this is mid-July.

I should have said, "average during autumn". "Normal" in Minnesota covers a lot of ground. As they say: Minnesota doesn't have a climate: it has weather.

I think a writer overstated it a bit when, discussing "the future" (as imagined in 1964), he described living in Antarctica this way:

" too can take up residence in a barren desert of ice and snow where it's dark six months of the year and blizzards howl as they blast flesh-cutting shards of ice through the subzero air.

"A bit like living in Minnesota, actually." (Tales of Future Past, Futurama '64 (4), David S. Zondy)

There are, after all, many calm days during a Minnesota winter, and the sun is above the horizon for several hours. Of course, you can see the sun best on those days when it seems too cold for clouds to form.

My reason tells me that summer will return, along with blue skies and sunshine are not merely dim memories from another life; legends of an age when joy and laughter had not forsaken humanity, when wind and rain didn't have the ducks walking; tales recalling that epoch when I didn't have a cold.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Loonfoot Falls Community Theater: Recycling Keeps Them in the Green

I caught Flora Ellert, Loonfoot Falls Community Theater's Dramatics Director, in a talkative mood this week. LFCT has been working on this summer's show: something called "Magic: A Fantastic Comedy."

That play wasn't what we talked about, though. I'd mentioned that the LFCT hadn't done a musical since "Doctor Jekyll, Please Don't Hyde!" in 2004.

Flora Ellert didn't say what that musical's royalties were, but I learned that stage musicals can cost between $250 and $500 for each performance - just for the right to use a script and music. Comedies and dramas, she told me, run around $65 for opening night and $35 a show after that. Then there's the matter of paying for each copy of the script, or a fee for the right to make photocopies.

"Sure: It's fun; it's art. It's business, too, sort of," she explained. Loonfoot Falls Community Theater is a non-profit outfit, with everybody volunteering their time. But, she pointed out, besides the royalties there's rental for the rehearsal and performance space, and generally some expense for sets, props, and costumes.

"We save quite a bit on our sets. Einar Johnson's something of a genius when it comes to re-using materials each year," Flora explained. Einar created Dr. Jekyll's laboratory out of pieces of sets for a Victorian sitting room, an apartment's kitchen, and PVC pipe that's been ship's rigging, trees in Sherwood Forest, a telescope and lamp posts.

Frances Robinson applies the same recycling principles to the theater's costumes. But that's another topic.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July Fourth Memories

It's good to be back. I spent a few days last week at the 'vacation' house of a friend of mine, and did a bit of mowing and fixing while I was there.

While I was not watching television or surfing the Web, I started thinking about July Fourth celebrations I'd been at, or heard about.

Oakwood, just down the road, puts on a fine Independence Day fireworks display. When I was growing up, the family would go there every year, say 'OOH,' 'AAH,' swat mosquitoes and, sometimes, listen to my father tell about his teen years and the Foggton July Fourth fireworks show that ended early.

As he told it, that Independence Day had started with a heavy overcast, so that by the time the display was supposed to start, around local sunset, it was already quite dark. Then it started to drizzle on the people in River Park.

The organizers should probably have canceled right then. The drizzle hadn't dampened people's spirits (sorry: I couldn't resist that), but it had a bad effect on the fireworks. The mortars should have been lobbing shells high above the crowd. Instead, fiery flowers were going off so low that hot, glowing pieces were hitting the ground.

Then one of those flash-and-bang shells shot up, fell back, hit the ground and exploded.

My father says the people in front of him stood out like black cutouts for a moment. It was as if a lightning bolt had struck.

That ended the show.

Friday, June 19, 2009

'Sam' and the Electrifying Case of the Modem and the Surge Protector

A fellow I know, I'll call him Sam, lives over a hundred miles north and west of here, on an old farmstead near a smallish town. He's a very smart man, but not particularly tech-savvy. But, he'd read about home computers, and all the information that's available on the Internet.

So, he bought a computer, printer, surge protector: the whole works.

Sam decided to pay someone to get the system running.

The fellow from town who ‘knew about computers' got cables plugged into boxes, power, and telephone outlets: and when he was through, Sam's computer started up.

Sam was delighted. He started learning how to use Google, and was developing a small set of favorite websites.

Sam was climbing a rather steep learning curve, when the first big thunderstorm of the season hit. When it was over, his computer worked, but he couldn't find anything on the Internet.

In that part of the country, rural telephone lines are all above ground. The network of poles and wires act as a giant lightning attractor. The relatively low-tech telephones don't seem to be affected that much, but a modem is something else.

The fellow who "knew about computers" had bypassed the telephone sockets in the surge protector, and plugged a telephone cord directly into the modem. Which, after the storm, was a bit of high tech pop sculpture.

Sam got a new modem, and he's surfing the Web again. But this time, without the help of the fellow who "knew about computers."

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Truncated Tale of Lake 13

There's a picture postcard that's been for sale in Minnesota's lake country for decades. It's a cartoon of a small boat, rain, a man with fishing gear, and a woman who's clearly been in the rain for quite a while. She's asking, "Are we having fun yet?"

Sometimes, it's the other way around. Sonia Johnson, Loonfoot Falls Chamber of Commerce head, is an avid fisherman. Fisherperson. Fishwife.

She like to fish.

She took a break from organizing this year's River Revel last weekend, and headed to Lake 13.

About that lake's name: Maps of quite a few parts of central and northern Minnesota look like they've been spattered with blue ink. "Land of 10,000 Lakes" is an understatement. We've got upwards of 11,000 lakes that cover more than 10 acres.

With that many lakes, sometimes one name got stretched over several lakes, like Upper, Middle, Big, and Little Cormorant Lakes. Or First Crow Wing Lake, Second Crow Wing Lake, and so on, through Eleventh Crow Wing Lake.

When a lake wasn't all that big, or accessible, it got numbered. Which, here in Grimm County, got a little confusing. Minnesota's numbered lakes are mostly up in the northern part of the state, like Lake Thirteen, north of Leech Lake, and Thirty One Lake.

Grimm County numbered its own lakes, so county maps show spots like Lake 21. Our "Lake 13" is north and east of Loonfoot Falls. You won't find it, unless you've been there first.

And, I'm out of room.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Class of Bent Twigs

Graduation week's over, here in Loonfoot Falls. The high school graduation was a week ago, the elementary school had their commencement exercise Wednesday, and families are settling back into a routine.

So are stores in town: Finkle's Jewelry's 'class ring alternatives' catalog is gone for the year; Deuce Hardware has fishing tackle where the 'Congratulations Graduate' party supplies were; and Coalworth's swapped out their graduation paraphernalia for an array of sun hats, bagged charcoal, and insect repellent.

The school's quieter, now, but not quite empty. There's summer school, an adult education program and community events like toy shows, and craft fairs.

This year's high school graduation ceremony was covered elsewhere in the Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette. I think it's safe to say, though, that it doesn't match the ceremony that showed the Class of 1969 out the door.

The valedictorian that year was David Schmidt. Reminiscences by his classmates showed that he had a less-than-somber attitude toward ceremony and protocol. He had, for the crowning of the homecoming queen, sailed an envelope containing the judge's decision a clear twenty feet. Accidentally, he insists to this day.

That graduation day, standing at the podium, in academic cap and gown, young Mr. Schmidt intoned a familiar quote from "The works of Alexander Pope," 1822:

" 'Tis education forms the common mind;
Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclin'd."

He bowed his head briefly: moved, perhaps. Then he ran his eyes over the audience and began his address: "My fellow bent twigs...."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Have MRI, Will Travel

One of the perks of being a journalist, or at least a columnist, is having an excuse to strike up conversations with just about anybody. I've gotten to know people in the porta potty maintenance business, a unicycling computer store owner, and now MRI technologist Harold Floyd.

He travels with Central Minnesota Diagnostic's Mobile Magnetic Resonance Imaging unit. The thing weighs a couple tons, and travels inside a semitrailer, visiting hospitals in this part of the state. That way, people in smaller towns can use up-to-date imaging technology without traveling an hour or more to a city.

I talked with Harold after he'd taken care of his last patient for the day at St. Damian's Hospital. The last one to show up, anyway.

Harold Floyd's been doing MRI scans for about three years. He's certified to use other imaging technologies, too. He spent around four years, learning which buttons to push and what not to do.

Safety is a big deal for people running MRI scanners. Their supercooled magnets have sucked everything from paper clips to a firefighter's air tank into an MRI's donut hole. The firefighter survived, but a six-year-old died, back in 2001, when a steel oxygen tank hit him.

On the lighter side, Harold showed me how the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists, ARMRIT, looks a lot like "armpit," if part of the "R" is covered.

He'd have told me more, but at that point it was time to head out to the next stop.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chicken Fat as an Energy Source: Or, Dave's Memorable Memorial Day

Dave wasn't one of those hard-core outdoor grillers who flip burgers in anything short of blizzard conditions. He waited until Memorial Day weekend to set up his grill: the user-friendly sort, with an LP gas tank instead of charcoal.

That year, Dave decided to start the summer with something different: grilled chicken.

He put it on aluminum foil, like the cooking instructions said: with a sort of curb at the edge, to prevent spills.

The first time Dave opened the grill's hood, to see how the chicken was coming, he noticed a pool of liquid fat forming on the foil. Also, that the chicken pieces weren't anywhere near being ready to turn.

Several minutes later, he checked again. This time, the pieces were browning, near the foil. Dave decided it was time to turn them.

Using one of those long-handled tongs they have for grilling, Dave lifted one piece – a drumstick, he tells me. The foil, now lightly baked onto the chicken skin, came with it.

That made the center of the foil higher than the curb, so liquid chicken fat poured off the foil and onto the hot grill.

The muted hiss of the grill turned to a subdued roar, as flames leaped out and up. Dave was lightly singed, but okay.

He got the LP gas shut off, but the fire kept going. Chicken fat makes a pretty good fuel, Dave tells me. By the time the fire was out, the chicken was over-done: even by Dave's standards.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Curious Case of the Flying Bowling Ball

There's a reason why Tropica Lanes, down by the Interstate, uses bright red pencils.

It goes back to Saturday, August 7, 1982. It had been a hot, sticky, week. Walt Jensen was with a party bowling the third lane. A family group had lane two. The family was not, by anybody's account, having a good time that evening. I'll call them the Lanes.

The story that's told most often is that car trouble had forced them to stay overnight in Loonfoot Falls.

Tropica Lanes had paper scorecards then, with pencils from the company whose yellow pencils get sold by the box around the beginning of school year.

Mr. 'Lane,' the father, was a bit intense that evening. By the time everyone in his family had bowled two frames, he'd rolled balls straight down the middle, on average: two each in the left, and right, gutters. And, snapped a pencil.

Not intentionally. In fact, years later, Walt Jensen recalled how apologetic ‘Mr. Lane' was, as parts of the pencil skittered across the third lane's foul line.

A few frames later, Walt rolled what he was sure would be a strike. His ball ran down the alley on a perfect curve: but went airborne just short of the pins, flew over the lot, and crashed into the ball pit.

It had hit the missing piece of Mr. Lane's pencil.

At over a dozen yards, the yellow pencil blended right into the wood of the lane.

Red pencils are much easier to see.

Monday, May 11, 2009

@sparks You might want to check those permissions again.
@ebrunsvold Network permissions okay. Let me know if there's anything else.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Whistle Stop Cafe - Neighborhood Eatery on the Blueberry Walleye Trail

Sometime this summer, the granddaughter of Vince Groth will take over the Whistle Stop Café. Jill Groth started working there when she was eight, by helping carry dishes back to the kitchen.

Quite a bit has happened since Vince Groth opened the Whistle Stop, back in the fifties. The passenger station downtown closed when the Mississippi-Leech Lake Line merged with the Atlantic, Chicago, and Northwest Empire railroad. The station near the Whistle Stop Café was converted into a warehouse a few years later.

The only trace of the railroads today is the Blueberry Walleye Trail, named after Minnesota's state muffin and fish, respectively. The BWT snowmobile, hiking, and bicycle trail opened in 1998, after the rails were replaced with a ten-foot-wide bituminous path.

"We were doing fine, before that trail opened," recalled Elmer "Bud" Groth, "but I'm glad to see new people stop in." The Whistle Stop set up a bike rack and offers sack lunches now, besides the regular menu.

There were changes in the kitchen, too.

"Back when I was growing up, the Whistle Stop had 'Mother's Home Cooking.' Pretty good, too: but now, 'Mother's home, cooking.' I found a food service with the quality we needed, so we get everything in fresh, each day, and do the final cooking and preparation here. It's worked out pretty well."

The pies, though, are made by the Groth family: strictly according to state regulations for food preparation. Even so, they taste as good as they did, back when, Bud says.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Rhythm of the Presses Pounding in My Brain - - -

It's just over two weeks since a small fire drove the Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette staff into the street. For now, we're working on the press floor at Folden Press, where the Chronicle-Gazette gets printed.

Actually, we're just off the press floor, where they process large orders. Folden Press gets very busy, starting around Thanksgiving. We'd better be out of here by then.

Printing companies have a particular atmosphere. I'm not talking about feelings and associations. Between the inks, oils, and solvents, these places have a distinctive and noticeable bouquet.

While we were setting up here, Stan Parks was back at the old offices. He got permission to take the Vacnet servers out of the building: for which I am grateful. He also got the servers working again: about which I am impressed.

Stan strung together a network for us, here behind the press floor, with the Vacnet equipment sitting between two long tables: and a mess of cable and duct tape connecting it to a motley assembly of rented computers. Nobody's complained, very much, about the arrangement.

I think that's partly because Folden Press is such a successful company. Besides our paper, they do printing for several other weeklies in the area, plus advertising and a few catalogs.

That means that most of the time we've got the 'whooshathunkaTHUMPAklunka' of the printing presses permeating the air and our brains. I'm glad we have a place to work: but I'd have preferred one that didn't encourage the use of earplugs.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Sudden Sortie of Mr. Frizz

One of Loonfoot Falls' bright spots is the municipal flower garden, at the north end of Railroad Park.

And, since last year, it's had Loonfoot Falls' dog park for a neighbor. Between a dividing hedge and leash laws, nobody was expecting trouble.

They hadn't counted on Frances Robinson's Mr. Frizz: an Affenpinscher that looks, and acts, as if he'd backed into an electrical outlet.

Frances Robinson took Mr. Frizz to the dog park on Wednesday: a fine late spring afternoon. A city works crew was in the garden, setting out seedlings. It's a little early, but there's a mandate to get flowers blooming early.

The crew puts "cloches" over the plants: a fancy word for plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out. In case of a late frost.

At about 2:45, something caught Mr. Frizz's attention. He bolted for the hedge, pulling Frances off her feet and breaking her hold on the leash. Mr. Frizz, and his leash, shot through the hedge.

Eight pounds of Affenpinscher burst out the other side of the hedge, along with several ounces of leaves and twigs. The path of Mr. Frizz's sortie through the garden wasn't hard to miss: an arc of mangled plants ended in a small tangle of milk jugs, rakes, a small tractor, and Mr. Frizz: all attached by the Affen's leash.

Mr. Frizz is okay: aside from being a bit over-stimulated. The flowers, I'm told, will be replaced, and there's talk of putting an Affen-proof fence beside the hedge.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It Was Only a Small Fire - - -

The good news is that the Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette's press is not near the offices in downtown Loonfoor Falls, and that this week's paper was printed and distributed without incident. And, that nobody got hurt.

The bad news is that there was a small fire yesterday in this paper's offices. I was a bit distracted when the alarm went off, and didn't finish posting this week's column. Actually, I'm not even sure that it's been saved. The lights went out just before the alarms started. The network gave a one-minute shutdown warning, and crashed right after that.

Stan Parks tells me that our data should still be there. But he put a bit more emphasis on the word "should" than I like.

I've been told not to say much more about the fire, until the inspectors get through looking over the place. I wouldn't have much to say, anyway: I didn't notice anything before the lights went out, and after that I was concentrating on getting me, a camera, and a flash drive out of the building.

Before I forget it, kudos to the Loonfoot Falls fire department: they had the fire out, for the most part, quite quickly.

Me? I've got the weekend off. Mr. Johnson told us we'd be told before Monday morning, whether we're going back to the offices, or somewhere else.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Save the Ants!

Howard Leland, listening to All Things Considered last Wednesday, was appalled at what he heard. It was, in part, an account of how a respected scholar displayed blatant disregard for the safety of an ant.

Back in the fifties, I gather, a researcher named E. O. Wilson swabbed an innocent ant with oleic acid. That didn't hurt the ant directly. However, since oleic acid is what dead ants give off after a couple of days, other ants in the colony reacted to the very much living ant as though it were a little formican corpse.

For two hours, the swabbed ant endured the indignity, Mr. Leland explained to me, of being picked up, carried to the colony's 'graveyard' pile, and dumped there.

Howard Leland was never one to ignore a vital issue. In 2005, he was among the first in Loonfoot Falls to make his back yard a butterfly preserve. More recently, his stand against noise pollution led to a neighborhood discussion of noise: and a resolution to the leaf blower issue.

This week, Howard Leland has a new cause. He is determined to save the ants from uncaring researchers. He tells me that his letter to the Asclepias Society has not yet been answered.

"It's a long shot, anyway," Mr. Leland said, "the society's charter specifically limits its interests to monarch butterflies: but I felt I had to ask."

If you live in Loonfoot Falls, Howard Leland will probably ask you to join his cause. Just letting you know.

Friday, March 27, 2009

B. D. Johnson and the Trespassing Ducks

Another bunch of volunteers from the Loonfoot Valley left yesterday, headed north to help fill and stack sandbags. The Twin Towns are having a rough time this year.

Here, the Loonfoot River's flooded part of Milldam Park, same as it does most years, but there's been no serious trouble around here.

For the most part.

Riverfront property is a treat to have: as long as the river keeps a respectful distance.

B. D. Johnson's place is a split level, with the garage and entry up near the road, and a really nice living room lower down, facing the Loonfoot River. He has glass patio doors, and windows right down to the floor. The idea, he told me, was to have a place where he could sit back and get close to nature.

This year, nature came met him half way.

The Loonfoot river's about a half inch, he figures, below his living room floor now. He's got a line of sandbags around the house, but water got through, or under, anyway.

The ducks and drakes on the river aren't changing their habits all that much: but since the river's expanded a bit, they've been getting quite familiar with B. D.'s living room. Yesterday, a pair of them swam up to the sandbags, waddled across to the inadvertent reflecting pool by the house, and swam up to his back door.

Getting closer to nature is one thing, B. D. told me. Nature getting close to you can be a tad unsettling.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Springtime in Minnesota: Snirt, Slud, and Chirping Birds

Spring is supposed to be about green grass, brightly blooming flowers, cheerfully chirping birds, lots of sunlight, happiness, and all-round niftiness.

That's not what springtime in Minnesota is like.

Around here, it's the time when winter melts, a period which combines the more unpleasant qualities of both summer and winter.

Dust, dirt, and debris deposited by winter winds on successive layers of snow are systematically revealed and combined as water runs off.

Minnesotans developed a specialized vocabulary to deal with our alternatively-pleasant springtime. The combination of snot and dirt that accumulates during winter is "snirt" snow plus dirt. An "open winter," with exposed soil, leaves a lot of. This year we had lots of snow, so there wasn't that much snirt.

As it melts, snirt turns into snud. Sometimes the snirt melts so fast, it turns to slud. (Snow and mud, snow and liquid mud, respectively. And revoltingly.)
And there's water. Cold water. Cold water that runs over pavement by day and freezes overnight. In the morning, what appears to be a damp sidewalk or street is a perfect, smooth, skating-rink-slick layer of ice.

Then there are the trees, bending over this desolate and soggy scene with the charm of discarded oven-cleaning brushes.

And, in their branches, birds. Their chirps, warbles and squawks remind me that, if I wait long enough, the snud will rejoin the soil, grass will turn green, and trees will sprout leaves.

And, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time, summer will come.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday the 13th and the Bijou Opera House

Just about everybody knows that Friday the 13th is supposed to be unlucky, and that there's nothing to that superstition.

These days, of course, everybody knows there isn't anything to silly superstitions. There are plenty of 13th streets, and the Apollo 13 mission - - -. Bad example. All three astronauts made it back, though, so it couldn't have been all that unlucky.

In the 1880s, thirteen New Yorkers formed The Thirteen Club to debunk superstition, and kicked things off by walking under ladders into a room strewn with spilled salt.

That club was a big success, and soon had hundreds of members: including William McKinley, an honorary member who became president and was shot.

Inspired by the success of The Thirteen Club, a number of Loonfoot Falls' leading citizens formed their own Thirteen Club in the summer of 1908.

The Loonfoot Valley Thirteen Club held its first, and nearly its last, meeting in the old Bijou Opera House. Walking under ladders to a meeting hall on the second floor, the members spilled salt, broke seven mirrors, and started jumping on cracks in the floor. In unison.

The men were, as gentlemen of substance are wont to be, rather substantial. The Bijou's architect hadn't counted on something like one and a third gentlemanly tons bouncing on the meeting room's floor.

Which cracked under the strain, sending the clubmen rushing downstairs.

Knocking over a kerosene lamp on their way.

Setting fire to the Bijou Opera House.

Which burned to the ground.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Strange Case of the Untimely Duck

We're a little north of where mallards winter, but once in a while we see one of those green-headed wonders in the dead of winter. I have no idea whether they're the avian equivalent of daring explorers, or ditsy ducks with poor navigation skills.

I saw one of these out-of-season mallards the other day, out by mosquito flats. He was walking around on one of the ponds. Maybe it was my imagination, but he seemed to have a puzzled look. I half-expected him to stamp on the ice, to see if it really was solid.

He's probably getting his food from around the dam: There's open water there year-round, almost. Or maybe he spends most of his time around one of the spring-fed lakes. It's a rare winter that doesn't have open water somewhere.

That's good for the occasional misdirected duck, but not so good for ice fishing enthusiasts, cross country skiers, and other folks who like to get out in winter. After the fact, it's fun to have a story about putting a leg through an ice fishing hole, or walking a mile in frozen snowmobile pants. But when it happens, breaking through ice is just plain dangerous.

Back to Dudley, the misdirected mallard.

He waddled around for a little while, pausing now and again, and finally flew off. Almost any other creature, and I could imagine that it was contemplating the wintry landscape. But there's no level of willing suspension of disbelief that'll make a duck seem intellectual.

Friday, February 27, 2009

What are Friends For?

Minnesota got quite a lot of snow yesterday. That sparkling new ground cover is beautiful: as long as you're a winter sports enthusiast, or don't have to go outside.

Snow loses some of its luster, if you you've got a job, and need to shovel out your garage door, so you can get at the snowblower, so you can cut a path to the street.

A friend of mine was up before sunrise, shoveling out his garage door. He'd tried opening it from the inside: but snow melting and re-freezing had glued the door in place. It didn't take more than about fifteen minutes to free up the door, and then it was just a matter of blowing out snow faster than the wind blew it in.

He'd cut a path from the garage to the street, through the ridge the plows left, he was good to go. The drive to work was quiet. Times being what they are, he hadn't gotten the car radio fixed. Who needs a radio, anyway, right?

The place he works is about a mile out of town, and the roads were closing in, but he made it. The parking lot was empty. And, the windows were really dark.

The shop closing had been announced on radio, and they'd tried calling him: while he was outside.

He called me this morning. He'd made it back into town, and into his driveway, before the car got stuck. It's still there: he needed a ride to work.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Upper-Midwest Enthusiasm and the Loonfoot Economy

Mark Bjornson, Mayor of Loonfoot Falls, gave his state of the city report this week. He said that Loonfoot Falls' economy could be worse. In fact, he added, in a burst of upper-Midwest enthusiasm, it's not too bad off.

He pointed out that Loonfoot Basin Power, health care, and agriculture are either what he called recession-proof, or not doing badly at all.

It's not all beer and lutefisk, of course. We've got the same higher fuel prices and lower housing values that the rest of the country has. But it could be worse. Loonfoot Falls property values were never what, say, Miami had. But they haven't fallen all that much, either.

It sounds like I'm bragging, and maybe I am. But this isn't the worst place to live, and it's nice to hear someone say so.

Not everybody sees things the way Mayor Bjornson does. There are the guys who were laid off at the turkey plant, and I've heard that the hospital is planning to cut hours or staff. I've also heard that they're looking at adding a new wing: something doesn't add up there.

On the up side, Loonfoot Falls needs a new sewage plant, so there will be jobs open when the ground thaws this spring. But, somebody's going to have to pay the contractor, which means more city taxes or levies. And nobody likes to pay taxes.

I think I'll just say that the economy in Loonfoot Falls could be worse, and leave it at that.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday the 13th: The Day Before Valentine's Day

I forgot about Valentine's Day shopping until last night, around 10:30.

That time of day, there's not much open here, except the Mighty Minn Mart and Dina's Diesel Diner. Neither had what I was looking for. I know: I checked.

So, this morning I headed for Broadway Drug and Photo (thanks, Mr. Johnson!). And, took a shortcut up the alley.

About a yard shy of the back entrance, I stepped in a puddle. With ice on the bottom. My feet shot northwards, and I splashed into a fraction of an inch of water. No damage, but my left side was soaked, from the ankle up to the shoulder.

I wasn't the only guy inside, looking at red and pink cards, but I was the wettest. Finding something appropriate, I headed for the checkout. Almost made it, too.

I tripped, fetching up against the side of the pharmacy counter, right below that stuffed penguin, “Percy.” It's been the store's mascot for years.

Reaching for the counter top, I grabbed Percy's foot instead. Percy slid, and so did I. Looking up, I saw Percy's pop-eyed face toppling toward me.

The store still has their mascot: I broke Percy's fall. And, I got the card and gift I wanted, so I was a happy camper.

Until after noon, when typing became an exhausting exercise. After dragging myself through most of the afternoon, I made a call to change some plans.

I'm not superstitious, but I can't help remembering that it's Friday the 13th.

Friday, February 6, 2009

For the Wedding Reception: Cake, Candelabras, and - Propane?

Let's say you're planning a wedding. You've gotten directions to a place that you've heard does a good job with receptions. The directions take you past Fisk Implement and down a side street, to three sets of signs.

The ones on the left and right read "Engelbrecht Plumbing Rental" and "Egelbrecht Welding Supplies."

In the middle, top to bottom, there's a big arrow pointing right, with the word "enter;" then "Engelbrecht Wedding and Event Supplies & Party Store." Below that, there's another sign, whose huge letters proclaim "WE SELL PROPANE."

You're not lost: this is the right place.

Follow the arrow to a concrete block building, go through a metal door, and you'll be talking with Gerda Engelbrecht, who's been arranging wedding receptions, company cookouts, and graduation parties around Loonfoot Falls for over twenty years. She's got chairs and bubble machines, plant stands and punch bowls, including a five-gallon one that lights up. She calls it a "champagne fountain."

I hadn't made the connection between propane and parties until I saw her portable kitchen: a 14 by eight foot trailer with grills, a deep fryer, and five propane tanks.

Sometimes Gerda has to rent equipment herself: like the time a couple wanted a fog machine for the reception: and a black light miniature golf course for their guests.

The most unusual reception she'd set up, she told me, was one where the bridal bouquet was made of cattails, and the head table was made to look like a duck blind.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Of Snow, Wind, and an Open Garage Door

Ever wake up feeling that you've forgotten something important? Around 3:00?

I did, a few weeks ago. Generally, I like the sound of wind roaring around the house, and snow rustling against windows. It's not as much fun, being jerked awake by the memory that I'd left the garage door open.

It had been a long day, The phone was ringing as I got inside. It was from the paper: one of those things that won't wait until the next day.

Later, with hot stew inside, a storm outside, and about ten hours of concentration behind me, I went to sleep.

One good thing about being awake at three in the morning during a winter storm: If you've left the garage open to the wind, there's just about enough time to shovel the snow out.

I finally realized that closing the garage door would keep more snow from blowing in. By then, I had uncovered one side of my car. With the door down, I excavated between the wheels, piling the snow on the patch I'd cleared.

By eight, the sky had cleared, the sun was coming up, and I had the car and part of the driveway almost free of snow.

Even better, the engine started. I let it warm up, then made a dash down the driveway. All I had to do was break through the rampart left by the plows.

I learned something that day: I don't, ever, want to forget about closing the garage door again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Whatever Happened to "Buck and Becky in Burbank?"

His high school nickname was "Video Vern," for the overgrown camcorder he often carried to school. By the time he graduated, in 1987, he'd written and directed the first television drama made by Loonfoot Falls High School students.

Vernon Pederson left Loonfoot Falls after graduating, headed for Los Angeles, and spent the next few years hopping from job to job. His parents weren't too happy about that: He'd been expected to go into the family construction business, like a sensible young man.

Then, in 1991, "Video Vern" ran an ad in this paper, announcing the premier of " ‘Buck and Becky in Burbank:' a series about a small town couple in the big city." He'd written the first episode.

"Buck and Becky" wasn't the most popular show on television that year, even in Loonfoot Falls. Remember: "Friends" and "ER" were running then. Still, it enjoyed good ratings.

Maybe too good. "Video Vern" was the show's director a few months later, when a reviewer called "Buck and Becky" "a 'Beverly Hillbillies' for the Nineties." That's when a senior studio vice presidents started taking a personal interest in the series. He had ideas that had never occurred to Vern.

Becky became a high-powered corporate lawyer on rollerblades, and Buck joined a tough-but-compassionate biker gang. Ratings for "Buck and Becky in Burbank" fell out of the sky and sank without a trace, somewhere off Santa Monica.

Vern's doing okay these days. He's back in Loonfoot Falls, managing Lakes Area Data Services' public-access programming.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bill and Mavis, and the Incredible Kitchen Fountain

Ladies, if you've been frustrated about the way your husband maintains the house, consider this: it could be worse.

Men, don't let this happen to you.

I was taking a break the other day at one of the eateries here in Loonfoot Falls. Conversation from a tableful of women washed past, until I one of them said something like, ‘Bill's really done it this time.' The name wasn't Bill, and those aren't the exact words.

Like most people, I don't think I eavesdrop. Also like most people, it happens sometimes.

Bill and Mavis – not their real names – had some shelving to put up in the kitchen. Mavis thought the nails Bill was using were on the long side, but he pointed out that they had to be. Those shelves would be holding cooking supplies, and had to be securely fastened.

Bill started hammering. He drove the nail through the drywall, the stud, and a fraction of an inch into the water pipe. Mavis heard a sort of POP: followed by the sound of briskly flowing water, somewhere in the wall.

Bill reacted quickly, yanking the nail out. That might not have been the wisest move. Water was now streaming into the kitchen from a pencil-size hole in the wall.

By the time Mavis got the water shut off, there were few dry surfaces in the kitchen. And, thanks to Bill's attempts stem the tide with a frying pan, the back door had been thoroughly soaked: and was solidly frozen shut.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sorry About That!

My apologies to Ed Brunsvold, whose latest column ("Manda LaFleur: Retiring Art Teacher Looking Forward With a "Quiet Country Sunrise"") should have been posted last Friday.

Actually, the column was posted on Friday: but was not available online until a few minutes ago. Ed finished writing about Manda LaFleur Friday afternoon, posted it to the server here in the Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette offices, verified that it displayed correctly, and left for the weekend.

I was still in the office, doing a little maintenance, and left shortly after he did. Ed, I can't blame this on the gremlin. In order to keep off-site users from experiencing delays that my work might cause, I pointed off-site requests to a backup which had been made around noon.

When I left, I did not point off-site requests away from the backup, and back to the correct addresses. Right now, I'm determining how many items were affected over the weekend.

Again, I apologize.

And, Ed? I took the liberty of emptying the cup of coffee you left on your mousepad. The cup's by the second-floor coffeemaker.

Stan Parks

Friday, January 9, 2009

Manda LaFleur: Retiring Art Teacher Looking Forward With a "Quiet Country Sunrise"

Manda LaFleur, art teacher at Loonfoot Falls schools for over thirty years, is retiring this spring. Although her lava lamp and dreamcatcher will be gone from the old art room, she'll be remembered.

Every art class she taught saw a short video that showed 3,000 years of art set to music, at twelve images per second. It was called, reasonably enough, "3,000 Years of Art." Manda LaFleur explained, "a fully conscious, linear, ideation of the creative gestalt is unnecessary if imagery and sound combine to form a visceral appreciation."

I'm not quite sure what she meant, but I left her class more excited about art than I was when I started: and that film helped.

Manda believed that there was more to art class than helping students learn how to make melting letters and brightly-colored paisley patterns. "I wanted students to open their minds to new experiences, new images, new ways of looking at the world," she explained. "It doesn't matter if society labels them as artists, as long as they can reach inside themselves and draw out some of what they find."

Even so, some of her students did get labeled as artists, including interior designer Dillon Johnson and sculptor Andrea Nelson. About Nelson's four-foot mosquito, Manda would only say, "it's quite an appropriate display for that setting."

Manda LaFleur looks forward to an active retirement, becoming a more active member of the Asclepias Society and devoting more time to her own art, like this work: "Quiet Country Sunrise."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Looking Into the Winter Sky

It might seem that living in a small town means being isolated from the rest of the world: cut off from the ebb and flow of ideas and the rolling wheels of commerce.

Perhaps, but as I gaze out at the starlit sky the universe itself seems as close as the looming trees.

Orion stands in the southern sky, with Rigel, Bellatrix, and Betelgeuse shining like streetlights on some celestial boulevard. Beyond them, the Milky Way marks a galactic horizon.

Somewhere, in the darkness between those glittering lights, other galaxies spin. I can only make one out: the one in Andromeda, toward the west. It beckons, like a neighboring island might to a shipwrecked sailor.

Gazing into the ebon immensity of the intergalactic void, I remember the poet Tennyson's words:

"Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish'd face,
"Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish'd race.

"Raving politics, never at rest—as this poor earth's pale history runs,—
"What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?..."

Vastness. That was the name of the poem.

I wonder: did Tennyson look out on a sky like this when he wrote that?

As I glance from star to star, am I, unaware, looking into the distant eyes of another watcher? If we met, what would we discover we have in common?

Besides being in the middle of a power outage.
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