Remembering Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

This is a photo I took of a farm that was once a thriving dairy farm just down the road from our farm in Northwestern Wisconsin.  I worked in that barn helping milk a herd of 80 cows and putting up hay in the loft.  Some 30 years later I revisited and this was all that was left, side boards flapping in the wind.  Bankers closed on the farm for debt, and the family who’d owned it for generations moved to town and did what they could to get by.

Remembering Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

By S.W. Cosgrove

Can you can go home again?
You can go to the place you once knew,
and it will be there
Just not as you remembered, not really

Prepare yourself with vague, misty memories of farms,
green hills, deep woods, and shimmering ponds, eagles soaring above
A big river pulsing over the rocks, under bridges, wandering through riverine sloughs
Catfish lying still on the bottom, unblinking, wary of the hook

The old river still runs deep, still carrying its waters to the sea far away
But the hills have been leveled and covered with subdivisions,
the woods cut and thinned with no eagle nests towering above
The ponds filled and blacktopped

Yes, you can go home again, but
it’s not your home, anymore
It’s home to others who may one day return there
looking for their old home
And it will be there, but not really

A Moveable Feast – master class in writing. By Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a struggling expat journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

ErnestHemingwayHadley1922 Switzerland

Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson in Switzerland, 1922

The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put away the notebook, or the paper, in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.

It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.

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Ernest Hemingway holding forth at a café in Paris 

 

 

 

Chop wood, carry water, shovel snow – a 20th century childhood on a 19th century farm

The farm I grew up on in Stillwater, Minnesota, was the center of my universe from the time I was born until my grandparents sold it when I was 13.  Development was getting too close to them – they bought another farm about 40 miles deeper into the northern countryside.  This change coincided with the natural break that came for me as I shuffled off childhood and entered teen turbulence.

The origins of the farmhouse were from before Minnesota became a state in the 1850s.  One of the first farmsteads in the St. Croix River Valley, the farm perched atop one of the highest hills around Stillwater.  From the front porch, I could see for miles across the valley, with Lake McKusick down below to the tree tops miles away above the St. Croix River.  A long, steep drive led from the winding country road – an extension of Stillwater’s Myrtle Street – to the house and barn.

farm and drive

The driveway was so steep that in winter it was often not possible to drive up or down after a heavy snow.  Try going down without shoveling and you could end up off the driveway in deep snow.  One side dropped off sharply into the sheep pasture.  If your vehicle ended up down there, out came the tractor or – if the snow was really deep – Old Bird, our Percheron draft horse mare, the biggest one horsepower you could imagine.  One of Grandpa’s friends thought he could make it up there after a snow.  It took them half a day to pull his pickup truck out of the fence and back onto the driveway – mainly because we had to shovel the driveway first.

Many a morning after a big snow, my Grandfather and I shoveled that driveway.  Grandpa was always up first to feed the stock.  His dictum was: animals eat first, then we eat.  No exceptions.  With a big snow, he’d be up extra early – usually by 4:30 – as water troughs had to be turned over to beat the ice out and fresh water pumped.  I often participated in this ritual.

I usually tried to laze around under the covers until 6 or 6:30.  Grandpa came in from chores and turned me out, saying every time: “You know, Steve, people die in bed.”  And I’d always reply: “Yes, but they sleep there, too!”  In the winter I usually slept on a massive overstuffed velveteen couch in the living room near the oil stove because it was too cold to sleep in the unheated rooms upstairs.  I’d run to the outhouse (no indoor toilet) for the morning ritual.  There’s nothing like a trip to the outhouse when it’s 20 degrees below zero to wake you right up.  I assure you: you won’t spend any longer in there than absolutely necessary.  While I was out, I’d stop by the hen house to gather fresh eggs for breakfast later.

Then we shoveled. Fortified with something hot to drink and a pastry, we trudged through the snow to the bottom of the drive with our oversize steel scoop shovels.  We then worked our way to the top, one shovel full of snow after the other, stopping to catch our wind, stretch our arms, and straighten our backs.  Grandpa showed me the most efficient way of shoveling the wet, heavy snow.  Here’s how it goes.

First, look at where you were shoveling from and determine where you want that shovel full of snow to land.

Then grasp the shovel from the handle on top with one hand, placing your other hand at the point on the shovel where you could maintain the most leverage when the shovel was full – in other words, determine the most effective fulcrum point so that you would expend the least amount of effort with each shovel full.

Next, plant your feet in a position that would allow you to swing back, bend your back, pick up a full load of snow in the shovel’s scoop, then follow through in one motion – unbending your back only as much as was needed to deliver that shovel full to your target area.

If you’d positioned yourself correctly, you could then take one small step forward or sideways as you were swinging the empty shovel back.  When your arms had reached the end of the backwards swing, you’d then be in position to repeat your actions.  The effect was like using the shovel as a kind of balancing pendulum, stepping back and forth, seesawing your way up the hill, down the path to the pump house, out to the barn, and back to the farmhouse.

The lighter and drier the snow, the better this worked.  Usually the dryness of the snow was also directly related to the temperature.  At 20 below zero, the snow was dry and left the end of your shovel in a flurry.  But at about 20 degrees above zero, the snow was heavy and tended to clump on your shovel.  We waxed our shovels before shoveling this kind of snow, encouraging the wet snow to leave the shovel at the end of the swing.

The dry snow and cold temperature made for the best shoveling.  You’d work fast enough to keep warm, barely breaking a sweat.

Oh, that wet snow, though.  It was far heavier than the dry stuff, and it didn’t like to leave the end of the shovel on your swing.  Sometimes it fell short of the mark and you’d end up shoveling it up again as you made your way – not efficient.  Soon you’d break into a sweat and have to take off a layer of clothing to cool down.  And pretty soon the heavy, wet snow would start to take its toll on your back.  It had to be shoveled all the same.

Shoveling the entire driveway took two to three hours.  Then it was back to the house for a big breakfast.  Grandma had been keeping an eye on our progress.  When she saw that we were almost to the top, she’d start the frying pan heating on the wood cook stove and get the water boiling on the gas stove.  By the time Grandpa and I had tramped the snow from our boots outside, left our outdoor clothing in the washroom, and cleaned up in the porcelain wash bowl in the sink, the air was filled with the alluring scent of eggs, bacon, hot bread or biscuits, and coffee.

Breakfast was a sit-down, family affair – a ritual.  No one at the table touched a bite until Grandpa was seated. We bowed our heads while Grandpa would said Grace.  Breakfast sometimes started with hot cereal – creamed wheat, creamed rice, or oatmeal, topped with brown sugar.  Grandpa and Grandma had their coffee, grounds boiled right in teh water.  I had hot chocolate mixed with cream – fresh cream skimmed from the top of yesterday’s milk.  Next came the main course.  This might be anything from smoked pork chops to thick sliced bacon to lamb chops.  There was also a big plate of soft-fried eggs in the middle of the table.  Both Grandpa and I ate three eggs each, Grandma usually only had two.  Sometimes there were potatoes, fried from last night’s leftovers.

Of course, there was bread and/or biscuits right out of the oven.  Grandma baked bread every day or two.  Grandpa wouldn’t eat store-bought bread.  Of course, all that was available then at the store was puffed-up white bread, which tasted like Styrofoam and had about the same nutritional value.  Grandma’s bread was whole wheat, light brown and somewhat dense, but fluffy inside that crispy crust.  I liked mine toasted.  So I’d cut an inch-thick slice, stick it with a long-handled cooking fork, take a cover off the wood stove and toast it over the fire.  Back at the table, I’d smother it with home-churned sweet butter and use it to mop up the remainder of the eggs and meat drippings still left on my plate.

It’s hard to imagine being hungry after that.  But if we were, there was always “smeckervesen,” as my German Grandma called it.  We had an orchard, and the apples would store in the cellar for most of the winter.  So Grandma would likely have some thick-crusted apple crisp available.  If not, the pantry was full of molasses or oatmeal cookies.

The big teakettle of water was always on the stove, too, moved to the cooler area to keep warm, and then moved to the hotter area to bring the water to a boil.  Often, a big pot of soup was simmering away, keeping just warm enough so you could always dip in for a bowl full.  It stayed there for days.  As we ate it down, Grandma added more ingredients – some lamb, some vegetables, some smoked pork.  Barley was usually the soup’s basis – my favorite.  To this day, I’ve never tasted anything quite as delicious.

The farm is gone now.  The hill where the farmhouse stood was leveled, divided into acre lots, and turned into suburbia.  There is no trace of the old place, except for a tall stand of trees my grandfather and I planted when I was a child.  Perhaps, on a chilly morning in early winter, with a dusting of fresh snow on the ground, a mist rises from the low-land pond that could not be filled, and the 19th century farm hovers on the horizon, ghost of winters past.  Gone, but not forgotten.

minnesota-farm

The Visitor

A red-eye flight to Minneapolis after Christmas

“It’s about Mom.  She’s worse.  Doctor said it’s a matter of days.  Can you come back?”

My sister from the Midwest was phoning on this gloomy mid-winter’s night in the Puget Sound.  Rain chattering on the roof, a chill in the air.

“I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

I got on the phone, used my flight miles to get a plane the next day, and started packing a bag for Minnesota, where the temperatures hovered in sub-zero range and snow was forecast.

The past few years had been a rough patch for Mom’s health.  Back surgery in her mid-70’s, respiratory infections, and then a burst colon that went untreated too long, resulting in sepsis.  She almost died then.  The doctors wouldn’t even give her odds.  She had so many surgeries they didn’t bother to sew her up for three weeks.  She survived, minus a large section of her intestines, and against her wishes, was checked into a nursing home.

She hated the nursing home, so she packed her bags one evening, called a taxi, and went back to her apartment.  She was met there by Emergency Medical Services and transported back to the hospital.  Eventually, she got her way – as usual – and moved back to her home.  She lobbied for a re-section of her intestines some months later.  It was successful.  She moved out of her apartment north of St. Paul into a cozy ground floor condo in a wooded area closer to the city and set about making what would be her last home.

My daughter and I had been back to see her in December.  She was perky, laughing, joking, and telling us how much better she felt and how she loved her new home.  Her Christmas tree was fully decorated with ornaments from my childhood, tinsel shimmering, lights twinkling.  We left fully believing this resilient 82-year-old was entering a new, exciting stage of life.

She drove to my brother’s house for New Year’s dinner, despite it being 20 degrees below zero and icy streets.  A few days later she starting having serious flu-like symptoms.  Soon she was once again in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Her lungs were fragile, and she’d developed pneumonia.  Within days she was hooked to a respirator and was going in and out of consciousness.   And I was on my way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a red-eye.

I met my sister at Regions Hospital in St. Paul the next morning.  I could hear Mom’s raspy breathing before I could see her.  She was on strong pain medication, slipping in and out of a coma.  She blinked when I talked to her.  I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back.  My sister had made an appointment mid-morning with her doctor and a palliative care doctor.  As the oldest sibling, I was now part of the team on the ground.

The doctors cut to the chase – they’d tried everything over the past week.  Nothing was working; she continued to rapidly deteriorate.  It was time to move into the palliative care stage because survival was becoming less likely by the hour.  The pain was getting worse, she could not breath long unassisted, and they were draining her lungs of fluid several times a day with a chest tube.  She could pass any time, but almost certainly within a couple days.  She’d stay right where she was, in a quiet and naturally lit room.

The Death Watch

My youngest sister, with her young daughter and her husband, arrived from Hawaii.  So with my other sister, her daughter and her husband, who lived close by in Wisconsin, we were seven strong.  We worked out a plan so that at least one of us would be at our mother’s bedside from morning until evening.  My Hawaii sister’s family took that evening’s shift.  My Wisconsin sister’s family lived close by, so they drove home.  I was staying with long-time friends in Stillwater, where I’d grown up, just a half-hour’s drive from the hospital.

I had the next morning’s shift.  Mom was slightly responsive, so I sat or stood by her bed, held her hand and talked with her.  I just talked.  The old days.  The farm we grew up on.  The weather.  Politics (which she loved).  Kids now days.  She showed signs of recognition and comprehension.

I took regular breaks to walk around the big city hospital, get coffee, and have breakfast.  I was already a familiar face to hospital staff in this section, and they always greeted me with a smile and an offer of assistance.  I remember how pleasant Minnesota people can be.  Minnesota nice.

I put her headphones over her ears, moved a chair close to the windows, and sat down.  We were at the far end of a very large room with high ceilings on an upper floor of the hospital.  Thick curtains were set up to divide the room, or open it, as needed.  A wall of windows overlooked downtown St. Paul, its air frozen still in the deep winter sun, as if you could shatter it into a million pieces with a light hammer blow.  Smoke from the ventilation systems suspended in frozen puffs above the buildings.  No sign of even a breeze.

I put my head in my hands to cover my eyes and consider what was happening.  There is little you can do to change some things, but more that you can do to make it easier on everyone else.  I heard a rustling in the curtain between where I was sitting and my mother’s bed.

The Visitor

I looked up to see who it was.  But I saw no one.  I thought perhaps the ventilation system had disturbed the curtains, but there were no vents there.  There was no movement otherwise in the room.  No nurses, no staff, not even a voice.  All the activity in the section of the room beyond the next curtain was very hushed because in this part of the hospital, the patients were very sick.  Everyone was quiet, except for the lights blinking and a variety of machine noises.

I put my head back into my hands, and almost immediately I not only heard, but felt, the air around me begin to move.  At first it was a whispered breath passing my face, but then the air moved more turbulently, like a small, invisible tornado passing by.  I looked around and still saw nothing.  I went around the curtain to my mother’s bed.  There was no one there but her.  Somehow her breathing seemed steadier and she was resting, so I said nothing.

I went back to the window area and looked out again over the city.  Then I heard the distinct sound behind me of the curtains again rustling.  As I turned around, I saw them move, shimmer, from top to bottom.  An air disturbance seemed to come toward me, then the curtains stopped moving.  But in front of me air seemed to be moving, shifting.  I still could not see what was causing it, but I could feel it breathe on my shirt.  My face felt cooler.  A shiver went through me.  I could now distinctly hear wind rushing between canyons of fabric walls.

This is where my senses stopped being helpful in making any sense of what seemed to be pure energy moving rapidly, erratically, very close by.  It had mass that I could feel, but not see.  My logical mind kept telling me this could not be, that it was not.  But it was.  Something was.

There was another presence in the room that I could feel, but not see.  I reached out to try to touch it, and I took a step toward the turbulent air mass, but as I came closer, it moved away.  Then it was in back of me.  I turned, and now looking towards the windows I detected, not saw, but detected somehow the source of this presence.  It was at the top of the room.  It moved across the room, over the curtains, rustling them once again, then came past my mother’s hospital bed and around the curtains.

It was rapidly moving towards me.  I felt the force of air in front of it pushing on me.  As it came almost next to me, it dissipated.  Instantly.  As if it were never there.  The room became as it was before.  Curtains hanging languidly.  Not a sound except my mother’s breathing, and my heart beating.

I went to the bedside.  Mom seemed to be resting easier.  Before, I could see her fighting the respirator, with a grimace on her face, her hands clenched, her arms stiff has she braced against the IV’s taped into her.  Her breathing was still labored but steady.  The body tension had retreated.  She seemed to be slightly smiling.

My sisters and my two nieces walked in a bit later.  I could not begin to tell them what had just happened because I would not have known what I was describing.  I still don’t.

We started talking from both sides of Mom’s bed.  We kept the conversation natural so that we included her.  We weren’t sure what she heard, but it didn’t matter.  We just wanted her to feel our voices.

As we discussed the weather, the news, the ordinary and mundane, Mom stopped breathing.  She was breathing, then with one long exhaled breath, she stopped.  She was still.  She had died.  Her face was relaxed, and all stress left her.  She looked smaller.

“She’s gone,” one of us said.

“Could you please get a nurse?” I asked my oldest niece.

She was gone.  But to where?  Did she go with The Visitor?  Who was The Visitor?  What was The Visitor?  Did The Visitor come to check up on her?  Did The Visitor come to make her more comfortable?  Did The Visitor come to take her?  From where did The Visitor come?  Why did The Visitor make itself known to me?  Was there a message?

I don’t know the answers.  I categorize myself for the sake of convenience as spiritual, but not religious.  For now, I have only concluded that I had a visitor from somewhere else, a place I do not know.  I’m not in a hurry to meet this presence again.  Though maybe we all will in the end.

A good whoopin’

A good whoopin’.

It’s happened to many of us.  To the fortunate others, it has not.  Corporal punishment.  Punishment intended to cause pain.  In polite, more acceptable terms, a spanking or a paddling.  Less acceptable, but perhaps more accurate: slapped with an angry hand, whipped with a belt, struck with an object like a stick, ruler, or spatula.   A caning, a thrashing, flagellation, a strapping, a lacing, or at the more extreme end: a beating.  A good whoopin’.

“Pull down your pants.”

The anticipation.  Then the delivery.  Whoosh, crack, pain.  Just like that.  Then again.  And again.

When I was a boy, my mother delivered the corporal punishment.  I was the oldest by about five years, so she had plenty of opportunity to get some of the meanness out of her system, as I never saw my brother or sisters experience what I had, though they did get the occasional spanking.

Was I just that much more incorrigible, a child who deserved to be smacked?  I asked myself that question many times.

I was mischievous, daring, an inveterate explorer, often pushing the boundaries.  I don’t recall a lot of lickings before my next sibling in line was born.  As best I can remember, it all started not long after my mother miss-carried and lost a brother I never knew when I was about three years old.  She and my father began arguing more, and yet, three more children were born.

I never saw my mother hit my father, nor my father hit my mother.  And my father never hit me.  But good ole’ Mom sure hit me.  Hard and often.  Sometimes it was a random strike at whatever part of me was most convenient.  A smack on the head, a punch in the shoulder, a slap in the face, a yank on my hair.  Other times it was an orchestrated event where I was orally chastised, often at great length, then the pants came down and I would take a set number of lashes in the biblical fashion on my bare ass.  It didn’t seem to depend on the transgression, as most I remember as being minor.   It depended on my mother’s mental state of the moment.  She had me pull down my pants, set me over her knee, and hit me with whatever was close at hand.  A yardstick, a ruler, a hairbrush, a stick, or a belt.

One time when she was hitting me with a yardstick, as I silently counted the blows, she broke the yardstick over my ass.  She stopped.  Then she laughed.  I counted this as good luck as she was only just getting started, and I laughed, as well.  I’d broken the yardstick on my skinny little butt!  I’m sure I didn’t consider how insane it was to laugh because I’d stopped being whipped.  I had yet to develop the keen sense of irony that I have to this day.

Mother had a variety of ways of meting out her punishments.  The most diabolical was to send me out to a willow thicket in the field and select a willow reed to be thrashed with.

“Go out and find yourself a strong willow branch and bring it back to me,” she’d say.  As you may know, willow branches are very flexible – they are like whips.  For ages, willow was used as a horse whip.  What a dilemma: I was to select the branch to be used in my punishment.

One day, when I was about 10, I didn’t return.  I just kept walking.  Past the willow grove, through the fields to my favorite spring-fed pond in the far reaches of the farm’s fields.  I sat in the shade of an old maple, or maybe it was a box elder, and thought long and hard about my alternatives.  Should I keep walking to the nearest road and not look back?  Should I just jump in the water and drown myself?  I didn’t know.

I sat for a very long time, then stripped off my clothes and jumped into the pond as I’d done many times before.  The cool water brought me around, cleared my head, and brought me back to the present.  I surfaced, and then I dove down again.  As the bottom grass tickled my face, I decided what to do.  I was going to walk back without the god-damned willow reed and announce that I was never going to the willow grove again.  If I was beaten, I’d get up in the middle of the night, take all the money I could find in the house, which wouldn’t be much, walk into town, and get on a bus to somewhere.  Anywhere.  And I’d never return.  I’d die first.

I went back to shore, slowly dressed, and then, over the hill, I saw my Grandpa walking to the pond.  He knew where to find me.  They’d been looking for me.  He took me in his arms, gave me a long hug, and I explained what had happened.  He shook his head and we walked back to my parents’ house without words.  He had me wait outside while he went in and talked with my mother.  When he came back out, he said, “You can go in now, there’ll be no lashing today.”  I walked through in through the kitchen, past my mother, who turned her back to me as I passed by, and went to my room.  Later, we all sat around the table to eat dinner in mostly silence.  I had little appetite.  I just wanted this dinner to be over.  I wanted this life to be over.

Much later, I talked to my grandparents about my mother’s behavior.  She was their only child.  They said they’d never touched her in anger or with malice when she was a child, and they did not understand how she came to be like this.  They thought it may have been due to a horse riding accident she’d had when she was seven years old.  Like me, she’d ridden and driven horses as a very young child.  Like me, she was a daredevil rider, and one day she was racing a car on the dirt road alongside the field when her horse stumbled at a full gallop, throwing her.  She hit her head on a rock and lost consciousness.  The car driver took her to the hospital in the nearest town of Beloit, Wisconsin.  She went into a coma and didn’t come out for three weeks.

When she finally opened her eyes, she couldn’t talk, walk or move her arms.  She wasn’t paralyzed.  Her brain had simply turned those functions off.  It took several months before she regained mobility and speech.  She had to learn to talk and move again from the beginning.

That was my grandparents’ theory, and it’s as good as any.  I just had to learn to protect myself from my mother when her brain was on fire.

Now, it’s often said that children who have experienced constant physical abuse often take on those same characteristics as they grow older and into adulthood.  It was exactly the opposite for me.  As a child, an adolescent, a teen and an adult, physical violence revolted me.  I looked on the school bullies with scorn and disgust.  I walked away from many fights, though I defended myself as necessary and defended others when needed.  I detested violent and aggressive school games like football, and I refused to play them.  My sports were track and field, skiing, basketball, skating, and riding horses.  To this day, I detest those who resort to physical violence.

I forgave my mother.  My grandmother often told me to “always forgive, but never forget.”  I follow her words to this day.

I’m most thankful for my grandparents and their farm across the field from my parents’ house.  I spent as much time as I could with them.  I loved the farming life, milking cows and goats, herding sheep on my horse with my grandfather’s German Shepherd, Prince, and being intensely involved in the life and death of every creature through all the seasons.  I enjoyed hard work and helping my grandfather with everything from fencing to haying to animal husbandry.  I nursed the orphan lambs through the first weeks of their lives. The farm gave me strength and purpose.

Here’s the final story I’ll tell on this subject.

One day, my mother came across the field from our house to my grandparents’ farm looking for me.  She was madder than a wet hen about something only known to her, and she started yelling at me about being irresponsible, not returning home on time, being just like my father, and whatever else surfaced.  I knew it was time to start putting distance between her and me, but when she saw me take off she grabbed the baseball bat I’d been playing with and came after me.  I headed for the nearest tree I could quickly climb at about the same time my grandfather came running from the barn.  He caught up with her, took the bat from her hands and told her to go home.  I spent the next days at my grandparents’ house, sleeping in my favorite place on earth, the large screen porch overlooking the big valley below.  It was pure peace.  I slept there many summer nights and late into the fall.

My mother, her soul at rest at last, used to say my grandparents “spoiled” me.

They didn’t spoil me.  They saved me.  I know exactly how lucky I am to have had them nearby.

Summers, I lived mostly with my grandparents.  My grandmother was an excellent cook, so I ate well.  She taught me about cooking and baking.  After supper, I played from the Lutheran hymnal or 1950s sheet music on Grandma’s old piano, listened to classical music on WCCO radio on the porch at bedtime, and drifted off into deep sleep.  I woke each morning to birds chatting in the misty sunrise that settled over the St. Croix River Valley from the porch of their 19th century farm house, had a hearty breakfast, and went out to help Grandpa with the chores.  I milked cows – and goats – collected the eggs for market, tended the huge garden, pruned trees in the apple orchards, rode my horse out into the fields, drove the tractor, and built forts.

As it happened, in the coming years I did run away from home a few times.  My mother and father got divorced.  My mother kicked me out of the house at 17.  Later in life, we reconciled to the extent we could.

All’s forgiven, nothing is forgotten.

 

Hey, can you guys come by to help me drop an engine into my Chevy?

Ever dropped an engine?  Into a car, that is.  I have, many times, back in the 1960s.

My first engine install was when I was 18 years old.  Dad had been an airplane mechanic, and he was a very competent car mechanic.  So I grew up with a wrench in my hand.  I’d bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop on the cheap, then wrecked it.  Went off the road in the early morning hours, through a fence, then end-over-end into a farmer’s field.  Flattened the top almost down to the dash.  My buddy and I were miraculously not injured, so we walked back to the road where there was a county sheriff waiting for us.  He had some questions.  Times being what they were, he told us to hop in and then gave us a ride home.  “Too bad you wrecked your car, but come by tomorrow and get it out of the field.  And get hold of the farmer to see about fixing his fence.”

This is almost exactly the same 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop – even the same colors.

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Next day, I got the Chevy home.  It was totaled, but the iconic small-block 283 V8 was just fine.  Word got out that I was looking for a car to put that engine in, and within days a friend towed over a ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a blown 265 small-block V8 engine.  Perfect swap.

I got hold of a couple friends and we pushed the cars under a big oak tree, attached a block and tackle to the engine in the ’55, and started loosening bolts and tearing it out.  Took half a day.  The shade tree mechanics spent the rest of the day pulling the good 283 from the ’57.

Now came the interesting part – dropping the ’57 engine into the ’55.  In our haste to get me back on the road again, we hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what parts went where.  It all seemed so straight-forward as we worked away, banging our knuckles into bare metal, mixing blood with engine grease, and ripping everything apart.  Piles of parts everywhere.  Now we had to put it all back together.

I was not about to learn that dropping an engine into an engine bay was a lot trickier than taking one out.   We hoisted the engine and transmission on the block and tackle until it was dangling in mid air, then pushed the ’55 under it.  As we started to drop the engine in, we narrowly missed dropping it right through the windshield!

We finally got it in, secured the motor and transmission mounts, and then got to work installing the parts that would make it a whole car.  Connected the exhaust headers that had come with the ’55, and started on the drive shaft, wiring, gas line, radiator and cooling, and linkages – including the Hurst floor shifter.

Soon it was back together, and I was ready to turn the key and go for a spin.

It wouldn’t start.  It was turning over just fine, but it was just backfiring, which brought my next door neighbor over because it sounded like gunfire.  He was a veteran hot-rodder, so I immediately enlisted his expertise to find out why this pig would not grunt.  He couldn’t see anything.  Then he asked “the question”: did you take out the distributor and reinstall it?  Well, we had because when we were dropping the engine in, we’d mashed the distributor against the firewall and had to replace it with the spare distributor from the other engine.  He just smiled.

“Are you sure you got the distributor camshaft gear in exactly the right position?”

I thought we had, but there was an excellent chance we hadn’t.  So I pulled the distributor out and reinstalled it one notch over.  Pumped the gas, hit the key and it fired right up, sounding very sweet through those cherry bomb dual exhausts.

I was back on the road.  The ’55 was a mean looking car.  It had dark grey primered paint, no front bumper, and the front end was jacked up to give it the drag car look.  It sounded like a dragster, and it went like hell.  I drove it back and forth to college for about a half a year.  Never got a ticket.

Took a little searching, but here is a photo that comes very close to my ’55 Chevy two-door hardtop.  Primered paint, no bumper, mags on the front but not the rear.  Ruff, ready, and willin’!  See trailer at the end for a clip of “Two-Land Blacktop.”

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The end came on a back road on the way home from school one afternoon.  I was doing about 85 mph when there was a loud bang, the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, and the exhaust turned to black smoke that appeared to mixed with some kind of particles.

I’d blown the engine.

I didn’t have time to swap in another engine, so I sold it cheap to a hot-rodder buddy.  He took the engine apart and told me the inside was just a mangled mass of rod bearings and parts of pistons.  He dropped in a 327 Corvette engine and raced it at the local drag strip.

I replaced it with a ’58 Chevy two-door hardtop – pretty blue with that venerable 283 V8.  Floor shifter, headers and very mellow sounding dual exhausts.  It needed a clutch, so I picked it up cheap and installed a clutch in my back yard, scooting around on my back in the dirt.

Here’s an image of the same model ’58 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop as the one I owned, except that the car was solid blue, not two-tone.

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Over the next several years, I did a couple more engine swaps.  Dropped a 327 into my ’65 Impala Super Sport, swapped a Mercedes OHC six cylinder into my ’62 Mercedes 220S,  put a junk yard engine in a ’73 Pinto (why bother, one might ask), and even swapped a English Ford engine into a cute little ’58 English Ford Squire station wagon.

Never again!

Here’s a couple minutes of one of my all-time favorite films: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” starring songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, actor/director Warren Oates and Laurie Bird.  And – a primered out ’55 Chevy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Traveler

My Irish Setter Erin taking a break from our walk on the Arno River in Florence, Italy. Anno 1985. Erin was 15 years old. I got him when he was 8 weeks old.

In his lifetime, Erin traveled the United States, North Africa, Japan, and Europe. Not long after this photo, he would be on a plane with us to Japan, then back to Germany in 1986, where he died of old age at 17.

He’s buried in a Hun burial ground in the forest behind our house there north of Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany. 

More stories and photos with Erin, the world traveler:

Travels With Erin

North Africa Diary – Lost in the Medina  

Media Plage – Aussies Go Walkabout

How we came to live in North Africa at Mehdia Plage

 

Relaxing at our 2CV camp site in a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean just outside of Agadir, Morocco.beach Africa

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On the road, Costa del Sol, near Torremolinos, Spain.2CV theresa spain

Photos: Ocean Shores coastal winter weather changes over one hour

This week before the Winter Solstice 2017, we spent a few days at Ocean Shores in the state of Washington, USA, to absorb the marine air off the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Here are my photos of just one hour of coastal weather change from the vantage point of Protection Island, or Damon Point State Park, a 544-acre natural area adjacent to the Washington State Game Preserve.  A sand spit best crossed on foot at low tide connects the island with the mainland.

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Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
 I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
~ Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

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Walking on the Western Edge of North America – the Washington Coast.

It’s autumn, when the Pacific Ocean coastal skies may be sunny or turn dark, ushering in the magnificent storm season.  Either way, it’s a perfect time to explore the westernmost edge of the North American continent.

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So my German Shepherd, Jack, and I headed out from our home on the Puget Sound to spend a week in the historic seaside resort town of Moclips, which was originally a village of the Quinault Indian Nation.  Spaniards were the first Europeans to come ashore here at Santiago beach, adjacent to the Moclips River, which runs to Point Grenville.

Moclips was homesteaded in 1862, and in 1905 it officially became a town when the western most terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway was completed at Moclips and the first Moclips Beach Hotel was completed.  Vacationers came to the beach by the thousands on the Northern Pacific.  No trains run to Moclips these days and most remnants of the the railway’s existence have faded away.  Click the photo below for more Moclips history.

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Today Moclips is a sleepy little seaside town with pristine beaches that stretch to the horizons.  The Moclips River flows from a natural riverine rain forest on a bed of agate rock.  You can see the remains of the train bridge trestles in my photos.

I stayed at the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort, a peaceful and well-maintained collection of very comfortable, fully furnished and tastefully appointed condos with patios facing the ocean, the river and the setting sun. Hi-Tide welcomes dogs!  You can arrange rental on the Hi-Tide Resort website. 

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During our visit, we had a full compliment of weather: sun-drenched shorts and sandals weather at the beginning of the week, with marine air moving in, then darkening skies, wind picking up and rain by the time we left.  It was, in a word, a perfect autumn week on the Pacific Northwest coast.

Here are some of my photos of the journey. If you use them, please attribute.

Hello from Jack!

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Habanera

At my annual piano recital when I was 12 years old, I played a piano transcription of the Habanera from Carmen. I practiced over and over until I could play it with my eyes closed.

I walked onto the stage in a cold sweat, sat down at the keyboard, closed my eyes, and let it flow.

When I opened my eyes, the audience was standing, clapping, shouting “bravo.” I have no recollection of actually playing the piece, only the experience.

As a child, my father, who was stationed with the Army Air Corps in South America during WWII, parked me in front of an RCA Victor record player listening to the 78’s he’d collected from that era of Spanish ballads, flamenco guitar, and Carmen.

This selection is from an absolutely brilliant 1983 film directed and choreographed in the flamenco style by Carlos Saura and María Pagés. The image is grainy, but still powerful. The film was magnificent.

The Habanera from Carmen.

Here is the official movie trailer.