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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and its awe inspiring workings. C.G. Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
We planted several hundred trees, my grandfather and me, when I was a lad of about eight years.
Grandpa heard that the county agricultural extension office would bring you as many saplings as you wanted – free. So he ordered a pickup truck load. They arrived bound in bundles, about 12 to 18 inches long, roots wrapped in wet burlap.
We had a break in the rain, and they had to be planted now. We loaded them on a trailer behind the tractor, along with a couple spades, and puttered on out to a large, rounded hillside on the flank of the west side of the farm. The soil was shaley and rocky; the incline was too steep for cultivation. But it was perfect for these baby fir, spruce and pine.
“They’ll hold the hill from erosion and someday provide a break from the west winds, as well as lumber,” Grandpa pronounced.
We planted. And planted. And planted. Grandpa broke ground with his long-handled spade, driving it in with a sharp push from his farm boot. He pulled the spade back and forth, cleaving open a pocket in the dirt. From the other side, I deposited one sapling. As Grandpa pulled the spade out and moved a few steps onto the next planting site, I tamped the earth carefully around the sapling with my feet. I took another sapling from the bundle and followed on. We planted every last one.
I’d long forgotten these evergreens until about 35 years later. Visiting my hometown on my way from California to Germany with my five-year-old daughter, I drove out to the old Minnesota farm site. It wasn’t a farm anymore, of course. The ancient sprawling eight-bedroom farm house where I’d spent my youth, along with the barn and out buildings, had long since been bulldozed. The fields where I once sat on my Grandfather’s lap on the tractor as he plowed, the trails I rode my horse on while tending the grazing cows and sheep, and the ponds once plied by ducks and geese – all leveled, landscaped, terraced and filled with suburban cookie cutter boxes on quarter acre lots.
All gone. Except for two things.
The large pond I used to skate on in winter, catch turtles from in summer, and water the stock at – was still there. Its likely saving grace was that it was spring fed and too deep to fill. So the developer kept it as a water feature, complete with pussy willows waving in the breeze.
And the trees we’d planted. The hillside that had been too steep to till was too steep to build on. So a good portion of the trees that my grandfather and I had planted remained. They ranged about 30 to 40 feet high. We’d spaced them close, in lateral rows across the hillside, now forming a dense forest where birds and other wildlife could find refuge from suburbia.
Druid mythology is said to consider trees to be the sacred guardians of memory. So it was a moment both joyous and solemn to be standing amongst the trees I’d planted with my grandfather 35 years before. I was standing with my daughter, who’d never met my grandfather, yet who was now meeting him in his stand of trees. Our trees had survived against all odds, they had thrived, and they had come onto their own. This one small part of the landscape of my youth was intact, but changed over almost four decades. A memory of trees.
Now these guardians, these once diminutive saplings, provided that break from the west winds, though not to the farm, the buildings, the livestock, or our family, as had been my grandfather’s original plan. The wind break was to the dwellers of the houses on the quarter-acre lots.
As I stood there, with my daughter, not much younger than I was when I planted these fir, spruce and pine trees, I could not help but think: the future will always be far different from what you imagine it might be.
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Greek proverb.
This reminiscence is a brief, wistful journey in a lingering daydream to a natural history of my past that comprises who I am.
Recalling my boyhood on a farm outside a small town in a Minnesota river valley, I walk through its green and amber fields and its verdant woodlands in spring and summer, sitting down and rolling back to “…loaf and invite my soul…lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” with Mr. Whitman.
With tasseled corn waving in the breeze, the air is filled with the fragrance of freshly cultivated earth, new mowed hay drying in the humid sun, and the pungent aroma of cows and horses in the barn. Pigs squeal as they play in the mud, and chickens in their roosts cluck away, singing their discordant Song of the Laying of the Egg.
In the forest, the crow, the robin, the wren, and the jay converse as they establish presence and protocols. In the farmyard, geese and ducks squawk, racing to where their grain is scattered on the ground. Hawks and eagles keep their vigil from the sky, while the owl from his perch waits silently, blinking his eye lids – three lids per eye – monitoring a mouse bumbling through the leaves on the ground who would soon meet an untimely end.
Foxes cry on moonlit nights, sounding like a human babies lost in the woods; the wolf plaintively tests the air to see if any brothers or sisters might be in the neighborhood.
Summer provides a natural bounty, with berries of all kinds, plums, apples and cherries to be eaten right off the vine. We pluck dandelions from the yard to make a sweet wine that will rest in bottles in the cellar alongside crocks of fresh cut cabbage in a salty brine, among rows upon rows of pickles and tomatoes that will bring thoughts of summer to cold winter days.
Escaping summer’s mid-day inferno is essential, whether lounging in a creaky, unpainted gypsy lawn chair made of willow twigs in the shade of an ancient elm; lying quietly in the cool screened porch; or retreating to a far corner of the hay mow where no one would think to find me. I might snatch a wisp of timothy hay to chew on or stick between my teeth – or pull a blade of grass to stretch between my thumbs, purse my lips, and blow through to produce a whistle so loud it made the dog jump.
When the smoldering, moist heat becomes oppressive, when it’s 95 in the shade and 95 percent humidity, I ride my horse over the hills and through the back woods to Long Lake, where we plunge in to swim together. Or I bike to the St. Croix River, jump in wearing cut-off jeans, and feel the swirling current dissipate the heat from my mind and body and carry it downstream.
Harvest season comes as the air takes on a steely edge, winds pick up, and oak burning in the wood stove perfumes the air. The wood cook stove in the kitchen never gets a chance to cool, as each day my grandmother adds additional lamb, vegetables, barley, and potatoes to a bottomless cauldron of soup that never ends. I lift the cast iron plates from the stove top to toast thick slices of rustic, fresh baked bread over the deep crimson embers and slather them with hand-churned butter.
Doing early morning chores, feeding stock, milking, carrying water, chopping wood, I can see my breath as a light frost forms around my nose. Snow builds on the roof. Icicles drip in the frigid sun from the eaves. Fields and woodlands begin their turning a frigid, brittle white as the somber silence of winter envelopes the land.
In late winter and early spring, our sheep will begin dropping lambs wherever they feel like it. We lace up our sorrels and trudge through the night snow, slush and mud with flashlights, listening for the bleating of orphan lambs that must be brought in to hand feed. The dogs will lead us to them. All lives are precious.
These memories occupy a comfortable space in my mind, providing a homage and the logic to what formed me and what I’m made of now, all these years later.
As long as memory remains, so will this landscape of my youth.
“Or is it a diminished fourth? Listen to the progression again.”
Ear training with Dr. Abbott. One hour. Three times a week. Three months.
I learned a great deal about the art and science of the piano from Dr. William Abbott, professor of music at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Abbott was a brilliant, virtuoso pianist – classic, jazz, pop – he played it all, and he played several other instruments at a high level. He was one of the few people who have true perfect pitch. His doctorate was Music Theory, and his performance experience included playing with the big bands, like the Count Basie Orchestra. He played bassoon with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, tympani with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and piano for Guthrie Theater productions. He founded and conducted the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra.
Dr. Abbott created an innovative university program combining ear training, music theory, performance, piano tuning and rebuilding, history of the piano, and the physics of sound – the science of what happens when the piano hammer hits the piano wire. Art meets craft meets science. His car license plate was 88KEYS.
I was one of his first piano technology students. Combining the art of playing piano with the almost lost craft of tuning and rebuilding those magnificent old uprights and grands appealed to me on several levels. At a time when I was struggling with focus, this opportunity offered university study with a practical application. Dr. Abbott and I spent quite a bit of time together, taking pianos apart, rebuilding and regulating the actions, putting them back together, and tuning them. He was a gifted teacher and the consummate story teller. One afternoon, as we were adjusting the dampers of one of the school’s grand pianos, he told me this story, which does not end as you might think it might.
He told me that before his first son was born and still in his mother’s womb, he and his wife sat at the piano, playing and singing, so the young Abbott would feel music before ever hearing it. After the boy was born, they sang to him and played for him, bringing him music in every way, shape or form he could think of.
As the boy grew, he set his son’s course to the good doctor’s first love: music. Music lessons, ear training, voice training, multiple instrument training – he did everything he could think of to light the fire of music in the lad’s belly.
Dr. Abbott paused, then went about his work and didn’t continue the story. So I prodded him.
“How old is your son now?”
“He must be a very accomplished musician?”
“No, he’s not. He plays guitar a little. But he has no interest in making music a significant part of his life.”
“Well, what’s he doing?”
“He dropped out of college his freshman year. He’s driving delivery truck for the Pepsi bottler in town. Likes the job.”
I finished up my piano technology course work that year. My final project, my “thesis,” was to take a well-worn action from one of the school’s Steinways, a 6’ 10” Model B, rebuild it, and regulate it to perfection. The piano action is the mechanical chassis that transfers the motion of the pianist’s fingers on the keys to the hammers striking the strings. The action easily slides out of the piano bed in one piece so you can transport it to a well-lit shop and begin work.
A grand piano action can have over 6,000 separate parts, mostly made of wood, particularly on older pianos. Each key can have up to about 40 separate components, beginning at the ivories and ending at the hammers. Each needs to be adjusted to critical tolerances in order to respond and translate the pianist’s touch over a wide dynamic range, from pianissimo to forte. An accomplished pianist can play up to about 15 notes per second with each hand, so every pin, strap and spring must be working precisely.
First, I inspected the action and replaced any broken or malfunctioning parts. Then I reshaped and voiced each of the 88 hammers and set the hammer drop. At that point, I regulated let-off distance from the hammer to the string by turning the drop screw on every one. Among the many other arcane adjustments: jack-to-knuckle alignment, back checks, spring tests to make sure they are strong enough for positive hammer lift, jack height, drop, and dip/after-touch. The tools used for this work are highly specialized and unrecognizable to anyone who does not use them. Dr. Abbott personally helped me build my tool kit from Schaff Piano Supply outside Chicago.
It took me several hours over a period of a week to complete work on the action. The big day arrived. I hauled the action – very carefully – into Dr. Abbott’s office, which also served as the university piano shop. I rechecked the obvious and waited for the professor to finish up a class and come proof my work.
He walked in, set his briefcase down and did a brief visual inspection of the action. Taking off his coat, he loosened his tie, sat down on a piano stool at the shop table, and put on his reading glasses. After opening his tool kit and selecting the appropriate regulation tools, he started at the bass end and deliberately worked his way up to the treble. He quizzed me on the whys and wherefores of what I’d done and checked every measurement, making further adjustments here and there. It took a couple hours.
Rolling his piano stool back, Dr. Abbott took off his glasses, looked at me, and smiled.
“Excellent. A+ work. This action is ready for concert duty. I could not have done it better myself. Please return it to its piano, check the damper action, and take it for a spin!”
I could finally breathe! The final joy was sliding the action back into the Model B, fastening it securely, replacing all the other parts, checking the damper action, and sitting down to play it. The action was crisp, responsive, and flawless, though I did detect a little more work I might do on voicing some of the hammers.
After leaving the university, I started work for the largest piano shop in Minneapolis – Schmitt Music – rebuilding and turning pianos, learning from the pros. It was an apprentice position that prepared me to join the Piano Technicians Guild and start my own piano business for a time, The Upright Piano Works. I called it “upright” because I thought of myself as an upright person, and it was a name that was right for the times as the retro craft movement was growing. Calling it The Grand Piano Works would have been pretentious. Or so I thought.
Not long after I left the university, I received word that Bill had died suddenly of a heart attack. They named the concert hall in the university’s Fine Arts Building after him. Abbott Concert Hall. I returned to the university that same year, completed my major field of study – English – and graduated a year after he passed away.
I continued doing piano work, but as other work and travel took over, including grad school, it faded to the background. I still have all my tools, and a couple years ago put them to use on my 1931 Vose Brothers baby grand. I had forgotten some things, but as I took the tools in my hands and started to use them, the skills came back. The difference in the piano amazed me. The fact that I could still do the work after all these years amazed me, even more.
From time to time, I think back to the story Bill told me. I don’t know why he shared that part of his life with me, but I think it was related to my own search for grounding and direction, which were likely apparent to him. The message I took away was this: No matter how you plan, life often has something else in store for you and turns another direction.
At the north western edge of the continental United States, with the Pacific Ocean at your feet, lie a handful of cabins – Iron Springs Resort. They are arranged on a bluff overlooking a vast horizon that stretches westward to the edges of what is visible, then dissolves into what is not visible to mere mortals.
As you walk at the edge of the pounding surf, the sandy shores seem to stretch to infinity from north to south. Keep walking – for hours if you like – and you’ll never reach the end. The sand, the surf and the springs and estuaries that feed into the ocean recede and dissolve until they exist only in your memory. As the tides come in and go out at the resort’s Boone Creek, where fresh water meets salt water, you can watch the fresh water rise up over the more dense salt water, while the salt water beneath pushes its way upstream along the bottom. But as you walk, beware the incoming high tide, or you may find it difficult to return to where you began.
The sounds of the savage ocean shore are primal, as if from a dream. The sea birds, screaming at your thoughtless interruption of their dining routine. The winds, from gentle to so harsh they’ll blister your skin. And the rhythmic symphony of the great ocean beast itself as it moves ever towards the shore, changing from swells to white capped waves to crashing surf, ending the cycle as a churning but ever thinner sheet of water conforming to the irregular nuance of beach, fragmenting into barely visible ripples that disappear, pulsing and absorbed into the sand, only to reform as rivulets of salt water retreating to the ocean to begin the journey again.
This is the endless world. The ocean. From the beginning of time through eternity. We have the privilege of being part of the world but for a short time, less consequential than a grain of beach sand that has existed for millions of years. In comparison, our lives are an almost impercipitible flash of energy, barely noted, lasting an immersurabley short time.
So you might as well take advantage of it. Find a place like Iron Springs Resort, with about 25 cabins perched on a bluff stained orange from the iron-filled cliffs, with ruddy cinnamon waters from the nearby Boone Creek staining the beach. In the 19th century, the area was considered to be a medicinal soaking place.
The cabins have ocean-facing decks, almost all with stunning sunset panoramas. The resort has been there for decades, but all the cabins have been extensively renovated, incorporating the original stone fireplaces, with a generous supply of firewood included. Though the cabins retain their rustic persona, they are equipped to the highest standard for your stay, whether it’s for the night or for the week. Kitchens are well equipped, with granite countertops and modern appliances, including a dishwasher. A full complement of cookware and dinnerware is in the cabinets, and there is a nice sharp set of cooking knives – a nice touch. Fresh linens and towels are included, as well as dog towels to wipe your best friend’s feet. Iron Springs Resort not only allows dogs, they love dogs. When I arrived for my first visit, I brought my German Shepherd, Jack, with me the office to check in and they spent more time talking to him than me, letting him pick out a nice tennis ball from the bucket to take to the beach. Oh yes, dog dishes are also supplied in the cabins.
The ambience at Rust Springs Resort is serene and congenial. The cabins are set apart so that privacy is ensured. Several people I met were repeat visitors, and I later found that many have used Iron Springs Resort as a touchstone for family getaways, reunions, bonfires and clam digs for generations. There seemed to be a dog or two in every cabin, with everyone respectfully keeping their buddies on the leash. The exception is the friendly resort dogs, who quite understandably are free to go where they like.
But once you take the five-minute walk to the beach, off comes the leash, and your dog will enter unrestrained cosmic canine bliss. Feel free to do so, as well! My GSD Jack takes off like a shot, with a rooster tail of flying sand behind him, until he gets to the water where he splashes around barking at the waves and chasing gulls. When he finally slows down, somewhat later, we walk and walk and walk. By the time we get back to the cabin, he’s ready for chow and a nice laydown, and so am I. Click here or photo below for video link.
There is no finer end to the day for me than sitting out on the cabin deck with a glass of wine, watching the sun slip into the ocean. Every cabin has a barbeque grill on the deck, if you’re in the mood. If it’s windy or rainy, you just move inside, prop your feet up and enjoy the same view through the expansive glass windows and door.
In addition to the Pacific Ocean beach on your front doorstep, there are hiking trails in the second growth forest behind the resort, with “wolf trees” that must get their name from the branches that look to me like wolf teeth. There’s also fishing, shell fishing, bird watching, as well as marine and rainforest parks. The razor clams are famous. The Hoh Rain Forest, a world heritage site, is not far away.
Iron Springs Resort is an easy two and half hour drive from Seattle. Head west through Olympia towards Aberdeen and then follow the road north to Ocean Shores. Ocean Shores will be your last chance for grocery and other shopping, and then you keep going north on Washington 109N about another 15 minutes. After you cross the Copalis River Bridge, keep watch for the large overturned lifeboat on the left, then turn into the parking lot. Check out of your hectic life and check into ocean time.
For more information on Iron Springs Resort, including the history of the area and resort, go to their website at http://www.ironspringsresort.com/ There, you will find out one unusual feature of the resort, which is that the beach in front is home to Copalis Beach Airport. It is the only known beach airport in the contiguous United States and the only stretch of Washington State beach where it is legal to land a plane. Timing is everything, in case you plan to fly in – the runway and airplane parking area are under water at high tide! Click here or the photo for the Washington Department of Transportation Copalis Airport link.
“Do not return to work. We have terminated your employment. Do not enter the grounds or we will have you arrested for trespassing.”
This Saturday afternoon, I was under the hood of my 1966 Chevy Impala 396 Super Sport doing some engine work by our barn when Mike pulled into our driveway in his shiny white Ford pickup truck to fire me. I worked at his cheese factory, just a few miles away, six days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day – except Saturday, which was usually a half day. If a reefer truck pulled in and needed loading, we’d be working no matter what day of the week it was.
Mike and his partner, Edgar, owned that cheese factory. When I saw them together, I often smiled to myself a little because they reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy pair. Mike was middle aged and over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and an even broader paunch. Every day, he wore a white dress shirt that never seemed to stay fully tucked in his pants, which had their own difficulty finding where his waist was located. Edgar was much older and a good foot shorter, stooped over and almost frail. His glasses were usually sliding down his nose, probably because the lenses were as thick as the end of a Coke bottle. Neither of the two was particularly cordial or pleasant to deal with. Mike seemed a bit of a bully, his face always on the verge of a snarl, and Edgar walked by you as if you weren’t in the room, on the rare occasions he left his office. Edgar did the books; Mike ran floor operations.
It was just a matter of time before they tried to get rid of me, so I wasn’t surprised at Mike’s news. I kept my mouth shut, nodded once, and turned back to working on my car. Mike backed down the drive and disappeared in a trail of dust kicked up from the dirt road that ran from our farm to the main road. I knew exactly why this happened and how I got here, and I had a plan.
Now in my early 20’s, I was an accidental union organizer. Up until a couple months ago, I’d never given a thought to that calling, and I never did again, though I have a working knowledge of unions and union organizers, from Mother Jones to Joe Hill to Eugene Debs to César Chávez. I also knew a thing or two about labor, growing up on a farm where we breathed work from early morning until late at night. When I was 13 years old, I hired out for the summer to a farmer on the other side of the county six days a week for room and board and $75 a month. My parents picked me up Saturday night and brought me back on Monday morning. This was good money for a kid in those days, and I was so busy working I had nowhere to spend it.
The next two summers I rode my bicycle several miles each day to weed, hoe and plant trees six days a week at a large tree nursery. The following autumns, I spent my weekends picking, grading and selling apples at a neighboring orchard run by an agronomy professor from the University of Minnesota. All the apples you could eat. After school and weekends, I worked maintenance at a restaurant and apartment complex, as a soda jerk at a drug store, and as a prep and line cook at a local restaurant. When I was 17, I graduated from high school, started college and worked between classes and semesters at restaurants, sod fields, gas stations, construction companies and even a destruction company, tearing down old buildings, including the school where I attended first grade as a child. I worked alternating shifts for one summer at a window factory. Graveyard shift was 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. One summer I spent hanging on for dear life on a portable scaffolding high above the ground taking down and putting up billboard advertising. Hot, hard work, particularly in the blazing sun holding a blow torch and burning off the old paper posters. I guess you could call me a poster boy.
Yes, I knew something about work and labor relations.
My goal now was to break the work and school cycle to travel Europe and Africa until whatever money I’d saved for the trip was spent. That’s why I moved from Minneapolis to my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin to keep expenses low and save every penny I could. I first worked at a feed mill, then took a job at the cheese factory. Terrible pay, even by Wisconsin welfare belt standards, but working 60 to 80 hours a week – no overtime pay – still added up. I also bought cars, fixed them up and resold them at a profit. My trip to Europe was on track.
The cheese factory was a dump, an old industrial building with rickety, tacked-on stick additions outfitted with cheese making equipment and storage. It was freezing in the winter and a sweat shop in the summer. We made two cheeses: mozzarella and provolone. The factory bought milk locally and dumped the excess whey in a stream that ran alongside the building. EPA had just been founded a few years earlier, so there was little environmental oversight. Some farmers, including my grandfather, fed it to their hogs. We loaded the cheese on trucks bound for Italian food and pizza factories in Milwaukee and Chicago.
There were two professional cheese makers, but the rest of the work force were people like me – local men and a few women, doing what was necessary, going home at night smelling like whey and brine. We pressed the cheese curds into 12 pound blocks, then moved them from one brine vat to another to age and firm up the cheese quickly. After that, we vacuum packed it with industrial Cryovac machines.
Many of the crew had families, and all were just getting by, one miss-step away from the dole and the welfare roll. You made friends in a place like that, mainly because you could not afford to make enemies. We spent most of our waking day together. There was a small group of young men, some married, some not, who got together on Saturday night, drank beer and bar hopped. That was the high point of the week, and the only entertainment available in that part of Wisconsin. Arnie was my best cheese hound buddy. He was a competition level talker, wiry and tireless. He could drink twice as much beer as I could, and it never showed. Wisconsin boy.
Arnie lived a couple miles the opposite direction from our farm and the cheese factory in a modest mobile home on his father-in-law’s farm. His wife, Betts, was an all-American Wisconsin farm girl. Arnie met her when she was the county 4-H Queen. A sturdy gal, she was bubbly, pretty, and always friendly, with a bright smile. They’d been married about three months, and she was six months pregnant. There may have been a shotgun involved in the wedding arrangements.
It was Arnie and Betts who turned me into a union organizer. Not that they ever knew that, either then or now.
Arnie called me one night.
“Steve, I can’t make it to work tomorrow. Tell Mike that I’ll get hold of him later in the day.”
“What’s up, buddy,” I said. “Anything I can help with?”
“I have to take Betts to the hospital tonight. Something’s not right with the baby. I’ll let you know.”
When I got to work the next morning in the dark at 0600, I passed on the information. Mike grunted something under his breath and walked away. This was the first day I knew of that Arnie had ever missed work since I’d been there. He couldn’t afford to. There was no sick leave, family leave, paid time off – if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. And you might get fired.
Arnie stopped by the farm that evening. Betts was back home, and both she and the baby were fine. But the doctor told them that this was likely going to be an eventful pregnancy that would require more trips to the hospital and maybe a longer hospital stay closer to the time of birth. Arnie’s voice was trembling and his hands were trembling.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to do this without going into debt.”
I went in the house and got a couple beers, and we sat out on the porch and talked. Arnie was already in debt. He was my age, and he owed for the mobile home, a new septic he’d just put in, and his economical little Chevy Vega station wagon. Betts’ parents were farmers – they were comfortable, but cash poor, as anyone who’s run a small farm will understand. Arnie’s job paid poorly and provided absolutely no benefits. No paid leave and no medical insurance. Then, as now, private health insurance was costly.
All of us who worked at the cheese factory were in the same spot. Yet, 15 miles away there was another cheese factory where they had those benefits. It was a union shop. They had decent living wages, overtime, holidays and vacation time, retirement benefits, and medical insurance. They also had no job openings. It was considered to be one of the best places in the county to work.
The following day, I got the name of that cheese factory’s union steward and called him to explain the situation.
“I know all about your cheese factory,” he told me. “You’re not the first person to call me.”
He gave me the telephone number of the union’s regional office in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, about an hour and a half away. The International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. That night, the Teamsters representative called me back, and we talked.
“Yea, it’s the same all over,” he said. “First step is that you have to find out if there are enough workers interested in being part of our union. Many don’t because they’re scared of the owner. Ask around, but don’t use work time to discuss it. If you do, they’ll fire you and there’s not much we can do about it. If they vote the union in and they try to fire you, the Teamsters and Wisconsin’s Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR) will sue them, and we’ll win.”
That’s what I did. That Saturday night when we got together for our traditional Wisconsin social event, bar hopping, I brought it up. There was guarded interest. They all knew people who worked at the union cheese factory, and any one of them would have taken a job there instantly. So I told them to ask around, and if there was enough interest, the Teamsters representative would meet with us, answer questions, and if we were ready, set us up for the next step, which was a formal vote under Wisconsin labor laws and guidance.
It didn’t take long to discover that there was overwhelming interest. I arranged for the Teamsters representative to meet with all those interested at the party room at a local bar. Almost the entire work force, about 30 people, showed up. Yes, hell yes – let’s do it!
The Teamsters and the Wisconsin labor office contacted the cheese factory and set up the vote, monitored by all parties.
The results: Yes. Unanimous.
The cheese factory owners: mad as wasps who’d just had their hive knocked down. They were out for blood. When they found out who the instigator was – who the organizer was – it was my blood they were after. That’s when Mike came to my home to fire me.
Big mistake, Mike. Monday morning, I called the Teamsters office and reported what had transpired.
“Sorry to hear that, Steve, but that often happens. Here’s what we’ll do.”
They explained that it was illegal to fire me for organizing union representation, and doubly illegal to come onto my property at my home and do so. I had an excellent work record, was never late for work, and never missed a day. The Teamsters attorney sent a letter to the owners instructing them to immediately reinstate me with full back pay. They were to send me a registered letter and not call me or set foot on my property until I’d formally accepted the reinstatement by return registered mail. If they didn’t, they would be sued. On my part, I was not to have any contact with them until I had received and formally replied to their letter of reinstatement. If a factory representative came on my property, I was to call the sheriff.
Within a couple weeks, my comrades in arms welcomed me back to work. There wasn’t really any hugging; we shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. From a safe distance. I didn’t have to buy my own beer for several weeks. That’s how it was in Wisconsin back then.
The owners glared daggers at me when I walked by. They watched me from across the brine tubs and looked out their office window when I left work. A couple times, I saw their trucks drive slowly by the house. Then I started seeing occasional, unfamiliar cars driving slowly by. Later, I found out that the owners were suspected of having mob connections in Chicago. The Mozzarella Connection. The Provolone Connection. The Pizza Mob.
Grandpa assured me that his rifles and shotguns were loaded, just in case any intruder should get past the dogs, which was unlikely.
The union was soon in place. Wages gradually increased, daily hours decreased and people had more time with their families, overtime was paid, and everyone had access to inexpensive health insurance. It became a sought-after place to work in this northwestern Wisconsin county, which had large pockets of abject poverty.
Betts did have a difficult pregnancy, but she came through it in good health, as did their baby boy. Last I heard, just before I left the area, they were working on a second baby. Arnie always needed to keep busy doing something, and Betts didn’t seem to object. Arnie was able to spend more time helping his father-in-law on the family farm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually took it over.
The Teamsters asked me to be the union steward, but I was already busy on my exit plan.
At the end of the year, Theresa and I set out with our Irish Setter “Erin” on a nonstop, 24-hour drive from Wisconsin to New York City in a 1963 Oldsmobile station wagon that one of Theresa’s neighbors in Eau Claire had given us when we told him about the trip. After spending a couple days enjoying Manhattan and Times Square, I gave the car to the valet at the Manhattan Holiday Inn garage on the condition that he drive us the next morning to the New York Port Authority Passenger Ship Terminal in Hell’s Kitchen. We’d booked passage on an Italian ocean liner, the SS Michelangelo, sailing from New York Harbor and bound for Cannes, France. It was the experience of a lifetime to sail down the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty on one side and Battery Park on the other, into the Lower Bay, and out through the New York Bight into the Atlantic Ocean.
The end of this story is just the beginning of another. My May 4 post on this blog, “Travels With Erin,” ended almost exactly where the story you’ve just read ends. The next installment will pick up where “Travels with Erin” ends, and I’ll tell you about our extraordinary ocean liner transit – and its cast of characters – from New York City to Cannes, then our journey to Rennes, France, where we bought a purple 1957 Citroën 2CV that we drove from Brittany in Northwestern France through Spain to North Africa and back to Vannes, at the entrance to the beautiful and historic Gulf of Morbihan in southern Brittany.
With that, Dick and I walked away from our girlfriends and our high school picnic and onto two lanes of blacktop just outside of Lakeville, Minnesota. We were 14 years old, had about $50 between us, and were leaving our boring lives attending a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the open road and eventually Mexico. We were running away.
We made a clean getaway. No one knew our plans except our girlfriends, Bonnie and Donna. They’d been sworn to secrecy. As the busses loaded to take the school’s students back to campus after the yearend picnic, the teachers neglected to take a head count. So it wasn’t until the busses arrived back at the school a couple hours later that they found out we were missing.
By then, Dick and I had hitched rides down miles of country roads, and the scent was dead. We were getting close to Northfield, Minnesota, following our plans to take the back roads south, staying off Interstate 35, but crisscrossing it so we’d stay headed the right direction. Our backpacks held a map of the United States, a compass, and copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that I’d checked out from my hometown public library in Stillwater, Minnesota, with no intention of returning it.
What turned a farm kid from a small town – me – and a city kid from a big city – Dick – into cohorts on a teen runaway adventure? I had my reasons. I’d been bounced around schools for the past three years as my parents tried to find a place where my attraction to turmoil, truancy, and trouble might be mitigated. I insisted that I didn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble always found me. They didn’t buy it.
First stop after eighth grade at Stillwater Junior High was ninth grade at a Lutheran school in Maplewood, Minnesota. Going from a class of hundreds to a ninth grade class of 20 was a jolt. Though hardly a religious soul, I found new comfort in the daily meditations, studying biblical history, and the ubiquitous Lutheran fellowship that included hayrides, roller skating parties, and music. Lutherans I grew up with were always singing and playing instruments. I played piano for the choir and trumpet in the small, but award-winning school band. If Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon comes to mind, you’re not far off.
As this school only went to ninth grade, however, my parents arranged for me to attend tenth grade with our pastor’s son and daughter at a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, a rather long daily commute from our farm in Stillwater. My 14-year-old persona turned going from the top of the pile in ninth grade to bottom of the heap in the tenth into a provocation. I discovered that many of the students at this small school were there for the same reason I was: they had a penchant for insubordination, incorrigibility, and disdain for authority. We troublemakers found each other immediately. To boot, this Lutheran school was part of an evangelical synod, which just begged resistance and rebellion.
I was in trouble from my first day, when a teacher pulled me aside in the hallway and told me to go immediately to the bathroom and tuck in my shirt. I had the audacity to ask “why.” It was downhill from there, and the stage was set for another trouble maker, Dick, and me to thumb our noses and go on the run. The final straw was when the school principal called me into his office and slapped me across the face because I wouldn’t “wipe that smile off your face.”
Now here we were, on the road, and committed to the run. As night was falling, we were getting hungry and thinking about where we were going to sleep. Hadn’t really factored that into our planning, but runaways are resourceful. Our last ride of the day dropped us in the small town of Cannon City, just outside Faribault, Minnesota. It was early June, so the days were long and the weather was fine. We stopped at a small grocery store and bought a loaf of bread and some summer sausage for dinner. We dined en plein air in a park by the side of the town’s lake, then walked to the edge of town where under cover of darkness, we appropriated the front and back seats of a large old car in the back row of a used car lot. We slept well, in spacious comfort, and woke early. We finished the last of the bread and sausage for breakfast and put our feet on the road once again.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost.
Our first ride was with a farmer in a beat-up pickup truck.
“Where you boys headed?”
We smiled at each other. Now began the fun. We had just been given license to lie through our teeth! We couldn’t let on what our plans really were, so we lied, and lied, and lied. We made up everything. We made up our names. We made up where we were from. We made up where we were going. We made up why we had left where we were from and why we were going to our fictitious destination, always just beyond where our driver would drop us off. We told each of our rides completely different stories. Sickly aunts, uncles who’d just died, parents who’d dropped us off and were meeting us later, life stories that were pure fantasy, stories of lost family wealth, stories of heartache and sorrow. We faked our accents. Dick could do a great British accent, so he was from London. Or Ireland. Thanks to my aunt and uncle, I did a mean Texas drawl. We really were incredible liars.
I don’t know if anyone believed us. It didn’t matter. That day one of our rides shared his lunch with us, and another bought us more bread and sausage for supper at a small store. We’d bypassed Faribault and Owatonna on the back roads, and we were now just north of Albert Lea. Our last ride dropped us near a freeway entrance. There was no town nearby, so we started walking down an adjacent country road. It was getting dark, and there were no towns, or even houses or farms. We came across a deserted portion of the freeway that was under construction and decided to take shelter for the night under a partially completed overpass.
As we settled into our concrete cave, it grew increasingly colder. We curled up in our jackets and pulled some of the few clothes we brought along for warmth and insulation from the ground. We had packed our bags for Mexico, not Minnesota.
Eventually, we both fell into a troubled sleep. Then we woke to a sound. It seemed to be coming from directly over us on the overpass bridge. Then we heard it again. Could it be someone walking around up there? Was it the police? Had they found us? Or was it…what? A criminal escaped from prison? A wild animal? A werewolf? An ax murderer?
We froze in stillness, afraid to move lest we give away our position. We conversed in whispers. We remained wide awake until morning. The sound was still there. Summoning up courage from the depth of our souls and using extreme stealth, we crawled on our bellies to gain a vantage point and see what the hell was up there. As we slowly, slowly peered over the side of the bridge we saw it.
An empty paper concrete bag flapping in the breeze.
We smiled, then we started laughing. We laughed so hard tears were running down our grimy faces. We had been held down all night by a paper bag!
We got back on the road and started walking, thumbs out. Almost immediately a car stopped to pick us up. The driver opened the door and took a long look at us.
“What on earth are you boys doing out in the middle of nowhere this morning?”
Now we woke up. Time to do our best improv duo for the nice man in the car. We did “lost boys.”
“We’re on our way to visit our grandparents in Albert Lea. I’m Bob and this is my brother Brian. Our parents let us off just down the road because mom felt sick so dad was going to bring her to the doctor. We didn’t want to wait, so dad said we could go ahead. Well, we musta’ took a wrong turn back there, but if you could drop us off at the next town, we’ll call our grandparents and they can come pick us up.”
“Why sure, boys, there’s a little town just ahead. Do you want me to call your grandparents for you from the pay phone there?”
“Oh, no sir. I have a dime for the phone. We’ll be just fine.”
We washed up at a gas station and bought more bread and sausage at the grocery store. A loaf of Wonder Bread was about 20 cents, so our meals were costing us about a dollar a day. We put a couple candy bars in our pockets as we walked out the door. We figured we’d be good until we got to Mexico, where we could just eat the fruit off the trees. That afternoon we crossed into Iowa at Emmons. Our last ride brought us into the sleepy little town of Lake Mills. Just four states to go.
It was still early in the evening, so we decided to see if we could get one more ride. We were getting pretty crafty. We watched to see if oncoming cars might be police cars. We hadn’t seen any so far. But when we looked closer, we could see a car with those bubblegum machines on top coming down the road. We jumped off the shoulder and ran into the bushes. As soon as the police car passed, we got back on the road.
Well, two boys jumping into the bushes at the sight of a police car roused the officer’s curiosity, so he’d turned around and come up from the other side when our backs were turned.
“Hello, boys. You’re not from here. What are you doing in Lake Mills today? Come on over and hop in the car so we can talk.”
I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to lie our way out of this, but that didn’t prevent us from giving our best effort. We started with false names, relatives in the next town, etc. The officer wasn’t having any of it.
“Let’s see. Those names don’t ring a bell. How about these names?”
He already had our names. Should have known.
If there was a flaw in our plan, it was that Dick’s father was the chief of detectives at the St. Paul Police Department. So when our little adventure was discovered, every police department in the five-state area was notified. If you remember Car 54, it was an APB – an All-Points Bulletin. Two runaway boys. One’s dad is a St. Paul police detective. Find them.
“We’re notifying your father, Dick, and he’s going to come down to pick you up. He’s been expecting the call. Congratulations! You made it quite a ways. As you are both a flight risk, we’re going bring you to our jail and lock you up. We don’t have anyone in jail right now except Carl, our town drunk, so you’ll have the place to yourself. We’ll get you supper, and there’s a shower. Then you’re going home.”
My first thought: please leave us in jail. When we get home we are going to be in so much trouble. When we get back to school, we are going to be in so much trouble. We are in trouble, right now.
It was a comfortable jail. There were two officers on duty. They brought us a hot Midwestern supper with generous portions from a local restaurant – thankfully, not sausage – and they sent Carl out to buy us a six-pack of Coca-Cola. It was about midnight when Dick’s parents arrived. They were very calm. I’m sure they were mad, but they were more relieved than anything. They’d brought snacks for the long drive back to St. Paul. Dick’s dad drove a big white Chrysler Imperial sedan, so we were both asleep in the back seat almost instantly. We woke up at Dick’s house, where they fed us breakfast and we all had a little, ahem, talk. My parents arrived an hour or so later. I could tell my mother was seething, but my Dad just smiled and said, “Well, Steven, how was your little journey.” My little journey. As I was likely to be grounded for the next year, it was going to be my last one for a while.
We were back at school the next day. More long conversations. The teachers stared daggers into our hearts. The principal of the school asked me if I was planning on attending this school the next year. Nope. No way. He said that would make it simple because he would not then have to go to the trouble of denying a request for my return.
When they let us lose into the halls for our classes, we found that we had become legends in our own time. Upper classmen came up to us and said: You two have balls of steel! Our girlfriends hung on our arms, and the other girls were all smiles, with come hither looks. We retold our story over and over, enhancing it as we went. We got a ride with a race car driver who was going 100 mph, the bag flapping on the bridge became an old man with a shotgun firing at us as we ran away in the dark of night, and the police officers in that little town in Iowa told us they were locking us up for good and throwing away the keys. Or something like that.
The next year I was back at Stillwater High School, as a junior. Four schools in four years. I was on a first name basis with every school counselor.
That would be the end of the story, but several years later when I was attending the University of Minnesota, I ran into Dick on campus. He looked exactly the same. He was majoring in criminal justice – going to be a detective just like his dad. We went out for beers several times and remained good friends until our paths once again parted.
One of the last times I saw him, Dick said, “Hey, Steve – let’s run away again. I’ve never had so much fun!”