The anticipation of the coming Christmas holiday was growing more and more every day. The cold weather brought light layers of white snow to our small town that provided even more seasonal flair to the town. The engine behind the energy of the season for the children, myself included, was the thought about the gifts of toys coming in a few days. There was a system and procedure that had to be followed to get to that day, including trying to showing our parents our best behavior. In my case, it also involved helping my mother get through the holiday season with at least a touch of her sanity intact.
My mom’s responsibilities during this time of year would double and triple with the different programs that she had to organize and put on. She was also getting the choirs at church ready for the annual epitome of her work and that was the Christmas Eve service at Zion Lutheran. Our jobs as kids were to not misbehave at any of her programs or services. She had enough things on her plate in trying to keep all the moving parts in place without having to stop to tell myself or my brothers to behave. This was made abundantly clear early in my life and both my brothers and our dad did everything they could to remind us to stay out of Mom’s way and help her if we could in any way.
In the seasonal “check-list” that we had to run our way through before getting to Christmas, the school elementary music program came first. The program was usually a parade of mostly children either overly eager to sing or some that were not wanting to be there at all. Teachers did their best to bring the groups out when my mom had them cued in the program to come out onto the risers next. They did their best to keep in line the kids who found it their job to snicker and giggle. The teachers would glare at them and it they had to they would walk over to the trouble make and gently remind the giggler that this program wasn’t about them. My mom was good at giving a certain look at them if she could all the while maintaining the leading of the song while standing behind the piano facing the riser of children. I knew “the look” well and avoided it at all costs. The gymnasium full of cold folding chairs holding moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas and fidgeting little brothers and sisters. Everyone would laugh at the Kindergartners yelling out their songs. There would always seem to be at least one kid that was sick and would turn pale when propped up in their dress clothes and put in the spotlight in front of the entire town. The teachers would be spotters and try to catch these kids and get them off the riser before they fell over or threw up. Most of the time, they were successful.
Following the program, Mom would host a party at our house for all the teachers and we’d have to rush home to get everything ready for the guests for when they started to drive. Matthew and I would scurry about the house and get all the Christmas lights turned on and all the candles lit. Mom would get the coffee and cider going and with the help of Grandma O and Grandma Gert, get the food all out of the fridge and onto the buffet in the dining room. Dad would get the fire in the fireplace going and then get his pipe lit. Slowly at first, the guests would arrive and Matthew and I would take turns running their coats up to one of the beds until there would be a heaping pile of tweeds and faux furs.
The familiar faces to me from school would come into this other environment that was home to me and it was always slightly unusual to see them outside of the classroom. They would also sometimes be accompanied by an unfamiliar face of a spouse. These were husbands and wives that were never at school and we didn’t even consider as part of our teacher’s lives… except for a few local teachers whose husbands and wives were people that we knew.
It was fun to watch the teachers all consorting with each other and my parents and grandparents. We’d do our best to stay out of the way… but also grab food and snack away at the plethora of goodies. I remember grabbing a paper plate and filling it with swedish meatballs, lil smokies, chips and dip, Christmas cookies, cheese and crackers, cheeseball, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, teriyaki chicken wings. Wine would be poured to those that wanted it. There would be two percolators bubbling away; one with JUST cider in it that would simmer over some cinnamon sticks and cloves, the other would have one gallon of cider and one bottle of wine simmering with the cinnamon and cloves. Jokingly, the guests referred to them as the Catholic and the Lutheran versions of cider… a joke that I would laugh at, but not understand until later in my life.
The teachers would leave in small numbers, a few would stick around chat for a while longer. The grandmas would be in the kitchen washing up the dishes and putting away the remains of the food. The candles would be dwindling down to their malformed stumps. My brother and I would grab toothpicks and play in the hot wax pools in the candles… dipping and cooling the layers and building up a soft wax ball that we’d take off the toothpick and roll in our fingers. As it cooled it became more stiff and brittle and would render itself less fun so we’d throw them away and start again. Dad would step in and instruct us to extinguish the candles and we take the brass candle snuffer and go around candle to candle and play with the flame as we’d lower the cone of metal over the yellow flame at the end of the black wick and as it was depleted of oxygen, it would get smaller and smaller… sometimes, we’d give it a taste more of the oxygen it needed and the flame would rebound fully, sometimes we’d be too late and the flame would go out and the wick would release a thin vertical column of black smoke that begin a slow serpentine back and forth at first then would whip in harsher angles as it rose further and further. It was usually too tempting to gently blow a puff of air at the column and it would disperse with the wind.
Dad also instructed us to not put any more logs on the fire, but that didn’t stop us from playing with the dying embers and we’d still sneak little pieces of kindling onto the fire and watch them pop into flames and for just a few more seconds or minutes, the fireplace would light up and we would enjoy the success of making fire.
Eventually, we were off to bed and with tummies full of the all those dips and cheeses, we’d dream of indigestion if we were able to sleep.
The next thing on the list for us to get to would be a full sSaturday event that would begin with us kids coming down to the drug store with Mom and as long as there was help at the counter, Grandma Gert would come with us as we walked down Main Street to the American Legion that sat kitty-corner from the school. We’d walk under all the light poles that the city decorated with some greenery and a tinsel shape of a bell or a star adorned with lights. They were put up by the city engineer before Thanksgiving but didn’t get turned on until the day after. With a little snow, the festive look was enough to heighten our moods at the coming holiday.
When we got to the door of the Legion Hall, the smell of pancakes and sausage met us in a steamy blast of humid air. The line was backed up as people waited for fresh pancakes and another batch of sausage to come off the grill. We stood on the steps in the dark entry way down to the dugout-type building and visited with the people who were previously the last in line. Slowly we made our way down into the light where rows of tables were lined up and full of people munching down syrup covered stacks of pancakes that had been grilled up by members of the American Legion and the Jaycees. They pancakes came out quickly but the sausage station would be a bit slower and people would come back from their half-eaten pancakes to grab a couple of links. There were a few options to drink… water, coffee and concentrated orange drink.
We’d get our fill of cakes, sausages and orange drink under the supervision of Grandma and Mom. As we finished our last bites, we’d be scanning the room for our friends and figuring out who we could go run around with outside. Mom kept us finishing up before we got to antsy and thought about leaving our last bites… no, we were taught to finish our food. There were starving kids in China; even though Mom could never name one when we’d ask her. We’d finish out plates up and then Mom would let us put on our coats and hats and mittens and run off with our friends.
We wouldn’t go far, because at some point that morning, probably around noon, Santa would ride into town in a horse-drawn carriage and the children from town would gather around the back of the carriage as he distributed our a bag of goodies to each kid. We’d get our hands on our brown paper bag and then help the younger kids get their’s if they hadn’t yet. We’d dig into the full bag and pull out an orange and candy cane and then crack into our salted peanuts in the shell that filled the better part of half the bag. I wasn’t really a big peanut fan, but those salty goodies sure did taste good.
My dad had a big giveaway one year at the drug store. He’d bought a big novelty stocking that was full of toys that was 6 feet tall and was probably worth $100. They weren’t the best toys available but they were those Chinese-made, hook-hanging, drug store-type toys that were basically bubble-formed plastic around some shape of plastic and glued to a sheet of thin cardboard. Dad would have similar toys available always hanging in the store and once in a while we’d get to pick one out for ourselves or for a gift for a friend’s birthday or something. Usually, I went for the balsa/foam glider as they were the most fun inside and outside (if it weren’t windy). I’d get one for a friend and bring one for myself and we’d see who’s would fly the furthest or who could get their’s to do the best loopy loops.
For about a month, kids could come into the store and see it and put their names on little pieces of paper and then stick them into the box that was wrapped in gift wrap and had a slot cut in the top. My brother and I would put our names in the box numerous times but we well-knew that we’d never win in… but we did still hold on to hope. Maybe Dad would draw one of our names and blurt it out before remembering that we were his children. Maybe he’d draw my name fifteen times in a row and just give up and let me take the big stocking home. If there was something free for which you could just sign your name on a piece of paper, any kid was all over it.
I don’t remember who won that stocking, but I do remember that there was a picture in the Garretson Weekly with my dad and the winner. In hindsight, the winner was probably some kid that really did need it more than I did… even though Dad did probably draw my name. I’m not a sore loser.
Main street businesses also stayed open late that Saturday night so that people could come down and enjoy the atmosphere and maybe shop for some nice gifts. Businesses, Johnson Drug included, would serve hot cider or cocoa or maybe coffee and have little candy canes or cookies. This was an annual event that eventually became publicized as Sioux Falls night and the Commercial Club would put ads out in Sioux Falls media outlets to get the out-of-towners to come and spend some of their money in our little town. The mayor of Garretson would host the mayor of Sioux Falls for dinner and then the mayors and their wives would be driven around to look at the lights. Many people made more effort to put on a good show for the people that drove the 30 minutes out to see this little town and what they had to offer.
A few farmers stepped up and offered hay rides to trot around the Main Street area with their horse-drawn flatbeds and carolers from the Jesse James Players made the rounds singing carols at each of the businesses. The baritones and bass section shared their Schnapp’s with the tenors to help keep themselves warm but its side effects included throwing them off-pitch and off-timing. They would do their best but later into the night their “inner glow” got a bit too warm and a few would be giggling and making up alternate lyrics that only THEY thought was funny.
After this weekend, it was all about being good for “Santa” and hoping that Mom and Dad saw the toys that I had circled in the JCPenny gift catalog. This annual publication was heaven to us kids… we’d take turns perusing the magical pages full of toys and games. Many, WAY out of the realm of a realistic gift but others were definitely contenders for the big present for the year or maybe, if my brothers would agree on something in particular, the gift that all three kids would get together to share on Christmas day.
We had to turn in our list to Mom by a certain day and then hope for the best. We’d try to read her mood for the next few days to see if the things on our list were still in play as something that might show up under the tree or if maybe we’d overshot it. Slowly, day after day, the gifts started to show up wrapped under the tree and we did some scientific examinations on the wrapped boxes to try to determine what was in them. Usually, there was no really determination made, but a lot of speculation and hope arose from the site of the brightly adorned boxes.
Christmas Eve would finally arrive and Mom was in the home-stretch. We’d go to church with the anticipation of the gift opening right after, so we were on our best behavior. Mom was excited to be done with the season and Dad helped to keep us in line by having us sit by him in church until we were old enough to sit independently NEAR them or sit in the choir with them and participate.
The Christmas Eve service was always my favorite. A combination of the music that I knew and the hopes of the gifts I was about to open later got my adrenaline pumping and my senses rose in their awareness. I would sit at the front of the balcony and look down at everybody dressed in their finest. People I hadn’t ever seen in church before. Some sitting with people that I knew. I’d find my own cousins that had come to town for Christmas but sat with my uncles and aunts that also came home for the holidays and I would be seeing in the coming days.
We’d sing the familiar hymns that we all love to sing. The choir would sing “Do You Hear What I Hear” and I’d get chills. They’d pass out candles in preparation for the offering and then the lights would be lowered and the ushers would light the candles along the center aisle. The flame would be passed dow each pew from parishioner to parishioner and slowly the sanctuary would glow a light orange hue from all the flickering candles. During this Mom would move from the organ to the upright piano in the balcony and Roger Engebretson would sit at the grand piano down in the front of the church and they would play “O Holy Night” as a duet on the two pianos. It was a long and moving piece to listen to and would usually take JUST long enough for them to gather the offering from the congregation that spilled out into the overflow area below the balcony. As it ended and they brought the money up front, Mom would get back at the organ and begin playing “Silent Night” and we’d sing all the verses. As we got older, we picked up the harmonization parts and we’d sing them out to fill the sound even more. The last of the verses would wrap up just in time as the little white candles with the paper drip protectors were near the bottom and hot wax was beginning to drip down onto hands that weren’t ready for the sudden jolt of heat. Some people would extinguish their flames early but then with a cue from the pastor, all the little lights would go out and a light haze of candle smoke would fill the room.
The service always wrapped up with “Joy to the World” and then the processional of people as the ushers dismissed them. I was already thinking about the gifts at home by this point and the food that we’d be digging into… as cousins and friends filed out below me, I’d wave to them with a small wave of my hand, inside wishing that everyone would hurry and go faster so I could get home.
Eventually, we’d get home and Matthew and I were tasked with the same things that we were tasked with during the teacher’s party: get the candles lit and the lights turned on. Grandma Viola and Grandma Gert would arrive and then Uncle Rolly and Sara would come. We’d take our places around the living room and Sara would pass out presents with our help and we take turns opening gifts. Oddly, not too many gifts stand out to me… mostly I remember just being in the living room and opening presents and watching everybody else open the gifts that we got each other. Certain things do stand out… we always got Dad a soap on a rope. Mom always got a blue holiday plate from Dad and also some Precious Moment figurine. I guess those toys that I circled and hoped for weren’t really so important to me.
The holiday season can be hard now with none of that stuff happening like it used to… we all get older and families grow and split and move apart. People so dear to us pass on and we don’t have their smile or laugh to enjoy during this time. Those moments that we all shared were behind us before we ever knew to appreciate them and the real lesson is a real gift that we open later in life… That the memories will forever be cherished in our hearts and minds. As long as we remember them, we will always have them with us.
Merry Christmas everyone!
The Advent of Cable TV
In the early days of our cable tv, we were issued that magic brown box to sit on top of our tv that had a red LED display to indicate which channel we had tuned into and a little red dot of a light to indicate that it had power. We had lived on the few channels that the aerial antenna pulled in for all our lives up to this point. Rotating that poor circular dial at break-neck speeds manually to get from channel 2 up to channel 13 then back down to 8… mom or dad interjecting and chastising us that our method is “too fast… you’re going to break the dial!” (which usually resulted in a sarcastically slow click. click. click. click… as I looked back at them with a grin as if to say ‘oh, is THIS better?’.
In our little town, we knew about cable tv. We had heard about cable tv. Some of us were lucky enough to travel to a relative’s in a “big city” and had the opportunity to peruse the endless channels available in this new format. These fleeting moments were savored by us when we were given these plethoras of variations to watch. We were not used to such a cornucopia to decide from.
I remember the first time I EVER saw MTV. Again, it was a thing of legend to me; a social mecca for “what is cool”… but out of reach for us with only 5 channels. We would get to see some of the videos that were in constant rotation on MTV whenever Fridays came around and we’d watch our slimmed-down version of MTV with Friday Night Videos. We’d watch them with great interest. We’d absorb the visuals that accompanied the hot music of the day. Cindy Lauper, Madonna, Billy Idol, Talking Heads… the list went on and on. I finally had my opportunity to watch MTV when my brother and a couple friends got to go to the Empire Mall and we did some shopping. I remember visiting Scheel’s and Spencer Gifts and walking around with my teenage older brother and his teenage friends. We went to eat at the place in the mall that eventually became Hardee’s, but at the time was a pizza but the slice eatery. I remember we grabbed a piece of pizza at the counter and a soda each then went to the back of the establishment where they had a large front-projection big-screen tv that was barely focused and not very bright. But it was playing MTV. It was mesmerizing. Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” was blaring out and Billy was on the screen with his patented spiked white hair and his rock and roll angry sneer shape on his mouth. I was blown away. I don’t remember the other songs I saw that day, but I remember the distinctive commercials with the MTV theme song and astronaut planting the MTV flag on the moon. I was so hooked.
I had dreamed and dreamed of finally getting our own cable tv in Garretson and when it finally arrived, I could hardly contain my excitement. I sat in front of our console tv glued to MTV and all the other channels.
With the cable box we were issued a brown remote control that matched the color of the box. It was about the size of a Hershey bar, but thicker, and was full of small buttons (but relatively simple compared to today’s remote controls) that controlled the channel up and down or we could enter a number on the keypad. There was no volume control, I don’t think. We had to adjust the volume on the tv physically.
With the addition of dozens and dozens of channels to our lives, we were in heaven. We could travel the world by flipping the channels. We could watch our music videos any time we wanted to now… we were finally “in touch” with fashions and trends. We could see immediately the things that were cool and the things that maybe were not. I found myself lost more than once into the realm of electric information… and this was just the beginning.
My friends all over town were issued the same remote and the same brown box on top of their television sets. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this created the potential for some serious shenanigans that was just too silly to pass up. We wondered if the remotes were the same, would they work on each others’ cable boxes. Upon testing with one of our friend’s remotes on another friend’s box next door, we validated our idea and set into motion some serious hijinks.
In our small town, the extent of doing something fun on any given night was usually hanging out with friends. Either downtown we’d just hang out, or maybe we’d gather at somebody’s house and just sit and talk. Crazy nights would be when we would walk around town in our group, going from place to place just shooting the breeze and figuring out life. With the addition of the remote control in our pocket, we were now “armed and dangerous”. A group of about 4 or 5 of us walked around along the street, moving from streetlight to streetlight. At times, I’m sure we were loud. Other times, we’d just walk to get to the destination. This night, we walked and searched for our first victim. We found it when we were walking by the Hillestad place and we could see the tv on in the front living room area. We snuck up quietly to the window so we could be closer and we could see Craig’s dad, Richard, inside sitting at his chair watching the news. I pulled out the remote control and took aim at the brown box on their tv and the little red LED channel display that was on “13”. I pushed the channel up button and the screen flickered and changed color. The number read “14”. Richard looked at the tv then down at his remote control. He grabbed it and entered his channel again… 1….3…. the channel changed back. We waited. This time, we entered a different number for him….3….1….. then before he could change the channel back, we did it…. 1….3…. then he was ok. We waited again. This time we turned off the tv. You could see he was frustrated and he flipped the tv back on and then we decided to move on.
We found a few other victims to play with that night. Turning on tv’s that were off… turning off tv’s that were on. Changing channels… its was a pretty exciting night for a small town. I don’t think we ever went and did that again, even though it was fun and harmless for the most part.
We may have been easy to entertain, but at least we were innovative and creative in our attempts. We were often out wandering around town in the late (or early) hours of the night. We’d “camp” in a tent out in the backyard and then sneak out once we saw the lights go out inside the house. Most of the time, we would innocently wander around. As innocent as we were being, we didn’t want to get caught, so if we saw cars coming, we hid from them. We always assumed that ANY car was the town cop car. We always assumed he also KNEW that we were hiding from him. That he must have some instinctual trigger that went off when kids were out and up to “no good”. We’d run through backyards, lay flat on the dewy, cool grass and do just about anything to avoid being seen by the town police officer.
I remember walking up to Lutheran Cemetery and being able to see the cop driving around the pool area to give that area a "once-over" in his late night checks. I remember going up on the roof of the Drug Store and looking down on Main Street to see if he was driving by. I wonder if any of our city police officers ever did see us and were after us. Well, besides that one time that we were lighting off fireworks randomly and he’d chase the sounds. But that was just one time… and I’ll save that for another time.
Up and Down the Tracks
With an open world available to them, my early relatives came to this country from all over Scandinavia and found this Dakota soil to their liking.
My hometown of Garretson began as the village of Palisades and its original location is now the Palisades State Park on the banks of the Splitrock Creek. My Grandmother’s Grandfather, Marcus Wangsness, moved to the village of the Palisades with his bride from Michigan and they started a mercantile business. The town was built right along the railroad tracks surrounding a saw mill, and the community flourished for a number of years and was becoming an established stop on the route between Sioux Falls and Willmar.
But after spring flooding took out the wooden dam that powered the saw mill, Sioux City banker and businessman Arthur Garretson gathered investors and worked in coordination with his own business, the Northern Railway and bought up a section of land to the north 3 miles. He then ran his Northern Railway to connect with the existing line from Sioux Falls at that point. People were quick to jump onto the opportunity to become a part of the newly formed town. The city of Garretson was born.
It was still the same town… but also a new town… and hopefully a better town.
Seeing the certain demise of their community at the Palisades in the not-too-distant future, my great great grandfather pulled up stakes and took a chance on the newly formed town and was one of the first buildings to plant his foundation on the new Main Street. Eventually all the businesses moved in except the saw mill. A few years later, Marcus’ daughter, Bertha, married Ole Johnson and they started Johnson Drug.
My ancestors continued to survive and thrive in the growing community. They led the way and became pillars of different aspects of local society… in education, church, in government and in business.
They found their way to combining their genes to eventually making me.
I came into the picture when my dad had taken over the drug store as the third generation of pharmacists.
I grew up in that drug store. My primary job was comic book inspector and quality control supervisor of the candy section. I had a few other tasks that helped me earn my allowance... emptying garbages, straightening the cards and envelopes, dusting and pushing the Hokey around.
(Quick aside for those of you that don’t know what a hokey is: Think square, powerless Roomba with a stick. Well, it was powered, but only by a little kid hopped up on candy).
Once a month I was also the "statement runner"... saving postage for my dad by hand-delivering the monthly "charges" people had made to the store (at least to the people that owned businesses on Main Street). They probably all dreaded seeing the little blonde haired kid running around with sealed envelopes serving them the amounts that they owed from the last 30 days.
Most often, I would stand to the side behind the pharmacy counter out of my dad’s way and watch with widened eyes as he would fill the prescriptions. He’d count them out with quick and amazing accuracy for the ill people of town.
He’d pour out a large number of pills, then with a deft hand on a palette knife he’d count out… 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30…. snap the lid on the tray holding the pills he counted off to one side… tip the excess back into the supply bottle then tilt back and pour the counted pills into the awaiting empty orange transparent container. Snap a white cap on the top and then roll the label across the face of the cylinder with his thumb. Over and over again he’d repeat this procedure. Sometimes the pills were big and he’d go by 2’s, sometimes they were small and he’d count by 4’s or 5’s. It never got old watching him and trying to keep up in my head. I would try to guess when he’d pour then into the bottle to see if I counted right. Dozens of times I tried and I bet I got it right only once.
I would try to imitate his routine at home with m&m’s and a butter knife, but I’d usually get distracted by the chocolatey goodness waiting for me underneath the candy shells and I’d end up exceeding the recommended dosage of the “prescription” I was working on.
I grew up with every intention of following in his footsteps and being the fourth generation owner of that store.
But things changed. Life changed. One bad Chemistry Lab teacher in college and I immediately switched from a major that focused on science to one that focused on art. But that’s a whole different story.
I found myself 25 years later on an October Saturday afternoon sitting in a revitalized and vibrant Northeast Minneapolis, just across the river from downtown having an excellent craft beer with excellent new friends. I sat in a former brick fortress of agriculture and I admired the old architecture… the bricks and beams… They once housed giant factories grinding the grains of the prairie into food for the world and now they are the center of regional beer brewing and budding artist’s studios.
I drove home from Minneapolis with the fresh memory of those buildings stuck in my head. I thought about the networks of old railroad line that split and spread down every block and sliced up the neighborhoods. These old lines that connected the factories to the world. The lines funneled into switchyards that took the products north to Duluth to waiting ships that spread the harvests around the world.
I thought about the lines of people standing in the cool October rain on that Saturday afternoon waiting to get into these breweries and imbibe in the fermented brews. I thought about the history of those behemoths of agriculture… something seemed familiar to me… then it hit me….
I began to remember my roots.
I remembered being behind Johnson Drug waiting patiently for my dad to finish up his last prescription fills of the day so we could get home for dinner. He said he’d be just a bit so I went out back by the truck and waited patiently on the concrete steps. Behind the drug store was the co-op grain elevator. It ran north to south for two blocks, starting with four monstrous cylindrical bins on the north side, the elevator in the middle, a few more smaller bins and then a supply store and lumberyard on the south end of it all.
I stood there staring at the whirring beast as tractors pulling trailers and trucks all filled to the brim with the golden heaps of corn lined up for more than a block to feed their bounty into the elevator’s waiting belly. They’d roll into a covered area at one end and then minutes later they’d come out empty and speed back out to the fields as fast as a tractor could go.
The seemingly endless supply of corn provided the community with an aroma that was reminiscent of warm popcorn that mixed with the smells of the mowed grass and mulched leaves.
There’d also be little pieces of corn chaff floating in the wind and whirling around into little pink drifts behind the businesses that looked away from the elevator.
Hundreds of sparrows would swarm around picking up the dropped pieces of broken corn.
I took this all in as the sun lowered behind the elevator and the shadows crept up to and over me. The diesel generators of the train engines rising and falling as they paced back and forth on the switchyard behind the elevator as they pieced together sections of train. Their movements short at first, then longer and longer as further and further away they’d travel to build up length on the train. Eventually, they’d leave and the next train would be getting ready. Sometimes trains just rolled through and payed no attention to our little town. They’d be carrying coal, oil, rock, steel I-beams or something and I would wonder where they were from and where they were headed.
I began to think about how Northeast Minneapolis and my own little hometown might be connected… specifically, in terms of agriculture.
I went to google maps and pulled up Northeast Minneapolis and zoomed in to find the buildings that I visited. Once I found it I zoomed out a bit and then followed the railroad down across Minneapolis and then down to the southwest out of town.
I followed it across the middle of Minnesota.
Mile after mile… town after town… I followed those tracks.
click drag release
click drag release
click drag release
I was more than halfway down the state of Minnesota and I was becoming more and more certain of where this journey by satellite imagery was taking me. A few more scrolls and my suspicions were almost completely confirmed… I slowed down as I reached Jasper, MN… slower by the next town of Sherman, SD and then my heart swelled when I saw my hometown of Garretson roll into view.
There I was looking down from space on the switchyard of tracks behind the elevator that sat behind the Main Street that I knew so well. When I zoomed in, I could see right where my dad parked and the steps that I would sit on and wait for him so we could go home for dinner.
I realize that though our family has left Garretson and I’m not a part of it anymore, it is still very much a part of me. It is still in my heart and in my mind. I just moved down the tracks 30 miles. I am still the same man… but also a new man…. hopefully a better man.
I’ve had the fortune of visiting other places all over this great country and I’ve had opportunities to pull up my roots and replant somewhere else. But after almost 48 trips around the sun, I’ve grown pretty attached to this Dakota soil that my family and I have called home.
Hand-Me-Downs and Icees
Our household was a home of hand-me-downs. I was the youngest of the three boys, so I wore clothes that were at least one generation old, sometimes two and maybe even more if we had boxes of clothes from the cousins in Miller or Minneapolis. I feel like I was constantly trying on clothes. In the spring, mom would holler at me from the attic to get up there and go through boxes of summer clothes. In the fall, we’d dig out the winter clothes. I would rarely go to her with any kind of spring in my step… I had "important" things I wanted to go do, not sit up in a stuffy attic and try on clothes with my mother.
She’d pull out a box labeled with “Matthew / Summer” (or some other season and name) and hold up each piece and ask me first if I’d even wear it. “Yep” was my affirmative, “Meh” was the negative…. If I shrugged my shoulders and said “I don’t know” or “I don’t think so”, she’d put it in the yes pile. I soon realized that my vote wasn’t really the deciding voice in the situation, she would know as she looked at it if it was going to be moving into my closet or dresser. She just made me think that I was making the decision.
Most of the time, I hated this process. Every now and then, though, we’d come across a shirt or pair of pants that I remembered my older brothers or cousins wearing that I always thought was pretty cool and I would be thrilled to be in possession of that garment even if I knew that I wouldn't be wearing it for very long.
I idolized my cousins and my older brothers. Garretson was a small town built on traditions of an individual being a Blue Dragon from before you started school and for your entire life as an alum. There was great pride in saying you were a Blue Dragon. Our sports teams were solid competitors and the other activities were numerous and skilled. The little kids in town looked up to the high school kids like they were gods. We all wanted nothing more that to be just like them when we got to be that age. If I wasn't thrilled to be gaining a different "Blue Dragon" shirt, it was likely a "Miller Rustler" shirt in what quickly became my second favorite color, green.
If we weren’t getting hand-me-downs, we’d have to leave town to buy clothes. Garretson did not have any clothing stores after the 1960’s. The drug store DID carry blue striped tube socks and plain white tube socks, which were nice to have when basketball season came around, but we needed new jeans and new shoes at least once a year, so off we would go. Luverne was one option for shopping for clothes. We liked to keep our money local and I think this was one way to keep it in a small town even though we had to leave our town. We’d go over to Luverne for a few things: clothes, vehicles and donuts. I’ll save the tale about the trips over to School Motors for another story - I need to dig into my wood-paneled-station-wagon memory bank before I try to recall it all.
Luverne had a couple of clothing stores that we’d visit usually before school started. We’d head over and buy a new pair of Rustler jeans or Converse shoes so we’d have a nice set of new clothes for those first days of school. Mom didn't us wearing our knee patched jeans when making that first impression to the new teachers. We'd save that for at least a week in.
If we headed to Sioux Falls for clothes, there was only a couple places that we’d typically go: Lewis Drug or JC Penny’s. I don’t remember what things in particular we’d get at any of the stores (although I do remember getting some tennis shoes one time with “S” Curves on the bottom and the guy selling us the shoes said they’re great shoes, but I’d have to be careful coming in from the rain because the worms will sneak in on those grooves in my shoes. I thought he was serious.), but I do remember vividly going into the stores and shopping.
JC Penny’s has always been the same, it seems. There was a smell to place that smelled of large amounts of space and clothes. The bright white dressing rooms were such a stark contrast to the dark and stuffy attic at home that it was a thrill to try on clothes in anticipation of having something of my OWN that was new and bought in the big city of SIOUX FALLS (at the MALL, no less).
Most often, though, we would come in to shop at Lewis Drug. There were a few locations, but we usually came to the closest one to Garretson, Lewis Eastgate. When you walked in, you were greeted with a slap to your olfactory with the smells of popcorn from the concession area immediately to the right. There was an Icee machine swishing the magic cherry slush ice around in the little window that caught our attention and stirred in us the need to immediately begin begging Mom to buy us a treat. One of the earliest and most vivid memories I have is that smell and that store. I remember that mom bought Matthew and I each our own Cherry Icee as we headed into shop and mom put me up into the cart facing backwards with my legs dangling down (I told you that this is a very very early vivid memory… I must’ve been 3 or 4 years old). What happened next is what cemented this moment into my memory as such a traumatic event.
No sooner had I settled in to the seat for the trip around the store to buy some things had mom said to hold that Icee tight and to not drop it. We made it about 10 feet and somehow my little hands could hold the cold glass as tight as I had hoped (or needed) to and in horror, I watched the blue and red striped glass fall down and land on it’s side in a perfect side flop, sending the cherry ice liquid out in a huge SPLAT! More than that moment of the loss of my Icee is what caused this moment to sear into my brain, though. When I expected to be yelled at by my mother, I instead got a look and a statement that I wasn’t getting another one. I remember a worker coming over and saying something to the effect of it not being a big deal, he’d clean it up. I’m sure I cried and was disappointed, but I really thought I had screwed up and was going to get punished. My punishment was the loss of the reward. I was sad and looked at my brother walking along side the cart… he still had his Icee and looked up at me in the cart with a look I’ll never forget. If anyone ever wonders what kind of brother Matthew was to me, what happened next sums it up in his one little action. He reached up and shared his Icee with me. I went from none to having some. If it was only a drink, it was enough. I’ll never forget his selflessness. It seems like such a silly thing now to remember, but I learned so much in that moment. I learned my brother loved me.
When I walk into Lewis Drug today, I still think of that moment. They don’t even make popcorn there anymore, but I smell it in my memory bank. I’m still not a fan of boxes of clothes and whenever I get the urge to buy a slushy or an Icee or a Slush Puppy (or whatever you call it), I hold it with two paddies and do my best to not drop it and every time it almost tastes as good (but not quite) as the one that Matthew shared with me.
We were sitting a good dozen rows up into the stands watching the SDSU Jackrabbits take on the UNO Mavericks in the annual volleyball game for breast cancer awareness that was held at the Sanford Pentagon each year. A whole group of us went to the game… our kids were all teammates on the Pentagon Club Volleyball team for the last couple of years and probably the next few years as well. The girls all sat a few rows behind the parents (too cool to be seen with us, of course). The game wasn’t going too good for the Jacks and to put it bluntly, we were being schooled. There wasn’t much to cheer about. Everyone was slumping slowly lower into their seats and beginning to pay more attention to their cell phones than they were to the game. There was still good volleyball being played… it was fun to watch… this higher level college volleyball. But something happened that flipped a memory switch for me. There was a hard kill by a UNO player that a Jackrabbit player got in front of for a dig, but the ball didn’t pop gently up for her, but instead spun wildly up and out straight in my direction. I stood and without moving more than a few inches reach up and the ball slid directly into my awaiting hands. I threw it back and then nonchalantly sat down again. After a small verbal “attaboy dad!” from my daughter, my thoughts went directly to my dad.
In 1994, the summer after my graduation from college, I moved back to Garretson and I lived in the house that my dad had grown up in and was living in again. It was the house that Dad’s grandparents had built and my Grandma Gert had grown up in. When she moved back to Garretson after marrying Emmett, they lived in this house and raised my dad and his little brother Rolly. Now dad was back to this big empty house and I settled in with my clothes and my boxes of high school memorabilia as I transitioned into adulthood from my college years.
My mom was living in Sioux Falls and was remarried, but I worried about dad, he was still bitter about mom leaving and I think he was struggling to figure out what he could have done different and what he wanted to do different in the future. I stayed with him and enjoyed his company as I assumed he enjoyed having me around too. We’d often cook things and eat dinner together before I would go out with friends, or sometimes we’d go out and grab a bite somewhere. Dad was still a fan of baseball and we liked to go to catch a Canaries game after grabbing a bite to eat. The most common routine was to go to Szechuan on Minnesota and Dad would get his Happy Family and a Miller Lite. I would get Szechuan Beef and a Miller Lite. Dad never had to order. They just knew him and what he wanted. I don’t think I ever saw him order anything else.
After we ate, we’d head over to the Birdcage. Dad was always ready to see the birds play. He’d always bring his glove, even though he never wore it. On a chilly night, he’d bring or wear his LA Angels letter jacket. We’d get there when we got there. Dad had season tickets that were on the third base side, just behind the dugout and as far from home plate as we could get. We got to know our “neighbors” around us and they didn’t seem to attend the game nearly as much as we did. If dad wasn’t going to go, I would take them and take somebody to the game with me. Either a date, which was rare, or a friend. When it was the latter, we’d then go out on the town.
Dad had a love/hate relationship with baseball, I think. You see, the LA Angels jacket that he wore was from the era that his father played for the Los Angelas Angels of the Pacific Coast League. George Emmett Nelson had grown up in Viborg, SD and with his talents on the local baseball team, he was discovered by the Sioux Falls Canaries during an exhibition game in Viborg. He then was sold to Wichita and played with them until LA pulled him into their impressive league. He played with them during a time in which they were a solid and deep team. Many baseball experts still regard them as the best minor league team in baseball history. I could go on and on about Emmett’s baseball history, but I’ll save it for another time.
My dad told me once that he did not have the most congenial relationship with his father. Emmett was not known for being particularly warm and fuzzy. He took pride in his boys but he didn’t tend to show it. Dad shared with me about one time in particular that he was playing baseball and his dad was there watching him play. Dad played first base, I believe and he told me that after kicking a routine grounder and chalking up a needless error, dad composed himself and looked up to see Emmett getting in his car and driving away. I think Dad had regrets about some of their relationship, but I don’t know what he could have done differently to have changed anything. Later, when dad was married to mom and had 2 kids, Emmett came down with pneumonia at age 63 and refused to go to the hospital. After his death shortly after becoming bed-ridden, it was revealed that he died from pulmonary fibrosis (what ultimately took his brothers and his sons and probably was what took his dad too). Dad said it was very difficult to watch him during those last days as he struggled to breath. I think that maybe he wishes that he would’ve insisted on taking him to the hospital and at least making him more comfortable.
Dad and Rolly were both very proud of the baseball they had in their blood. Rolly even played into his young adulthood and tried out for the Twins at one point and was invited to play for one of their minor league teams but opted instead to enlist in the Air Force and went to Vietnam.
Dad became very involved in learning more about the history of the game and the history of his father. He travelled out to Pacific Coast League conventions and met people that knew his dad. He relished the tidbits when he came across them and shared them with us whenever he could. I feel like he was making up for time he didn’t spend conversing with him when he was still around. That was the only regret. I think it’s a regret that we all share. I find myself still wanting to call Dad up and asking him who so-and-so is or where somebody lived back in the year whatever. My stomach sinks a bit as I realize he isn’t there to ask.
I think about the times we spent at the games together and how they were nice. How I didn’t appreciate the innings and outs, balls and strikes… runs or errors. Nothing stands out to me in particular about any one game or moment except that one time that we got to the game a little late and we took our seats and put our feet up. Dad got his bag of peanuts open and we were settling in when a right handed batter swung at a high and inside fastball and it came off the top of the bat by his hands and shot up high into foul territory right towards us. I have a terrible sense of depth with pop flies (I was a good infielder but terrible outfielder) and stared helplessly at this moonshot that continue to get smaller as it came in our direction. I could sense that it was getting bigger and closer as dad stood up, didn’t let go of the peanuts in his right hand and extended his left hand up and barehanded it as if somebody five feet away had tossed it to him. He sat down, flipped me the ball and went back to his peanuts. Our season-ticket seat neighbors cheered politely for him and I sat there amazed at what my dad had just done. I’m pretty sure I gave him a “nice catch!” (the 1994 JT version of my daughter’s “atta boy Dad”).
The volleyball that I caught was clearly larger and softer than a baseball but I like to think that it was my own athletic homage to my dad’s skills. I think of the two athletic moves as being closely related, in more ways that by genetics. But since I brought genetics up, I like to think that Emmett was watching and giving his own “atta boy you two… good catch” to both of us on our performance. Well, thanks for the genes Emmett!
July into August
As summer continued to click by, nights would fall sooner and fall cooler. The crisp July nights were a sharp contrast to the hot and humid air of the days spent lazily around the pool. Baseball season was winding up for the different leagues... Pee Wees would be done first, then Midgets, followed by Teeners and then the Legion Team would be playing after everybody else had wrapped up. Their games were the most interesting to watch; the older guys were like watching the pro's to us youngsters. When I was in 5th grade or so, going down to Tandberg Field was as good as a trip to Minneapolis to watch the Twins. Chris and his classmates fielded a pretty good team and I remember when they first donned the baby blue uniforms similar to only the Kansas City Royals at the time. Not many were ready for Garretson to be anything besides Royal Blue and White and these light blue pants and v-neck tops were pretty alien to all of us. They wore navy stirrup socks that matched the navy and white piping that ran up the sides of the pants and then around the collar and sleeves. "Garretson" in Brush Script across the chest and the American Legion patch was sewn on the sleeve. There were no names on the back... just a number... as the jerseys had to be used over and over and over again by many different people over the course of as many years that could support the stitches of the fabric... or until so many of them went missing that they'd be forced to buy a new set.
I would ride my bike up to the ball diamond on the nights of games after supper, or if the night was still hot, I'd go to the pool and swim for a little while until I saw them gathering on the diamond down the hill to to the west of the pool. I'd give myself enough time to get dried off and dressed and then scurry down to the bleachers on the top of the hill overlooking the cutout into the hill surrounding the diamond. It was a natural stadium that Garretson had. It was an fantastic setup for a ballpark. Unfortunately, though, our infield was gravel and though they would drag it on every gameday, the rocks just worked their way up and litter the enormous circle of orange. Seemingly small and insignificant, they would pose dangerous threats to the path of ground balls rocketing in the direction of the infielders locking themselves into a position to prepare themselves for the ball to do one thing when, in fact, the ball would go and do something else completely random. Often, to the chagrin of those infielders, that random direction would be upward at their face. Or at least it seemed like it would happen that way often. It probably only happened once, but sometimes that all it took to put the fear of God into that third baseman that valued the set of teeth that was still intact.
The orange rocky circle was flanked originally by two dugouts that were literally dug out into the ground, but over time the elements took their toll on their structure and every spring and every heavy summer rain, they'd fill with water and prove uninhabitable. At some point in the 1970's those dugouts were replaced by above ground cages like you'd see at any other softball complex today. For the longest time, those new dugouts did not have roofs which of course would have been nice for those players sitting there on those afternoon games baking under the sun..
I'd take my place on the bleacher and watch my brother and his teammates warm up... once in a while if I'd get there early enough and I had brought my glove, I'd get to go play catch with one of the guys if their numbers were odd. Again, it probably only happened once, but to me that meant that it happened often. I'd sit with my friends up in the bleachers and work on a a mouthful of sunflower seeds... perfecting the spitting of the shells out into a little pile. We'd size up the competition as they took to the field... we'd look for familiar players from these other towns that we'd maybe recognize from basketball games, wrestling matches, football games or track meets. We'd see these "enemies" from those other towns... the green ones from Salem, the orange and black from Dell Rapids or the blue and gold from Baltic.
The outfield didn't have a arched fence but utilized the same chainlink that encompassed the football field that made up right field and center field in the off-season. directly between right and center straight at the bus barn's east end behind that fence was the white scoreboard made up of two telephone poles, some slightly crumbling playwood painted white and nailed to a slightly crooked frame that was leaning forward ever so slightly. Black lines painted up a grid of 9 innings and a home and away row with some hooks. I don't know who was given the responsibility of throwing those number boards on those hooks, but that system was outdated soon after the dugouts were replaced which was probably just as good because the forward lean of the that scoreboard with the little ledge on it for that person to walk on was getting less and less safe. I would venture to guess that whomever was scoring those games was probably up to date on their tetanus booster shots, or at least they should have been.
It seems that about the time the dugouts were replaced was when they put in a score keepers "nest" behind the homeplate fence that looked down on the field and housed the scoring controls for the football field scoreboard way out in center field a the back northwest corner of the fencing rectangle. It was out there that a long hit ball was a sure-fire in the part homerun, but one that you'd have to work for should you hit it there.
It was also back into that corner that on those quickly cooling humid summer evenings would slowly change into a cooler night with a gentle breeze sliding over the town and into the face of the batter. The cooler air coming in from the lower part of town down by the river would drift in and a slim layer of fog would begin overtaking the center fielder first, then the other outfielders then it would make it to the orange oval of infield and the banks of lights shining down created a glowing dome around each tower of electric lumination.
It probably only happened once, but in my head, I feel like it was like that at every game I went to. I know in my heart that it wasn't... but if it happened once and it lives in my memory as clear as the smell of the popcorn drifting out of the concession stand up at the pool, then it lives forever and it DID happen all the time; It happens every time that I think about it. Like now when I'm out for a walk and the sun is setting and I can feel the cooling air from the northwest... and I can smell freshly popped popcorn in my head and taste sunflower seeds. These early August nights churning away on the last days of summer and autumn will be here soon. Uniforms packed away, an orange circle that doesn't get dragged every day anymore and the leaves will begin to change. Another year will be gone. One more summer behind me. One less in front of me. Time clicking away once inning at at time. One out, one hit, one ball, one strike. The fog will roll in and envelope us all eventually. The lights growing less intense with the thickness of the fog deeper into those late innings in the end games of our season.
I would ride my bike home after the game was done... peddling fast to get home, the lights of the ballfield still on behind me... their glow casting my shadow out in front of me as I peddled into the darkness. I would race to get home. To tell mom and dad the the score of the game if they hadn't been at the ballpark themselves. They usually were at the games too and I'd be trying to beat them home. I'd want to be there to see them pull the station wagon into our long driveway and watch them as they wondered how I got there before they did. But it seems that they would usually be there waiting for me. Mom would be in the kitchen or upstairs already and dad would be in his chair, with a freshly fixed drink and he'd be lighting his pipe. .. his initial smoke drifting off the bowl of the pipe and out his mouth and nose and filling the air around his head. It'd be drifting across the living room and carrying the aroma of a sweet tobacco... the smell of my dad. It'd hug my face as I walked through it and as I plopped down in the couch and we'd watch the news. I'd play with the drifting waves of smoke in the air and everything would be good. At least that's how I remembered it once.
I wanted to be...
When I was younger, I was sure of very little. My future that was out in front of me extended a few days, maybe a few weeks. In the summer the time was marked out a little clearer starting with "how many days until the pool opened". Then once into the days of summer, it was all about "How many days until baseball is done, so we can go to the lake?"... which rolled directly into "How many days left of the lake before we have to go home?" and "How many days left of summer?"... each mark of benchmark that we reached came too fast or too slow depending on the amount of enjoyment we were getting out of the current situation. Summer in general flew by way to fast. I couldn't do enough nothing to fill it up and make it go slow. The only time it seemed to be perfect, the only time I can remember being so amazingly content that I vividly remember the moment was when the hammock was up in the back yard and the day was perfect for a nap.
Dad had buried two 8" x 8" posts that were about 7 feet long out just out from the deck behind the house at angles away from each other... like this: \ / .... the hammock hung perfectly between them and was a comfortable place to just chill out in back.
On one particular summer afternoon, mom told me to go take a nap. I think I was in about 9th grade or so and while I wasn't real big on taking naps, it sure seemed like a pretty good idea. I went out and sat in the hammock and just kind of swung there and stared up at the gently gliding white clouds in the blue sky. The birds were chirping and it had to be a perfect 70 degrees in the shade as I remember I was perfectly comfortable and when mom brought out a fleece blanket and laid it on me, it was none too warm, but a perfect way to fall right to sleep. It must've been late in summer as the walnuts had dropped off the tree and you could smell the bitter sap of the green walnuts that had been hit by the mower or stepped on and the green hull had started to rot. We never harvested those and tried to clean the walnuts, but I do remember picking them up in the fall and throwing them in with the leaves.
But I remember sleeping so soundly out in that fresh air for a couple of hours and I remember thinking about how perfect that moment was.
But besides thinking about the days of summer left or a few weeks or months to the next holiday, every so often I would have these visions about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Some of my earliest ventures into predictions included being a radio DJ. Who couldn't admire those cool cats on the radio playing the hottest tunes. Who didn't think Johnny Fever was the coolest guy on tv? Exactly! After a few failed demo cassettes of myself trying to sound cool, it was upon listening to my own voice that I didn't like the way that I sounded and figured that this dream was not worth pursuing.
So then I moved onto wanting to be a stuntman. Burt Reynold's antics in Smokey in the Bandit and Hooper (a movie about stuntmen) led me to this thought. I remember trying to figure out how to take a fall off my bike onto grass but couldn't ever get the guts to speed up the lead up to it so instead of a controlled accident, it was really just me tipping over on my bike.
I wanted to be a fireman for a while, but that was usually just whenever I was playing with the hose... I think we've all been there.
I wanted to be a motorcycle cop for a while... CHiPs was a pretty cool show and Ponch was the coolest. I could emulate the idea, but quite impractical on a bmx bike.
I did want to be an artist for a while when I was younger, but the future of it didn't seem like a great idea... Garretson didn't even have art in the high school, so there was no instruction (albeit for a couple of years when Ron Borstad taught a group of students in some capacity... I took it at the same time as my chorus and would go to art one day a week and then meet with him on the side for independent study as well. But then that ended and I never had art again until college.
Archeology was really my focus in high school... I loved history. I loved science. I was really focusing myself to become an archeologist or paleontologist but starting with a Chemistry and Biology degree was going to be my first step. Plan B was going to be utilizing my Chem and Bio for Pharmacy. Then, Chemistry 151 hit me and it hit me hard. My lab instructor at SDSU was Chinese and he did NOT speak much english and did NOT care that we did not understand him. He spoke quickly and demanded that we follow along. He assumed that we all had the Periodic Table memorized and didn't seem to care if we struggled because our atomic weights weren't fresh in our brains.. I was about in tears in college that my future in science was going away quickly when one night it was like a lightbulb went off and I pulled an immediate 180 degrees....
I remember the night that the "enlightenment" happened. I lived in Brown Hall, fourth floor. It was the quiet floor of the quiet dorm. The two sides of the building were not connected except for on the ground level. So while the west wing was girls, we only saw them in the lobby. I had befriended a girl from Mitchell and a couple of us from 4th east were over in her room hanging out on 4th west. We were sitting around, about 4 of us just trying to visit and watch tv, but the girl I knew's roommate was sitting in the middle of the room on the floor with a large pad of paper drawing and drawing and drawing. She was working feverishly on one drawing then another and I didn't even pay her that much attention until curiosity from my artistic side finally spoke up and asked her what she was drawing. She said that this was homework and that she needed to get her "out-of-class drawings" handed in by the next day. "Drawing homework?... for what class?" I asked her. She explained that they were for drawing class. ..... I was floored. "We have drawing classes up here? For what?", I asked.
She had to then explain to me that there was ya whole art department... art degrees... graphic design degrees... printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, painting, drawing.... "You could even be an art teacher." And there it was.... the perfect chord was struck. My Plan C had always been to become a Chemistry Teacher as I just loved the idea of teaching, and now with the epiphany I had bestowed upon me, the two pieces went perfectly together.
This was the day before heading to Spring Break, I believe and I couldn't wait to go change major and get myself a new counselor. I was over to the art building immediately in the morning and talked to the secretary there about declaring a new major and getting started in the right courses the next semester. She assigned me my counselor, Helen Morgan, and I think I even got to meet with her right away.
I went home for break with a new sense of purpose and contentment knowing that I wanted to become an artist. It was what I had dreamed of doing a long time ago, but just never had the push to continue down that path by any teacher. It took a roommate of a girl I kind of knew and her homework to remind me what I really LOVED to do.
Later, I can go into some of my memories of what I remember from art classes and my journey to become an art student and maybe someday a teacher (spoiler alert, I have never taught), but I did enjoy the education I got and the friends that I made on the way.... besides, tipping over on my bike probably wouldn't have paid much.
SDSU Cross Country Camp
The summer before my Junior year of high school, I was signed up to go to Cross Country Camp at SDSU. Yes, Cross Country Camp. Camp for running... it exists. Get over it. Looking back at that week and the next year when I went to the camp again, I have the fondest of memories of the people I met from all over the region and of my time getting to know the campus of SDSU which helped me to make my decision to attend that school the spring of my Senior year.
But that first attendance was filled with nerves and uncertainty. I knew I was a good enough runner to keep paces with the others that were going to be there, but I wasn't completely concrete in those beliefs either. I wasn't sure how much running we were going to be doing. I was bit nervous about meeting students from places that I didn't know. I had a history of bad first days at camps in the past (look for these stories in future chapters under the category "Shetek"). This first year signing up didn't include anybody that I knew firsthand other than the person from Baltic that had signed up with me: Jamie Rydell. And we didn't even know each other that good other than we ran against each other often in Cross Country meets and in Track. We were actually going to be picking him up and taking him to Brookings with us.
In the days before cell phones and internet, this was quite the exercise in trust. We talked on the phone a few times leading up to day we were to head up there, but we didn't talk long or very often. I do specifically remember asking if he played tennis as our family did and on many summer nights my brother and I and maybe a couple friends would go to Brandon or to Valley Springs and play tennis under the bright lights at their courts. Jamie did play and I told him to bring his racket so we could play.
The other preface for going to this camp that I have to set the stage for is that earlier in the summer, my brother Chris and Robbin had gotten married up in Clear Lake, SD and at their dance at the VFW, I met a cute blonde there who was a year younger than me and classmates of Robbin's little sister, Karleen. This cute blonde was with a few friends and showed up at the dance to have some fun with their friend and classmate in that steamy and loud little town's VFW. Mogen's Heros were playing and we were all dancing up a storm. I was still looking sharp in my white tuxedo and had even gotten up to sing with the band and my brothers (I think we sang "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" ala Tom Cruise in Top Gun).
This cute blonde and her friends were standing in a group near the front of the dance hall in the middle of the pack talking to Karleen when I came upon them. I think there four girls in that group but I was immediately drawn to the cute blonde that was wearing a white miniskirt and a peach top. Karleen did her best to introduce me to all of them and I think I shook all of their hands but everything went fuzzy and sounds went numb and I had NO idea who was who or even what the cute blonde girl's name was. I stood their awkwardly trying to think of something fun or cool to say to keep the conversation going. I know I was hot and sweating so I suggested we go outside so we could talk where it was a bit more quiet. We all went outside and in the cooler air, I got a better look at the girl I would learn who's name is Stacy. I was immediately smitten. The band was on break, but I asked if we could dance. She had a tight curfew (I learned later because of some trouble she had gotten into just days before). Eleven o'clock was falling fast and the band would be playing until after that time. She said that she should really just get home. Because I was the youngest of the brothers and cousins there that night, and because I just didn't drink back then, I was the designated driver for anybody that needed it. I was holding the keys to my grandma's car that we had driven up and I offered my services to give her a ride home. Me not really knowing how far she even had to go but she agreed to a ride and we walked over to the car and I held the door for her and then drove her to her house.
I was incredibly nervous and I can't remember what I even said to her other than that I hoped we could exchange numbers and addresses and maybe be in touch following the weekend. By the time I had initiated the conversation, the ride was over. She lived just over 3 blocks from the VFW. I would've been smarter to offer to walk her home. I would've got more time to talk to her! I drop her off and made sure she made it up to the door before pulling away, and then I returned to the VFW to some friends of her's that were smiling and some guys that I didn't know that seemed to look me over and give me a look that seemed to say "Way to go!". I wasn't sure what to make of that and found Karleen and the other friends who I then learned were Shawna and Kelly. They were able to hang out for a while at the dance and I had fun getting to know them even though all the while I kept wishing that I were getting to know Stacy better.
But this worked out because I think I was making a good impression on two of Stacy's best friends. The night closed out later as fairly uneventful and I gave rides home to a few of the wedding party and then made it to bed in the hotel in Clear Lake where I stared at the dark ceiling and thought about this new girl that was going to be on my brain for many nights to follow.
The next day, we sat around Robbin's folks' place where they were opening gifts which quickly wore out it's novelty on me and Karleen and I went out on the front sidewalk and just sat in the sun and talked when a pickup truck pulled up with three familiar girls. Kelly, Shawna and.... Stacy. What followed was something that I was thinking was going to be awkward and weird but instead was very comfortable and natural. We talked about the previous night and how much fun we all had and that it was too bad that Stacy couldn't have stayed longer. But we did exchange numbers and addresses and while I was a little worried that in the light of day, my first impressions of this cute blonde might get dented up a bit and realize that I have been overly zealous with my memory, I was very relieved to find out that my first impressions may have been a bit conservative if anything. We all sat around and talked for a while and by the end of the day, I was entirely hooked. We drove back to Garretson and I couldn't wait to communicate with Stacy.
Communications DID continue and we had many conversations on the phone and by mail. Phone conversations were tricky: long distance phone calls were a touchy topic for both Stacy and I. Our parents both watched the bills closely and long chatty conversations were a no-no.... but also inevitable with myself on one end of the phone. We'd try our best to make sure we only called after 7pm and after 10pm as those were the times when the rates were WAY cheaper. Phone calls could easily rack up bills of over $10 or more for whomever made the call.
By the time I made it to camp at Brookings, we had talked enough to where we thought we could maybe try to meet up while I was in a town that was only 30 miles from Clear Lake.
Then, days before I was going up to camp, in the middle of all my excitement in preparation for getting to see Stacy and hang out with her again, there was tragedy in Clear Lake and there was a death of one of her classmates and fellow cheerleaders. Where our plans were originally that Stacy and maybe somebody else would drive down to hang out at some point, now I wasn't sure if I'd even get to talk to her on the phone.
And there came the first problem... now that I was on campus and living in a bare dorm room, the only phones I could use was the pay phones in the lobby. This was before prepaid calling cards were even a thing. My only option for reaching Stacy by phone to see if we were actually going to meet up was for me to call her collect. I didn't necessarily want to get her into trouble, but I so terribly wanted to see her again.... so I called her collect. I hoped for the best that SHE would answer the phone and not her parents. What happened was almost worse: Her older brother answered and the operator asked "Collect call from JT, do you accept the charges?".... his response was golden: "Who?"... ha ha ha ..... I had to blurt out to the operator "For Stacy for Stacy!". She added to him"...for Stacy" and he relented with an "I guess" and he called out for Stacy. So my first impression with her brother was that I was a cheapskate.
Stacy said that she would be going to the funeral tomorrow and wouldn't be able to come down to Brookings. I was disappointed but then looked at my schedule for the next day and realized that MAYBE I could figure out a way to get UP to Clear Lake. It was only 30 miles... maybe one of the guys that drove to camp could give me a ride and chill with us.
So that's what happened. One of my friends at camp that I was worried about getting along with stepped up and whole-heartedly agreed that this new girlfriend who is grieving the loss of a friend would want me to come up to her. The next problem was that I didn't really bring any nice "date clothes". Not that this was a date, but I didn't plan on making a 'call on a lady'... most (if not all) of my clothes were running clothes. I brought this up to my other running companions and another kid stepped up and offered me some of his clothes for my "date". He had a very cool vertical striped Chaps shirt that sort of resembled a sailor's shirt. I had my guess jeans and my boat shoes so I was set.
I felt the need to get her something considering the crap she was dealing with, so I went to the book store and found a cute little stuffed Jackrabbit that had one ear wrapped and a tear coming out of one eye and his name according to the tag was Bunny Boo Boo. I also got a card for her and that with a couple of letters that I had written and one silly note from one of my running friends that asked her for help because I was being mean to him. HA!.
I bundled everything up and had it ready for following the after lunch run when we'd then have a few hours of free time before dinner and then an evening run. We came in from the run, I showered and then Russ from Jamestown, ND gave me a ride in his LTD up to Clear Lake. We had no plans on meeting anywhere in particular or at any certain exact time. I realized that this might make this whole plan fall apart as we pulled into Clear Lake and I was starting to think that maybe I should've planned this better. We drove around a bit and I think he was beginning to think I was maybe make all of this up about this girl when all of a sudden on Main Street we met Karleen driving toward us! I waved at her and she stopped. I thanked Russ for the ride and jumped into the car with her. I made sure that she could get me back to Brookings (which she could) and then Russ took off. Karleen and I drove around a bit and then we found Stacy. She jumped into the front seat with us and I gave her the letters and card and Bunny Boo Boo.
We hung out and drove around and eventually decided that we needed to all go out to eat and we should go out to the little diner a few miles away where Chris and Robbin held their rehearsal dinner. So we did and in the middle of dinner, I started to do the math and realize that the time to finish eating and travel time to Brookings as well as getting ready for the evening run was running out. We snarfed down our last bites and even took some of it with us in the car. We drove like crazy people back down to Brookings and straight to the dorm where I was hoping to run in and get changed for the run. When we pulled up in the parking lot, everyone was stretching for the evening run and were taking off. I slinked down in my seat of the car as everyone ran past our car on their way out on a 5 mile run... I waited for a minute and then said goodbye and snuck back up to the room. I later learned that the girls got home too late and were in trouble too. Oooops.
The rest of camp went off without many problems.... I made friends with people who I am still friends with to this day. Many of them went sneaking into the Brookings swimming pool at about 1 in the morning. I went walking around campus during a beautiful thunderstorm and was awed by nature's light show. I fell in love with the campus as I walked around and sat on the steps to the campanile in the middle of the night. Jamie and I played tennis on the courts over by the library. I logged many miles on the roads of Brookings and got to meet some interesting people such as an Asics representative, a Nike representative, Dick Beardsley (who at the time held records in a couple marathons as well as an American record). The highlight of my camp experience was running a pacer workout (a 400m run at a certain goal speed and then rest for a minute then another 400m run at a slightly faster pace. This repeats and repeats faster and then slower and slower) with Dick Beardsley himself timing them and while everybody was apparently competing to impress Dick with their speed, I kept coming in last... but also right. on. the. exact. time that we were supposed to hit. He even told me that he was impressed that I was hitting the time exactly. I WAS pretty good at knowing my pace, it's something that Coach Sylliaasen instilled into my skillset. I was proud when coach told me to lead the team on a 3 mile run at aa 7:00 pace and we'd get back to the school at 21 minutes flat. Boom. Nailed it.
I went to camp again the next summer, but while I was still seeing Stacy, the adventures weren't nearly as exciting but my comfort with the campus grew and my friendships solidified. At the time, I still had dreams of becoming a Jackrabbit that wore the blue and gold out on the Cross Country course and on the track, but between graduation and fall of my freshman year, that dream had fizzled away. I did become a proud Jackrabbit, but only one who cheered on those guys that I had gone to camp with and also a proud Jackrabbit that knew his campus in and out very well on the first day that I was on campus... Every time there was a thunderstorm I remembered that week of camp. Every time I walked by the tennis courts on the way to the library and somebody was playing, I remembered playing tennis with Jamie. And when I saw people going out for an evening run by Young Hall, I felt the need to slink down in my seat.
Spring in our part of the country, with piles and piles of ice and accumulated snow, with the arrival of warmer temperatures opens the door to one of my favorite things as a child (and still as an adult), water. Lots and lots of water.
Puddles began to form, ice broke up, rivulets trickled down through the ice and into the gutters than became little streams that gathered and formed little creeks. It was these little rivulets and streams that fascinated me. I had a non-stop quest to control the water. I'd make little dams and create little lakes, or I'd work to release penned up water from it's frozen captor and watch the puddle disappear.
I had this crazy relationship with water. I was also fascinated with fire... but that's for a whole other day. There must be something very primal about an attraction to fire and to water.
On any given day full of sun and melting snow, I would return from my romping around the neighborhood a cold wet dripping mess... a HAPPY cold wet dripping mess... but a cold wet dripping mess nonetheless.
The first line of defense (the most IMPORTANT piece of survival gear) while out playing in the water, was a good pair of boots. Not just any boots would work. Almost anything fabric-wise back in the 70's and 80's was worthless for keeping water away from your feet. The ONLY acceptable boot was a pair of galoshes. Leak-proof galoshes. No holes, no cracks, tightly buckled galoshes. With three boys in our family, I bet we had 8 pair of galoshes in our basement. Every year, I'd have to try on a new pair... working my way up through the hand-me-downs from my brothers, hoping that the pair that would fit me that year didn't have any worn through points or loosened seams. Most of the time, there was at LEAST one pinhole leak SOMEWHERE in one boot.
The other item that went with the galoshes is an odd item, but an item that any person from our part of the country that grew up with these kind of black rubber boots knows all-to-well, and that's the plastic bread bags that you'd put over your stockinged foot. [Quick customization point - if your galoshes were a half-size or a size too big, you'd put on a couple pairs of socks, maybe even a thick wool sock. And if the boots were borderline too small, you'd wear only a thin pair of socks. Pretty logical stuff.]
So comfortable socks, then covered with a bread bag, then into the galoshes. More often then not, I'd tuck the jeans into the galoshes. Failure to follow this step would lead to jeans that would wick up enough water to darken them to at least my knees. Cold legs = cold miserable JT who, within a couple of days, was likely to be sick.
Besides galoshes, the other items one would want to be sure to wear are a good hat (which almost immediately upon frolicking about in the sun, will be taken off and placed somewhere that would be immediately be forgotten) and a decent pair of gloves or mittens (also which would likely get removed and lost immediately).
The parading about and finding my next aquatic adventure in my waterproof gear was often short-lived as the first body of water I came across was FULL of potential for things that I'd want to do. As mentioned before, it was usually trying to figure out some way to drain the pool of water that had collected. I would often be at the end of our driveway with an ice chipper and a shovel or two just trying to chip away at the ice dam on the downward side of the flow.... and I'd get a little trickle started into something bigger that would of course drive me to make that flow bigger and bigger.
There were times the flow of water would lead my curiosity downstream to the bigger and bigger streams and pool... like I was some sort of liberation army on a mission of freeing the water from the confines of our little town. Usually that path was back to the gully that ran east to west from up by the LeMair place (later where Gene Hunt built a new house) just north of Bunker Hill. Fields from the east of the Lutheran Cemetery all drained down to a pond by their place than then overflowed in the spring and during storms down along the valley of the pasture behind Hammer's, Moe's, Marty Eitreim's and down to the little bridge by Jim and Gloria Johnson's on Center Ave. The gully continued west after Center to a tunnel that went under the playground of the school and then out by the railroad yard west of school and dumped into the Splitrock Creek.
During storms, it could be quite a flood back there, but during the spring melt it was really just a big flood plain of slush and ice cold water. It was a tempting place to hang out as a kid. Any of the drainage areas to it were tempting. My mission to help that flow along seemed never-ending.
One time during the spring thaw when I was walking home from confirmation class up at Zion with Michelle and Mary and I was NOT wearing my galoshes, but I was wearing my normal rubber-bottom snow-boots. Easily waterproof for a couple inches of water and keeping my feet warm and dry .... and as we went down the hill to the north on Center past the football field and past the bus barn and down the afore-mentioned bridge on Center over the gully. Spring was just beginning and the snow was still piled up along the side of the street between traffic and the sidewalk and as we get to the bridge, there are draining streams coming down the gutter and then through a drain and into the gully.
We had been splashing along on our journey, stomping on slush piles - making a gorgeous "sploosh" sound as the snow and slush spray out upon every stomp. There's something quite invigorating about hitting those little piles... making more and more snow go away. [Even today in my adulthood, I still stomp on slush when presented with a good opportunity.... or drive over it along side the road if I see it] But now we had been splashing and stomping and joyfully going home on this late winter/early spring day when I see a pile that NEEDS to be stomped. It's right by where the water was disappearing down the grate into the storm drain to the gully, and as I was about to make a HUGE splatter/splash I proclaimed to the girls, "Hey watch THIS one!".... and I lifted my right leg up to my chest and then slammed it down with as much force as I could, hoping to hit the prime slush bomb and maybe even get them wet. Instead my foot disappeared down into a hole and I was knee deep in slush. I had hit a side hole to the culvert in the gutter, where erosion had taken some of the road away and was instead filled with water and snow. I instinctively pulled my leg up and not only was my leg wet up to my knee but my boot was stuck down in the slush. The girls laughed as I pulled up a stockinged foot so I stepped back directly into the hole ... only to stick it into a rapidly filling boot... a cold water filled boot. Well, at least a couple inches filled. Cold water squish reminding instantly that I do NOT have wool socks on in a galosh with a Wonder Bread bag. I have to reach down and hold my boot on with my hand as I unstuck it from the muck at the bottom of the hole. I get my dripping boot out and drenched leg and as I take the boot off to empty out the water, the girls are laughing beyond control. I worry that they were pee'ing their pants they were laughing so hard. I dump out the water and get my foot back in the soaking boot and then begin my hurried trek home leaving the girls still laughing as they walk up the hill by Johnson's and I shout "Later!" to them as I turn the corner to the east around Sylliaasen's ... I can still them laughing as I run east up the hill as Grandma Gert's house comes into view. I knew that I wasn't in any danger, but I'm cold nonetheless. I was glad to get home and get my wet boot off in our basement "drain room" (where we stored all the wet snow gear and boots) where the galoshes mocked me as they saw me taking the soaking lining out of the boot and setting them by the drain to drip dry.
So fun to think about the snow and slush and water that came back every spring as winter melted away. It always helped us appreciate how nice our summer weather was. How it still does. Most of us tend to dislike the cold and snow and winter dreariness. And yes, the short days and cold keeping most of us inside can wear on even the toughest of souls. It wears on me. But then we get a little sun and a little warmth and that glimmer of hope appears. That first little pile of slush is begging to get stomped on... and I do. But I'm always leery of a hidden hole waiting to suck off my boot.
When I was a kid, I used to make a quick snack all on my own that was a breeze to make and required very few ingredients. I'm not even going to list the ingredients here as that would give away the surprise. Here's the instructions on how to do it on your own:
1. Get two pieces of white bread.
2. Spread each slice with butter.
3. Lightly sprinkle sugar onto each slice.
4. Place sugared sides together (assemble sandwich)
5. Enjoy your "sugar sandwich"
6. Visit Dentist.
7. Pay hefty bill.
I wondered recently just why i started eating those when I was a kid as for the longest time I've always just assumed it was because I liked sugar and particularly sugar with butter. (This stems from all the lefse with butter and sugar I've eaten since birth). But then it dawned on me (seriously...all of a sudden) that I had picked up this trick and habit from my mother.
My mom would make this snack. In reality, it pretty much is just like lefse with butter and sugar. The ingredients are quite similar and it tastes very similar as well. It was an easy snack that I could run inside and make myself in the middle of the afternoon on a summer day.
Those hot summer afternoons at 905 Third Street.... where we didn't have air conditioning. We had "open windows". The routine was to wake up and as soon as the outside temperature was warmer than the inside of the house, we'd close up all the windows and pull down all the retractable blinds. We would rough it like that for years. When the sun went down and the air cooled off, the blinds were lifted and the windows opened. The cross winds would drive cooler air through the house. If a storm moved in, we'd have to close up the windows most of the way (at least on the side of the house getting the rain driven into it). The task of opening and closing the windows was often my job, but really it was up to anybody that wanted to be comfortable.
I can list the windows I had to open. The storm door on the front of the house, the door on the west side of the house, the two kitchen windows. On the second floor, there was the bathroom window, my bedroom, the windows in the sunroom, two in the master bedroom that faced north, two in Matthew's room and two in the sewing room. Then, last but not least, there was three windows up in the attic bedroom that would allow the warmest air to rise in the house and escape out the top like a chimney. We'd place fans strategically throughout the airflow of the day. Sometimes the fans would drive the air in and other days we would place the fans to draw the air out.
Eventually the "windows only" method wasn't enough to keep us cool or even comfortable and dad broke down and we put in a window unit air conditioner on the main level by the living room. There were nights in the midst of the stretches of summer heat that we would sleep downstairs. Before the window unit (and maybe this is what the deciding factor was) we spent the night at the drug store where the central air kept it very comfortable. I only remember doing that once, so maybe only once was all that dad needed to pull the trigger on a window unit.
And then eventually further, we put another window unit upstairs in the sunroom. The sunroom opens up to both the master bedroom and to my bedroom. While I was in high school and Matthew was still around, he'd sleep on the floor of my bedroom every so often in the cooler air.
All these memories stemmed from the recollection of eating sugar with butter on bread. Those hot summer days, warm nights and easy snacks... even if they weren't the healthiest snack around.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.