Category Archives: Reminiscences

Gorden Parks – a Remembrance

The news is as full of Muhammed Ali’s death today as it was three weeks ago of the drug overdose death of Prince. Today another seminal black American died, Gordon Parks.

My father recommended his 1966 autobiography to me when I was in high school. Civil Rights had been in the air since I started school in Brown vs. Board of Education’s Topeka, Kansas in the fall of 1956. The Court decision preceded my enrollment into first grade by two years and involved the Monroe School that my Grandmother Welty had attended as a child, albeit in a new building that had replaced her fire damaged elementary school. (What I’ve just written seems to be called into question by this official National Historic Site website)

Parks’ book was one of several I read in High School on the issue of race including the novelized treatment of the Nat Turner slave revolt Confessions and Black Like Me about a white journalist who disguised himself as a black man and hitchhiked across the deep south. I really enjoyed A Choice of Weapons.

I immediately identified with Parks. He had been raised in Kansas like me and found himself transplanted to Minnesota, again just like me. He became an acclaimed photographer for Life Magazine and in my college years produced the first blaxploitation film Shaft.

Parks was as proper as Ali was ornery thus the choice of his Book Title. His weapon was the camera recording its truths.

The beginning of his autobiography pulled me in immediately. He vividly recalled his Kansas youth and swimming with friends at a local stream in the summer sun……as I recall the scene. He’s perhaps ten. Some police come around and ask him and his friends to help them search for a body up stream. A drowned man is suspected of being under the water and the police don’t want to do the grubby work of finding it but the black kids are handy. Parks and his friends find the body. It was a little traumatizing but that was OK. They were just little colored kids.

What a small world it is. I just looked for that scene with a Google Search. It led me to the name Wing Young Huie a Duluth born, Minnesota photographer who wrote the Introduction to the more recent edition of Park’s Book. I went to a Tweed Museum exhibition a few years ago of Huie’s work. I was particularly keen to visit it because a decade ago my sister asked him to shoot pictures of my Mother a few months before she was placed in a 24 hour memory care residence.

Mr. Huie took quite a lot of pictures and gave them to my sister at no charge. I’ve wanted to write a coffee table book about Mom and her desire to be an artist since Alzheimers stole her away. Here’s the tentative frontpiece I imagined:

The title comes from a college art teacher who discouraged her from attempting abstract art because he didn’t think she had a talent for it.

The larger painting behind her in the photo now hangs in our living room. Here’s a better look:

Unto the fifth generation – Not!

My children are as allergic to today’s GOP as though it was a toxic substance. If it had not become the party of God and the vulgarian, double talker, Donald Trump, they might have become fifth generation Republicans.

Using the best examples from my family’s history I’d like to talk about the preceding four generations.

The Grand Old Party began its life a few years before my Great Grandfather entered New York harbor from Ireland in 1860 one month after Lincoln’s election and two months before his inauguration. “What’s the news?” called a passenger on his ship as they passed an outward bound vessel. “South Carolina has seceded from the Union,” was the reply. Thomas Robb was twelve years old. It would be four years of war plus seven years of Reconstruction before he could cast his first vote as a naturalized citizen.

Thomas was the son of a protestant land manager who had threats made against his life by Irish Nationalists. The men who left that threat attached to a prize bull they killed were largely Catholics in Ireland and Democrats in America. It’s not surprising then that Thomas would vote Republican.

If he had any doubts about his party’s virtues one incident sealed his thinking. Continue reading

Zero Hour’s beginnings twelve years ago

Tonight I decided to look through old scribblings of mine thinking that I might be able to cobble a book together for use in a possibly nefarious activity in the near future. I discovered a 2002 column I had written for the Duluth Reader during my four-year stint as a columnist. The column presaged the email I’ve been receiving for the past couple weeks from students and parents trying to save the zero hour.

In 2001 I labored long and hard to pass an operational levy. It was an uphill fight. I remember PTA President Judy Seliga-Punyko telling me that she wouldn’t vote for it. She was mad that the school board hadn’t acted on my idea to slim down from three high schools to two high schools. I thought her reasoning was nuts. The following year after the failure of the levy we put an end to the seven period day. Years later Judy’s memory of the loss of the seven periods involved my being on the School Board when it happened so that I could take the blame. She had no memory of voting against the referendum that would have allowed us to keep it.

Well, I’ve pasted the last half of the column below which deals with the Union’s crocodile tears about having lost the extra period. The column begins with my mulling over another run for the legislature in the 2002 election. I eventually did run and lost – one of my thirteen electoral defeats. I think its 13. Its hard to remember them all.

Here’s what I wrote about the “seven period day.” Or, if you’d like, you can read the whole original column:

Last week I bumped into my old nemesis Frank Wanner, the teachers’ union president, a fellow who helped put me in the minority. While my feud with Frank was put to bed two years ago my feud with the folks he helped elect lives on. Well, it’s true that one of them was defeated last year, but the three-high school supporters still have more votes. Frank was very cordial and suggested that we get together. I promised to call.

The next day I had to leave a message with him because he was holding a press conference about saving the seven-period day. I sure wish he’d done this before we finished registering students for a six-period day! When my wife saw him on the news she said, “No wonder Frank was so friendly!” The next day I left another message for Frank.

The weekend was blissfully free of politics (except for some email) until we joined friends for an Easter Dinner. Our friend’s son is interested in political science. He told me that Frank likes to bad mouth SUVs in class. Apparently my website gets discussed too. That explains some of my email.

Frank called me back on Monday and we agreed to meet at Bixby’s. I told Frank that I’d heard that he hated SUV’s. He smiled and asked where I’d heard this. I told him that I had my sources.

We talked about his seven-period day proposal which he assured me was not a negotiations ploy. I prefer to take him at his word. The DFT wants high school students to be able to take up to seven classes a day. Many students, teachers and parents are convinced that this is a key to getting into their preferred colleges. Whether it is or not the six-period day is our response to financial hard times. I told Frank what I keep telling the Board – if we had two high schools we could keep seven periods. Frank didn’t disagree. Ah! But I’m in the minority!

If I could just get elected to the legislature maybe I could do something about school finance. I’m sure not having much luck on the school board.

Mother’s Day

Claudia was off being a good daughter on Mother’s Day spending the week with her father. My son in law and I had vague notions about heading over the Black Bear Casino for Mother’s Day because it was halfway between Duluth and his Mother who would travel up to be with her grandsons. I called the Bear and learned that there might be a one to two hour wait for seating and decided we ought to do something at our house.

Neither of us are cooks but Josh can follow a recipe and I did the shopping for the meal after looking up pleasing ingredients for a meal online. We capped it off with a pie from the Rustic Inn. Heaven.

After the meal Claudia called us from Florida using a video phone ap so we could all be together for a bit.

After the call with my phone in hand I decided to look up my Mother’s name on the Internet. All the first things that popped up were items I’ve posted about her or put on my old website when I was cataloging her paintings back when pictures could only be the size of a postage stamp to load quickly in the AOL Days.

I found something I’d forgotten about. It was very sweet and I teared up. I handed it to my daughter Keely. For a moment she was quite overcome. Readers of mine for the past couple years are aware that until her death in December of 2014 my Mother was a considerable occupation of mine. We couldn’t talk so I sang to her. I refused her offer to let me take piano lessons but I give her credit for my snow sculptures.

When I was little she encouraged me to do artwork but I never really followed her into the path she had failed to take as a full time baby boom mother. Her art career didn’t take off until my Dad’s death in 1987 then she moved to St. Paul and enrolled in the Minnesota Academy of Art and Design.

Besides putting grandchildren in bibs and having them undertake various art projects she found one pupil during her Artistic career; a next door neighbor. He wrote about her in a short reminiscence for his college admissions essay.

on National Teacher’s Day

After eight hours of lying in my bed waking periodically so that my night’s sleep only amounted to four or five hours between long stretches of mulling over the future of the Duluth Schools I woke to find that it was National Teacher’s Day. I also found that Snoopy was done with his May dances having danced up a storm two days in a row. By May 3rd he was done with it.

Well, I’ll pick up where the Snoopster left off on May 3rd. with a rumination about a special teacher.

I moved from Kansas to Minnesota at the beginning of seventh grade and learned to my shock that I sounded like a southerner to the kids in North Mankato Junior High. They called me “Reb.” I was invited to my first fight within weeks of my arrival. I almost immediately was exposed as being near sighted and had to wear cardboard sunglasses to school and endure other indignities for the next three years. It was life out of a Beverly Cleary book.

I doubt that after she retired Mrs. Jones, my English teacher, would have had much of a recollection of me but I’ve never forgotten her. She was the teacher who on November 22nd, after an uncharacteristically lengthy absence from class, returned to tell us solemnly that President Kennedy had been shot. She made us learn the spelling of unexpected words like Albuquerque and “Rottweiler.” I remember her telling us of a girl tormented by a boy, who had asked Mrs. Jones for advice. Mrs. Jones advice was very funny. The next time the boy tormented the girl his victim told him in a serious and as complimentary a tone as she could muster, “You know Billy, you are very cadaverous.” Thinking he had been paid the highest compliment without having the slightest idea what the word meant the tormentor became more of a source of amusement to his victim than a menace.

Mrs. Jones was fascinated by the events of the world and made us read her classroom copies of the Reader’s Digest. I can’t forget reading about the Stanleyville Massacre and the vision of European’s stranded in the Congo surrounded by crowds of Congolese who cut out their livers and passed them around to eat before their dying eyes. For generations Africans had shared the livers of lions in much the same way to take on their power. Now they were taking on the powers of their hated colonizers. I remember reading the novella The Snow Goose , a story of another outsider, a hunchback, who bravely rescues doomed men at the battle of Dunkirk. And I remember reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I don’t read much fiction but I read this book carefully and was prepared when Mrs. Jones gave us a thirty question test on the story.

A day later Mrs. Jones announced to the class, with great satisfaction, that two students had gotten perfect papers on the test and asked the kids to guess who the smart kids were. All the popular or smart kids were guessed but all the guesses were wrong. Mrs. Jones announced that Jim Koeppen and Harry Welty had gotten perfect papers. Funny, I’m getting tears in my eyes thinking about my old teacher’s humanity. I was a kid who needed to be something other than a dorky newcomer with a funny accent and for the rest of that class I was I was a smart kid.

Its funny how such small tokens of generosity can stay with a person for a lifetime. Thank you Mrs. Jones wherever your spirit rests.

I fought the law

As I was belatedly putting away my Mother’s christmas ornaments this morning I was thinking about how strange it is that I’ve developed a reputation for being something of a hell raiser. I don’t think I’m a whit different inside than I was back in my school days. Back then I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes.

I still remember the most daring thing I did all through-out high school that violated school policy. As a senior I let myself get badgered into taking a fake hall pass into Mrs. Beech’s classroom to give to Barb Shelhorn. It was spring so I almost got through four years of high school without a misdemeanor but I let Jim Robinson harangue me into it. I was minding my own business, probably in a study hall, when he handed me a pink hall pass with Barb’s name and some forged adult’s signature. He asked me to go to Beech’s class, knock on the door and say I had a pass for Barb. Mrs. Beech looked at me hard when I did this but let me come into her class to give Barb the pass. Barb left with me and met Jim in the hallway.

It was not exactly Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off. Sample Dialogue: “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t come to the door right now. I’m afraid that in my weakened condition, I could take a nasty spill down the stairs and subject myself to further school absences.” But today I’m rather more enamored of Ferris at least compared to the stifling of creativity by orthodoxy.

Ah, but pardon me. I must go out an buy the latest copy of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. It’s in its 11th edition. I did like to sing “I fought the law but the law won” by the Bobby Fuller Four but I’m still not a rebel. It was a horrible song and so damned singable.

Give Peace a Chance

I am a cat. If there is a closed door I keep hanging around it waiting for someone to open it. There are so many closed doors.

This post is a flight of fancy before the one I must write today which is coming up next. But, before I could steel myself to write the next one I tarried to listen to NPR’s morning edition. There are three news segments I will mention but I’ll save the one that has pushed me to the blog today for last. First up…..

I listened to Obama’s continuing interview with Steve Inskeep. He gave a subdued argument for the nuclear arms agreement that’s been fashioned with Iran. I’m in the minority that supports it. I tend to discount every criticism of it emanating from Republicans because from the beginning of his Presidency they have howled like wolves that he is the Antichrist. What he’s aiming at is what is so needed; some rapprochement between Sunni (Arab) and Shia (Persian) Islam.

I’ve mentioned a fantastic book that I’m 97% finished reading to Claudia, My Promised Land. (Kindle keeps track of where you are in a book by percents not pages). I selected it to read to Claudia in anticipation of our pilgrimage to Israel while taking a course on peace keeping.

The last chapter is a disappointment. Its far too much like some of my long winded rants in Lincolndemocrat. I did check to see what its’ author, who frets about a nuclear Iran, thought about Obama’s negotiations with Iran. Apparently he’s deeply skeptical of anyone’s being able to wrestle good sense out of the Ayatollahs. I disagree. I think a new generation of young people will change Iran for the better.

The next piece that heartened me was this remarkable story about North (yes I said North) Korean entrepreneurs. The millenial generation may change that Kafkaesque land. An old public service ad formed the basis for my continuing hopefullness:

When I was in grade school I saw this Voice of America Ad over and over on television. I had faith at a tender age that this ads’ contention that leaking western music and news behind the Iron Curtain would lead to the end of the Cold War. And that is almost exactly what happened. I believe that the same thing is now happening in North Korea. BTW I still love this song.

I suppose that this ad helps explain my confidence in free enterprise over the Cold War era closed economies. My Dad was always convinced that communism would fall of its own accord. I think more broadly that given the siren song of freedom most autocracies will fall as new generations tired of the same old – same old strike out to escape the mental fence imposed on them. I’ve always been sorry that the Berlin Wall fell just after my Dad died because his faith predicted it.

And that leads me to the final story about the book written by Elizabeth Alexander in memory of her husband a refugee from Ethopia’s Eritrea. Her husband of 16 years survived the war that my high school roommate Bedru Beshir most likely did not live to see. It was actually part of a succession of wars the first described in the book Surrender or Starve. It led eventually to the liberation of Eritrea from Ethiopia and then to a never ending war between the two nations which still sputters on.

The thing about the story that caught my ear was Alexander’s description of her husband who had endured years of hell. He was light hearted, cheerful and optimistic. We were told before Bedru arrived at our home in 1968 that Ethiopians were taciturn severe and no nonsense. In some respects this was true of Bedru but I have to wonder now if that wasn’t more a result of growing up in a repressive society which would exact terrible penalties on those who would not conform to its strictures. I suspect Bedru died in prison.

When he arrived I took what I knew of Ethiopia and projected it onto him enthusing about his Emperor, Haile Selasie. Bedru reacted to my enthusiasm rather awkwardly. I’d learned that the Emperor was regarded as a hero by the West for his brave, futile defense of Ethiopia in the 1930’s when Hitler’s ally Mussolini invaded it. Little did I know that Selassie’s regime got hold of Italy’s old province Eritrea after World War II and ruled it as gently as Mussolini had ruled them. Eritrea was largely Muslim while Ethiopia was largely Coptic Christian. Bedru was a Muslim. His treatment upon his return has always been a powerful lesson to me about how the world should not work.

When Bedru came to the US he was proud to show us pictures of Eritrea’s great city Asmara. Ms. Alexander’s husband was a resident of Asmara.

Bedru could speak five languages Trigianian, His native language with something like a 275 letter alphabet, Amharic, Arabic, English and Italian. Its a pity that so many nations waste talented people just to hang on to power.

Fifth Day of Christmas B

Tonight my daughter invited me to take advantage of her educator’s discount at a Scholastic Books sale.

I was looking for books I might read especially to younger grades but didn’t find quite what I was looking for. Instead I bought three books that appealed to me as an adult and as a historian. As I came home with them I wondered if I could paste them together in a little bedtime history lesson for my older grandson. It was asking something of a seven-year old to listen to history when he was looking forward to the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid but he told me he liked history and gave me permission to be pedantic. Continue reading

5th Day of Christmas

I’m imperfect. That is something we all are encouraged to accept in the message of the man whose birth we celebrate at this time of year. My own ongoing imperfections were outlined in this letter today in the Trib. (So far I’ve only read the headline and the Author’s name. I will have ample time to do read it in the coming day and ample time to reflect on it over the course of the coming year.)

Why have I been too busy to pour over the paper? Well, I’ve been watching Box Car Children this morning with my grandsons one of whom I just delivered to his daycare. Yesterday I played a three-hour marathon of Monopoly with the older boy. I think its been twelve or more years since I last played the game. The Tan Man clobbered me and, like most seven-year olds, derived much satisfaction in his triumph. He was staying with us because he had a fever and couldn’t go to school. We were just pulling grandparent duty and that duty continues today. I hear him and his Grandmother now playing Angry Birds downstairs.

This will be my last mention of politics for the Season and, as it all relates to me, I think I’m safe in doing so without damaging the spirit of good will that these posts are meant to foster. Its a spirit rather well embodied in the paper mache figure (pictured above) that my Mother sculpted twenty years ago.

Last night I received an email subject titled “Control Freakish”.

It read in part:

Hi Harry,

I’m growing concerned at the amount of control you are trying to assert over this whole political pot hole mess.  You really shouldn’t be advocating to people to not speak their minds. To leave meetings to go request people not speak at the board meeting is completely counter productive towards the goal of wanting people to be more involved, and getting people to speak up is a constant battle. Not enough people, including myself, speak out. Now you are running around requesting people not do it? That is not cool….

From afar, I’m seeing you get obsessed and absorbed by a political in the end, as I believe others are only going to see you as a person who is manipulative and scheming.

I responded in part:

If I fail this is what I think I face:

Raising a hundred thousand dollars. Spending all my time with lawyers in court and no time time in schools. A community civil war. Years of delay in fixing the financial drain that the Red Plan has been. Making half of Duluth hate me and the rest of the School Board for the damned good reason that we have placed our vanity above the interests of the children we were elected to serve.

This explains my reluctance to imperil my diminishing hope for peace. And you are wrong. I do have some control over things. My Mom always told me it takes two sides to fight. I’m just not taking any swings right now.

God damn me. God damn every one of us.

Had I been a little more reflective I would have concluded: “God save me. God save every one of us.”

My Mother, whose own father was the elected State Auditor of Kansas for 24 unblemished years, often told me that she wished I would not go into politics. Its really her own fault that I did. When I told her in Junior High, at the time I was reading JFK’s “Profiles in Courage,” that I was ugly she turned my adolescent insecurity on its head. She didn’t argue and tell me that I was pretty . Instead she told me that Abraham Lincoln was a terribly homely man. That idea came as a shock to me. I’d looked at his pictures in those years following the Civil War’s Centennial hundreds of time. I especially remember pouring over all his photo portraits in a Life magazine article in 1961 or 62. All I had ever seen in his photographs was nobility, sagacity, resolve and in a few of them a small hint of mischief. My Mother helped me see Lincoln the way people of his time saw him in the gruesome cartoons they drew of him. Because of my Mother my new attitude was “By God, if I’m ugly why should I let that bother me?”

Appearances are often deceiving. In this Season might all ask ourselves why we still worship a pathetic man who was executed in the most humiliating way his own followers could possibly imagine. And yet, despite that degradation, even Kings like Good King Wenceslas would come to emulate and worship the Carpenter.

4th Day of Christmas

Even when I was little and my Mother made her first tiny paper mache angles she began using other materials where the mache was structurally insufficient. I remember she used some stiff board for angel wings long before she began making ornaments for her store. I’m not sure what this little sprite’s flute is made out of but I’d guess its from wood or bamboo.

It would be hard to deduce from this light little bauble that my Mother had a deep and probing mind about people. It seems so carefree its hard to think in terms of complexity. My first serious conversation with my Mother concerned an older boy, perhaps a seventh grader, who I saw burst out in tears when some other kids called him queer. I’ve written about this before.

When we moved to Minnesota at the same time her Father was moved to a senior citizens center she was consumed with guilt for leaving him alone. She and her older sister began traveling to Topeka, Kansas for a week alternating every other month. I remember my Mom spent the week ahead of her sojourn making casseroles to freeze for our family to eat while she was away. When she returned after spending a week with her father talking to him she would talk to me about her conversations. I’ve only recently realized the part I played as her debriefer. I now have been left that legacy. The people who stories I was told will die with me when I too pass on from the Earth. I’d like to begin writing those stories down to live on as long, at least, as paper or the Cloud lasts.

3rd Day of Christmas B

I started on this last night at 9:30 when the falling snow began to stick to the sidewalk as the temps dipped toward freezing. I was finished two hours later after repairing wing damage. The snow I had piled up earlier was sodden with two days of melt and six hours of rain. It was also rather dirty snow, something I can usually avoid when the skies let loose. This time the beggar couldn’t be a chooser. The more forward wing fell off completely because it was so heavy and I had to rebuild it. Besides this anxiety causing fix much of my time was spent taking the dirtiest snow and hiding it and trying to take cleaner snow and use it toward the front where the viewing audience would be gazing up at my flickering hope for peace. I figure I have until Christmas to achieve it. I don’t want to think about the alternative but its been limiting me to a few hours sleep for a couple weeks now.

My wife reminded me I was going to have lunch with one grandson today just before we went to see the other’s school holiday performance. I lowered my head remembering that I’d set up an emergency meeting to discuss peace talks through the lunch. Fourth meeting in five days.

I’ll miss lunch with Jake but somehow I’ll get to the song fest.

I have a request of my readers. Tonight at the School Board meeting, should you come, please don’t sign up to speak and take the heads off of anyone. One of my slenderest chances to keep the peace is to hold not only my own fire but everyone else’s. That won’t be easy and, nerve wrackingly, keeping that peace at our meeting even with the audience has become a make or break precondition.

We have a closed meeting at 5:30 to discuss the Superintendent’s evaluation. I’ve already given Mr. Gronseth all my thoughts and I am likely to skip out early to patrol the Board room to request anyone signing up to hold their peace where school board conflicts are concerned. If my peace mission fails there will be many months ahead to bring grievances up again so I hope its not asking too much to resist that flammable subject tonight. The stakes are very high. Its no less than the health of our schools and the education of our children.

On the other hand, I don’t think I should be held to account to keep taxpayers still tonight because we are having our legislatively mandated “Truth in Taxation” hearing tonight as part of our regular monthly meeting. Still, I’ll ask that speakers stick to the issue of taxes and stay away from commenting on feuding among School Board members.

The dove above is not quite like the one that my Mother made back in the 1950’s. We artistes all follow our own eccentric muses. Mine has a little plastic evergreen in its beak simulating an olive branch. Still, I thank her again for this inspiration.

3rd Day of Christmas A

I’m the curator of my Mother’s Art and would some day like to print a little coffee table book of her work. I looked though my computer just now and discovered that this bear was made in 1982 as her second batch of Christmas ornaments. I took pictures of each year’s graduating class that I have samples of. She made them from 1981 through my Father’s death in 87 until 1994. In the early years she didn’t put the year of creation by her signature, “by George.” Somehow I deduced the year of manufacture eight years ago or so when she first was sent to live in a dementia wing of Walker Methodist in Minneapolis and I began my curating. I spent the year taking pictures of all her work and began collecting images of everything I could lay my hand on. New old stuff pops up every so often.

Recently I found one of her painting from around the 1970’s that was given back to my sister by the family of one of my Mother’s best friends. The friend had died and the family thought the painting should go back to us. My sister, in turn, gave it to my daughter as a wedding present last summer.

2nd Day of Christmas C

Thanks Mom.

I sent out a request for graphic ideas that suggested miracles. Maybe it was my Mom who sent it to me from the stars although she was more of an agnostic like me. She also got the scare of her life when newly married to my Dad he told her he thought he’d like to be a minister. Today she maybe holding my Grandson’s lost silver star helium balloon.

Still, I mentioned in one of my recent posts about some paper mache doves she made for what I presume were Christmas decorations. Within a couple hours after that post it occurred to me that this was the perfect symbol for my snow sculpture. Furthermore, the rains had not completely melted my little pile of snow and, after dark, it was supposed to go back to freezing. Those would be perfect conditions lasting but one night for me to make a dove.

Its done although its not much to look at. I can’t quite bear to post my night time camera phone pictures of it taken without a flash. Modest as it is the ones I took do it little justice. I got it built before midnight so it was worth a mention in the 2nd Night of Christmas series. I’ll take a picture of it tomorrow if vandals haven’t had their way with it and post it then.

2nd Day of Christmas B

Yesterday we took our Grandson’s Christmas Tree hunting at Selins on the Homestead Road. I warned the boys we would have to proceed quietly or the trees would hear us and take flight. Its really a shame how early small children take to rolling their eyes. Both boys got to help fell the tree and you can see how the Tan Man and I are a fluid team felling our unwary balsam.

I’ve never picked out a better sized tree for the space in our living room. Its just right while it waits for lights and ornaments to welcome Santa when he … well, he used to come down the chimney but we put a gas insert so I’m hoping he has other avenues for ingress.

I remember the first time I went out to hunt a tree. I was still in high school or the first year of college and my folks were content to let the kids do the harvesting. All previous harvests had been in parking lots but somehow we got wind of a tree farm, or just a farm, that wanted some trees cut down. I drove my siblings out to the country and we wandered around inspecting the trees available to us. They weren’t the typical shape but more like an onion dome on a Russian Church. Out in the open they didn’t seem so big and we wanted big. I can’t imagine what our old Chrysler Newport looked like with that behemoth roped down on it but it seemed to take up half our living room once inside. It also left a nice tarry stain on the ceiling when we hoisted it into place.

Tree size does make a difference. The pile of presents under it didn’t look quite so generous as usual.

2nd Day of Christmas A

Mr. Gerdejanson (Spelling?) 1989

My sister Becky was part of a string quartet at Mankato West High School and Mr. Gerdejanson was her string teacher. I’m not one hundred percent sure this ornament was modeled on the teacher but I sort of think that was the case. By the time my Mother made this one she had been making Christmas tree ornaments for a decade. By 1989 my Mother had left Duluth and was no longer a regular part of Harpies Bazaar but she had a hard time giving up her popular ornaments. By this time they were getting far more elaborate.

In the early years she made simple figures and painted arms on them. Eventually the arms budded and like this musician took on such things as this violin.

Mom had been working with paper mache since I was a kid and may have learned the technique in her college Art classes. By the time I was little and my Dad was in law school she put her art to work as a window decorator at a local Topeka department store called Nightengales. We would take the bus downtown where she dropped me off at a daycare/nursery while she continued on to work a few blocks further.

I have an old yellow newspaper clipping from those years of large paper mache figurines Mom had made of singers for some Christmas event. I also recall that we had half a dozen hand sized doves that she must have made as center pieces for some table arrangement.

When I was in fifth grade I enjoyed some momentary celebrity in my class when Mom volunteered to help my class make paper mache puppets. It was probably a week long project and our teacher got her husband to make a puppet theater where we could hide ourselves while having our new puppets perform. That’s also my first recollection of making an audience laugh with an extemporaneous quips. I must have had a particularly clever puppet.

1st Day of Christmas A

I’m swearing off school board politics here until the tire is patched or otherwise. Until then, on very good advice, I’m sticking with safe subjects like Christmas.

At the moment I have my almost five year old Jacob Marley at my elbow (really) warning me of the Spirit of Christmas Present about to visit me.

I’ll begin each day until Christmas itself with a close up of one of my Mother’s ornaments. (Christmas Future just paid a call on me. I asked him if the future he showed me could be changed and he assured me it could be – really. He was also a great snowman in his Holiday pageant “Frozen.”)

(The grim and silent Spirit of the future just returned after a costume change as the Spirit of Christmas Past. I’ll post a picture tonight to prove it.)

By George

I keep finding myself thinking that I have to plan which day I need to visit my Mom to sing to her again and realizing I’ve got more time on my hands. When I sang I would tell her what was going on in my life and remind her about her past to keep the neurons humming. For Christmas I’ll treat my readers like Mom.

Tonight we are putting up the ornaments she made and sold in the 1980’s. I probably got my inspiration for sculpture from her fanciful paper mache Christmas ornaments. They were quite popular in Mankato and she made new varieties in a limited supply each year. She signed them “by George” and as time went on she placed each ornament’s year of birth on them. Her kids were given nearly complete sets each Christmas. Above you can see the ones I removed from Styrofoam packing peanuts tonight for hanging from greens above our sun room.


Readers of this blog may recall that I was planning on attending two school board meetings on Monday which were eventually canceled due to the weather. When the Superintendent called (while I was out shoveling sand) to ask me what I thought about postponing them I told him to tell Chair Miernicki to please not hold them on the same day after the Education Committee. I anticipated very long meetings for all three committees which would be unnecessarily exhausting. I’d not counted on Veteran’s Day (The holiday of which constitutes another possible post) to be an impediment but that Tuesday’s Education Committee had been rescheduled for Wednesday in deference to Veterans. The Superintendent even suggested that to accommodate my wishes next week’s school board meeting could be held the week following. I was dismayed to learn that Chair Miernicki chose to cram all three meetings together on Wednesday my church choir Night and the night I get to be with my grandsons.

I had a few other things going on Wednesday. I had a meeting planned with the Superintendent that I had hoped would follow our board meetings and I had to open our house for someone to measure our attic windows for replacement. If I don’t get sued and we don’t take too big a tax hit I plan on turning it into an office next year. But this post is about the trifecta that night so let me proceed. Continue reading

Where I go to a very black place

Yesterday’s volunteer work at the Church will end up being two days. We had a small crew scraping and painting the sills of all the windows at ground level but I looked at the arched window facing Lewis street and saw that it was badly checked and flaking so I put up a ladder and tackled it. What I had thought might be a morning’s work kept me until 4pm despite getting cordial help with a second coat of primer from Mark Hennessy. All the white on the window frames will cause wonder when Church commences this morning. It looks like I’ll have a good week of weather ahead to pick a new day to cover it with brown paint like the rest of the windows. While we painted Mark told me about his family and an older brother my age who was killed two weeks after getting to Vietnam. That would have been my senior year in high school. He was born in April of 1950. I was born in December. If I had not enrolled in college I would have had a lottery ticket into the Army myself but by then America had sorted itself out into the college bound war evaders and the blue collar, like it or not, warriors. Maybe that’s why the pre-division military of WW II has always looked on it as “the Good War.” It was everybody’s war rich and poor alike, plus we won it with our Grant-like demand of unconditional surrender.

While I painted I recited the Presidents in order once. I did it before going to sleep two days ago. After committing Lincoln’s immediate predecessors to memory with the DeRose book I did the same to the smaller set of presidents after him up to William McKinley. That was pretty easy because it was a two/three combination. After Rutherford B Hayes, there was a one-two punch, Garfield famous for his assassination if little else and his Veep Chester Arthur a crook who tried to set a good Presidential example. That was followed by a threesome of two presidents. Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland.

I spent Thursday or Friday afternoon reading about all these presidents in Wikipedia to get the details of their presidencies in brief. I also roamed the Amazon site for book reviews on the bios of these and other politicians of the Era. The Democrat Cleveland was in his first term as President when my Republican Grandfather George Robb was born. That family history helped anchor him in my mind with the four year cadence of Presidential elections. The year Grandfather turned one the Republican Ben Harrison got a term in the Oval Office. This got me to Cleveland again followed by a date I’ve known since high school. 1896 was the year of William Jennings Bryan’s run against McKinley followed by yet another date that has stuck with me since a Constitutional Law class in college. 1897 was the year that the Supreme Court ruled that “Separate but Equal” was constitutional. Fifty-one years later as I was heading to school the Court pretty well killed Plessy vs. Fergusson with the Brown ruling. Plessy had been right up there with Chief Justice Tawny’s Dred Scot and maybe Robert’s gutting of the 1965 Voting Right’s Act. After all we aren’t racist’s anymore. (I’m just saying that to bait my Buddy. Then again maybe I’m not.)

I did update my reading list on my old website by adding the book about Lincoln’s other five presidents. While I was looking at it I noticed that I’d stopped writing thumbnail descriptions of the books about six years ago so I added them in. I also discovered that I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in 2005 the year before I got wrapped up in fighting the Red Plan. I don’t remember rereading it but the timing was fitting.

My Buddy sent me a quick three emails in response to my posting his last email. I haven’t read them yet. Not sure I’ll respond but I may simply put them on the blog without a rebuttal. Least I can do for fairness’ sake.

I did have one debate with myself about my reply. I used the word “conviction” when talking about my sense that there is some DWB going on in Duluth. One of my Buddy’s replies refers to my not knowing the meaning of the word conviction although I’m won’t be sure what his whole comment will be until I open it. We often fence over definitions. The word “tendentious” was one of our first such debates. It occurred to me that the word “suspicion” might have been more appropriate. My Buddy is quite right. I have no evidence to back up my suspicion. I do have a good reason, however, to call it a conviction although it has yet to be proved.

It has been demonstrated that hard, some would call it oppressive, police work can tamp down crime. Rudy Giuliani’s police came out in big numbers and routinely stopped black young men in some tough neighborhoods. Crime there went down noticeably and was linked to the constant police presence. It works. So in Duluth we have some tough higher crime neighborhoods and it makes sense that our police would spend more time there than Lakeview or Piedmont Heights. It also just happens that these tougher neighborhoods have a higher African American population. If more cars are pulled over where more police are and there are more black drivers in those parts of town. Well, you can see where I’m going with this.

We also have a drug problem and those drugs come reliably from bigger city drug networks. Those networks on the ground are run by a larger share of inner city entrepreneurs and predictably those are more likely to be black than they would be if the networks operated out of small rural communities. Our cops know that and being vigilant they would be strongly inclined to stop a car with an out of date licence or a broken turn signal if it had out of state plates or a new unfamiliar face. If that face suggested a likelihood that it might have come from some inner city well….. Again you can see where I’m going with this.

This has been the predicament for blacks in America since they were first brought over as indentured servants just like white Europeans. Only slavery turned out to be a lot easier. Slavery had been tried on Indians but they could escape into the forest and blend in with non slave indians. Blacks could always be seen as foreign to North America and if you found one living with the Indians you could pretty well guess that he had escaped. Think of black skin and African facial features as like being a brand on a cow. Or just think of it as designating a cow no matter who claimed ownership. Although slavery is no longer part of the equation the brand still is evident.

I was going to write an new Octoroon post a while back. The first of them prompted my most recent spat with my Buddy.

Here’s where I was going with it. That word was lifted from New Orleans slave life. Octo in this case refers to 1/8th of a person’s ancestry and this specifically was used for people who were descended from 7 white and 1 African great grandparents. By the time you have mixed in a seven to one genetic blending the African is a pretty minimal 12.5 percent. But in slave society it was enough to consider a person a Negro. Hell, most Europeans and Asians have 2 or 3 percent Neanderthal genes. (Africans who stayed on the continent never got contaminated with them.)

The otherwise all white child who had one octoroon as a grandparent would be down to 1.5 percent African ancestry. And yet in the Antebellum South there was the charming “One drop” rule. If you had a single black slave ancestor you were considered black. By that measure all Europeans are Neanderthals.

This prejudice against African features has not died and it has had a riot of interrelated consequences. Talented African Americans are suspected of being talented because of the white “blood” in their systems. African Americans have for years been shamed into hating their African-ness and impelled to couple with more European looking blacks. Nazi Germany with his junior high school quality Fuehrer decided that the one drop rule made sense when they began hunting down Jews to send to the Concentration camps to purify the German race.

One possible outcome of a black/white mixing is the ability for “passing” into the white community. An only slightly African looking child might move to a new place where without proof he or she could pass as white. For parents who wanted to spare their children the grief they endured finding a white mate made sense. For white parents the reverse was true. Having a child connected with a black mate was unthinkable for most of our history. I asked my Dad once back in my college days if he would mind my marrying a black woman. When he told me he hoped I wouldn’t I asked why. He told me he would grieve for the treatment he expected they would get.

They are still getting that grief. One way its inflicted is called a DWB. “Driving while Black.” That’s why for a hundred years the biggest black owned business in the US was skin bleaching. Maybe it would work in Duluth.

The BWCA, a reminiscence

Here’s the email I’ve been chewing on:

Harry: At least Forum Communications is instilling some common sense to an otherwise ding-dong DNT staff. Nolan not only voted against continuing outboard motor and snowmobile use in my backyard, the BWCA, he vigorously fought against it in 1978. He has voted against the second amendment and gets an “F” from my two unions, the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America. He is not for the little people. I’m not nuts about Mills, but then, why would I vote for someone who doesn’t support our way of life? ***

I got my first taste of politics in Northern Minnesota in the mid to late 70’s when I ran for the legislature against Mike Jaros, my great anti-Red Plan ally of late. As a Republican who visited most of our National Parks as a kid and as a great enthusiast for Teddy Roosevelt who got the parks rolling I was happy with the Wilderness Act that created the BWCA. That doesn’t mean I was not sympathetic to hundreds of residents who got their backyards taken away from them. Continue reading