Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter in the Woods ( and maybe a ramble or two)

     Maybe next Friday. See what the weather has in store. It's not being at the cabin during bad weather that's the problem. It's the coming and going. Being stuck in the woods during a storm or deep cold's a good spot to be. Four cords of dry firewood, split and stacked. A pile of books. A refrigerator of food. And the world's only professional howler on Public Radio. A combination that can't be beat.
     For sure it can be deep-cold up north. Not exactly arctic or Siberian cold, but in the ball park at times. Nails popping as the temperature plummets, especially at night when drowsing in the bag, will draw your ear. Snapping awake in total darkness to what sounds like gunfire brings me back to Vietnam. Roll over, take a peak above the rice paddy dike. Then remember it's only a disagreement between wood and steel concerning which way to move. Gets cold enough and it'll sound like an M-60 machine gun. I begin to worry, should enough nails loosen up, the whole shebang'll come tumbling down. Must be time to throw more wood in the stove.
     Lois likes a warm cabin. Back when the kids were little, my idea of fun was to do a weekend in the woods over the third weekend in January. Took a couple of years before they caught on to my scheme. I'm a sick man. No matter how much wood was thrown into Ben Franklin, you could chill beer on the floor. We slept in the loft where the heat liked to hide. Too hot for me. Maybe for you too, unless your idea of the comfort zone's ninety-one in the shade. I slept stripped to t-shirt and drawers atop my sleeping bag. By two a.m. I'd had it. Climbed down, slipped my shoes on, and went outside to stand on the porch. Twelve below, near naked, and steaming. It was wonderful.
     I think it was the weekend that reached thirty-five below that pushed us over the edge. We'd waded knee deep snow to reach the cabin. Went out to Deadman once just to see how cold it felt. Yup, it sure was cold. The rest of our activity consisted of playing games, reading, eating and keeping the fire going. Consider the outhouse and the gumption involved. When we'd pulled in early friday evening, I'd gotten the car off the road by burrowing out fifteen feet of driveway. There she sat 'til Sunday, mid-morning. No way was I looking forward to going out and turning the key. Inevitable carries the weight of doom. And trying to start an American four cylinder engine in extreme cold was inevitable if I wanted to make work on Monday. I knew turning the key was a waste of time, and it was. A few seconds of despair was followed quickly by pulling the battery and draining the oil into a pail. Brought 'em inside. Heated the oil on the wood stove. Probably not too smart. Thawed the battery nearby. Not totally stupid I guess. Didn't work like a charm but it did work. Ignored the instructions for an electronic ignition and pumped the hell out of it. A bang and a cloud of smoke. But she started. Oh yeah, oh yeah.
     Fort Lewis, Washington. 1969. There I got to meet the coldest ten minutes of my life. Great spot for jungle training. So long as you ignored the snow that just kept coming in waves from Siberia via Alaska. Forty-nine inches in January. No doubt the Army had their reasons for us being there. Probably darned good ones. As for us grunts-to-be, we didn't much give a damn where we trained. Didn't yet have orders as to where we'd end up, but we knew. The phrase de jour when we were threatened with punishment, " What'er you gonna do? Cut off our hair, stick us in the infantry and send us to Vietnam?" 
     Anyhow, it was early February. We were up in the firing ranges near the Mount Rainier foothills, learnin' the LAW. Light Anti-tank Weapon that is. Kind of a mini-bazooka. Rocket shoots out of tube, blasts a hole in the side of a tank, propels a dozen ball bearings inside where they bounce around at high speed until stopped by something soft. Groovy. We were pumped even though it was but ten above. By Minnesota standards, a mild winter day. And we were dressed for the weather. Uncle Sam didn't want his boys in green to get cold. No siree, he gave us lots to wear. And we didn't skimp. Four layers, head to foot. Except in the middle, the happy zone, there we packed five. Not easy to take a leak through all those layers. Top that off with a reluctant weenie that doesn't want to come out and play in the cold.
     Wasn't too bad 'til the gloves came off. A necessity for getting the feel of the weapon and its parts. Or so we were told. Personally, I figured it was an Army experiment to see how long it took for fingers to turn from rosy to blue to white. That is if you were caucasian.  If you weren't, well, my friend Earl's ended up white also. Another hint that we're alike on the inside all the time and also on the outside when the weather sucks. In either case it was around forty-five seconds. Korea must have been a true hell-hole back in the winter of '50-51.
     After taking it apart and putting it back together, a passing score was no parts left over, we loaded into stands. There to be given instructions, in perfect military monotone, fired at us so fast not a one of us understood a word, on the proper way to fire a LAW. Lordy, lordy, just like in the movies. Our chance to blow up shit. The American way. Right up there with apple pie and Elvis. The Sergeant called for volunteers. All hundred forty-three hands shot up. Woulda been one forty-four but Zilch was on sick call again. Gotta tell you about Zilch some day and how he earned his name. Of course the frosty sun only lit up one brown-eyed, handsome GI. He strutted up. Ear-to-ear grin on his face. Had a look that said, "I'm da man. I'm da man. Gonna see some serious rocket firin' now."
     The LAW was placed on his shoulder. The sight popped up and he was ready. Final instructions:
     "Gentlemen. The trigger of the LAW requires extreme pressure. This is an intentional safeguard. Such prevents accidental explosions usually resulting in an extremely painful death. The fortunate few will escape with nothing less than a hideous maiming. That said, clear an area of at least twenty-five meters to the rear of the blast area. Anyone within that area when the LAW is fired will inevitably be killed, blinded or, at the very least, hideously maimed. Do you scumbags understand?"
     We all yelled our most manly, "Yes, sergeant!"
     Gotta admit, his short speech sure as hell got our undivided attention. As it did the LAW firin' dude. His look went from savior of the western world to helpless desperation in less than ten seconds. Like he'd bolt before he'd squeeze. But squeeze he did. Squeezed 'til an enormous explosion rocked the area. We were dumbstruck. Crap. The thought of a pound of C-4 goin' off on my shoulder, shielded only by a quarter inch of cardboard, got me to wondering how I'd look with a hearing aid or maybe without a head. No choice in the matter, we followed orders and got in line. Don't know about any of the other trainees but my eyes were shut and ears back-pressured when my squeeze went off. Oddly, most of us hit the target.
     The weatherman says it'll be relatively mild this weekend at the cabin. Don't know what I was thinking when I went on a cold weather rant. Probably the Minnesotan in me taking over. We like to whine, or brag, in reality they're the same, about our weather. Truth is, don't be bringing up Canada or Alaska. They put us to shame in the freezer section. Heard tell it gets cold enough up there to crystalize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Don't need to mention wind chill factor when it's minus seventy-five. And don't be stompin' on our thirty below.
     So, me and my ten above on Friday night'll do just fine. Might even explore the area on foot. Then write about how my left shoe squeaks and drives me nuts.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lost at Sea

     Well, it took fourteen months and I'm caught up. Not a lot more to say about wilderness canoe fishing or the cabin 'til the ice turns to water in the spring. Maybe I'll somehow end up back in the boonies for a while. Of course there's always the grunt work of entering photos in Learning Curve. Don't like that title. Maybe I'll go stand in the corner 'til I come up with something better. Could also reread everything and correct the grammar. Must be an ocean of screwups to hold my interest. What fun!
     So where to go from here? A question like that sounds like I'm gonna get all philosophical. Been down that road and it ain't pretty. Gotta have a story behind it. And a story as true as you can make it. No truth in philosophy. No matter the school, it's just a guess and not all that educated. Life is truth. It is what it is. Er go, a good story is truth. Simple enough and, once again, I'm just guessin'.
     If I could write a novel, I probably would. And probably wouldn't like myself for it. Fiction is cheating. Bends life to fit your story. No matter how good you tell it, no matter how much research, it's just not the truth. Novels end, life doesn't. Life doesn't tie things neatly together. Just seems to stumble on and on. Gotta stop. I'm getting lost. Out of my element.
     I know what I'd like to write about. Don't know if I should. Doesn't fit this blog and don't want to start another. Uncle Emil taught me that doesn't work. He also says I've more or less become him. Maybe always have been.
     Enough with the whining already. Been on this writing jag for nine years solid. Don't know why I do it. But I do. And enjoy the hell out of it. Weather permitting I head north next friday. Between I'll start tying small, trout sized spinners. Come spring hit the cabin trout lakes and maybe camp up by Portage brook. See if the great-great-great grand children of the brookies Rod and I caught back in '66 are there waiting for me.

P.S.  I keep forgetting this. The background photo for the blog was taken by Allan from our camp on Wedge Lake in Manitoba.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Simple Treasures

     You could spend a day rummaging through the cabin and miss them all. They're invisible 'cause they're in plain sight. And you need the right set of eyes to make them appear. Some of them are Lois'. Some, mine. Most involve sweat. All involve stories. And it's the stories that make them treasures.
     Once through the porch's screen door you'll find yourself standing eyeball to eyeball with Hopalong Cassidy. I'll excuse you and your ignorance if you're thinking, "Who the hell is Hopalong Cassidy?" Knowing who Hoppy was calls for a lot of miles on your tires. Had to grow up no later than the '50s. Back then, he had his own TV show. Saved the Wild West from many a desperado. Dressed in black from head to foot. And he showed up once in a while as a stamping on a coat rack for kids sponsored by Northland Milk. He didn't know it but little Lois was a big fan of his. And thus the rack. Probably swayed by William Boyd's fatherly good looks and the way his white scarf set off all that black. Most anyone with a lick of sense knew when it came to cowboyin', Randolph Scott coulda kicked his butt. 'Spose you're now thinkin', "Ain't you forgettin' John Wayne?" No siree I ain't. The Duke was all mouth. Never walked the walk. Spent half his life waving the flag but never paid his dues. Back when I was in the Nam, there was an outdoor theater in the battalion area. For fun when we were on stand-down, they'd show The Green Berets starring the Duke. We'd 'most always get a kick out of the scene where they'd go running through the forest at night. What kind of stupid Tinseltown crap was that? Soldiers who run through the woods at night end up blind or dead. The scene over, we'd go back to the reality of downing a few beers. The closest Wayne came to real combat was on a Hollywood back lot. Scott, on the other hand was a Forward Observer in WWI. In the front lines with the grunts. Knew the difference between real and pretend. Have to be honest, I was a big fan of Hoppy also.
     Through the next door and into the kitchen. Atop the divider counter sits a bar. A hundred-twelve years ago it was part of a southern yellow pine. Once sawn down and shipped to Minneapolis, it became a beam in the Butler Brothers Warehouse. In '74 the warehouse was remodeled for office space and the interior gutted for a courtyard. The discarded timbers were dumped on the near north side of town. Shortly thereafter my friend Greg asked for a pile of them as payment for a job he'd done. At least that's how I remember it. He had them re-sawed as full dimension two-by-tens. His idea was to use them as walls for a fruit cellar on his small farm. In the early '80s he offered me one just to shut me up. Or so I remember.
     The next thing you know it was sitting in my basement. Next to it a triple-measured diagram. Hardest wood I ever shaped. More ancient, crystalized, amber-like pitch than wood. Long, screaming carbide-bladed cross-cut, an eighth of an inch at a time. Honestly, the saw was crying. The four-by-four notch for the post was challenging. No room for error when there's only one plank available. And that one's older than your great, great, great granddad. Once cut, I pointlessly tried to fill the small crack and two nail holes with epoxy. Wouldn't set up quickly enough and drained out. Tried to speed up the drying by putting a heat lamp on it. That got the sap to run for the first time in since McKinley was president. Finally, I had to accept the wood as it was, warts and all. Finished by rubbing in something more than twenty coats of tung oil. Then got out the magnifying glass to count all hundred and twenty-five growth rings. That pine was born before the Declaration of Independence.
      Old growth wood's a shame to cut down these days. Glad this one's recycled. Fitted so tight above the counter there was no need for fasteners. Every time I set a plate of food on it I think of Greg. Not a lot of wood like that slab of yellow pine anymore. Not a lot of men like Greg.
     Earl the Dead Cat. His Certificate of Death is decoupaged on the outhouse wall. My University diploma's 'sposed to be there next to it but was rescinded when the College of Liberal Arts got wind of how I write. Seems I violate every tenet taught in Freshman Composition. It ain't easy but I'm workin' hard at becoming an illiterate.
     If you were a fan of the National Lampoon magazine back in the '70s you may remember the ads in the back. Earl's 'xed' eyes drew mine the first time I saw him. Several months later he called me back and whispered, " Lois' birthday man. Less than a month away. And you ain't got nothin'. Cut out the form, write a check and mail it baby. She wants me. Really wants me. If I wasn't already dead, she'd love me there." 
     Had no problem with doing that. Lois had no love for cats. Turned out she did like Earl. Didn't bite or shed. Kicked around the house for a few years before being exiled up north. There his inert carcass straddles a beam in the main room. We keep him face down so he can see what's going on. Besides, laying face up hurts his back.
     A dozen years ago, Allan and a few of his friends spent most of their spare time at the cabin. Put in a lot of hours on a building project. Can't really say it all panned out as expected but he learned a lot. Mostly in ways Allan wasn't expecting. Life's always in the teaching business. Problem is when you sign up for the class it doesn't always turn out to be what you were expecting. From personal experience, I'd avoid the classes involving guns and booby traps.
     So, sometime during the building spree, Lois and I spent a few days up north. Took a day or two before we noticed the eight-by-ten glossy on the wall. In it are four young men, and Earl, all straddled across cabin beams. Sure didn't see that coming when I mailed in the form.
     Books. Food for thought, insulation for walls. Don't know what we'd do without them at the cabin. No television, no internet. Just like before WWII. When the sun goes down, the books come out. One of our annual rituals is the Kitchigami Regional Library book sale during Pine River's Summerfest. Some volumes are from the library, most are donated. All are used. Picked up an autographed copy of Box Elder Bug Variations by Bill Holm. Doubt that'll get your heart going but Holm is a local treasure. Big, Minnesotan with Icelandic blood. He passed on not too long ago. Can't say I'm a fan of his poetry. Actually, I'm not a fan of nearly any poetry. My loss no doubt. On the flip side, I do like his curmudgeonly non-fiction. If you're ever hankering to read someone who occasionally heads out on a well-written, pissed-off rant, pick him up.
     The Summerfest parade brought us up during the early years. Had to teach Annie and Allan that it was okay to run into the street if people were smiling and throwing buckets of penny candy. Most of which were donated by the dental clinic. Back in Vietnam, we used to do the same for the local kids. Hershey's tropical chocolate didn't melt in your hand and didn't much taste good in your mouth. So we threw it to the kids. Just like the parade. That is if the parade was going by in a deuce and a half at forty miles per hour, honking and weaving. And packed with men who were out to kill your uncle or dad. Yeah, we were scary, but nowhere near as scary as the Nursing Home wheelchair precision marching team in the Summerfest parade. Lois and I would watch and shudder as our future rolled by waving little flags.
     Going through those sale tables, book by book, makes me feel like I'm digging for gold in a locale with no known minerals. After a numbing twenty minute search my mind wanders. Considers starting my own library consisting of nothing but John Grisham novels. He is one serious book-selling dude. Or Stephen King. Or if I stick with the locals, Garrison Keillor. Lotta people out there who buy 'em, read 'em and donate 'em. At nearly thirty bucks a pop when newborn. Not complaining really. Like I said, once in a while you find a treasure. A first edition of a long-time, oft-read favorite. An old, hard bound Sigurd Olson classic. Lois, on the other hand, goes through books at the cabin by the fistful. Comes out of the sale with bags of them. Seriously, bags full. From the bag to the bookshelves we've built above the cabin windows. Like eyebrows. And they do insulate. Don't know their R-value. If we'd started collecting them earlier, the addition's walls could be filled with literature to keep us warm. A perfect spot for Jacqueline Suzanne.
     You might notice most of the books have wrinkled pages. Freak of nature wrinkles. We put the steel roof up on a day calling for zero chance of rain. And a hundred percent chance of Allan upsetting a hornet's nest. Of course when we broke for lunch, roof stripped to bare decking, a rogue cloud of doom passed over and flooded for a minute. Couldn't get the books off the shelves as fast as the water streamed down on them. Lois, as usual, had a method for drying out the cabin. Fired up the Franklin stove that hot July day and raised the cabin to sauna temperatures.
     Three tables. Two traveled from other places, one was given birth on site. Lois and I like to gather and spread stuff around the planet like birds eating and crapping seeds. Acorns move from the depth of the forest to the edges via bluejay. Gets the trees out of their sedentary stupor and out seeing how the rest of the world looks. Sand moves from Sunset Beach on Oahu to Minneapolis via Lois. She also moves seashells and seeds. Turn your back on her for a moment and she's loading a forty pound boulder from the Big Thompson River Canyon into the back seat of the car. Each night when I go to bed I pray for strength for me and physical weakness for Lois. The woman loves rocks but, dear Lord, there's a limit. Thankfully, she's come to realize what she can and can't hoist. Unfortunately, she doesn't know my limits. Check out the rock pile by the pump if you ever come up. Or the ones lining the burning pit. They didn't get there by themselves.
      Where was I? Travelin' tables. Sometimes I get sidetracked. Back in '68 Lois bought her first dining room table. Fifty bucks at a Goodwill. No doubt was somebody else's treasure at one time. Maple, pedestaled, round. Nice, in a not too fancy way. Might even have been home-made. Had some miles on it before the Goodwill. In the years following it made itself at home in two apartments, a double bungalow, a house and finally, the cabin. Sits alongside the yellow pine bar. In cold weather we eat on it, play cards and games, write, sort and assemble what-not. Always turn to the moose cookie jar sittin' in the middle of it when we need a sugar fix. On the downside it's been the final resting place for a double handful of flies, beetles and moths.
     Gotta head back to the '50s and Lois' parents' basement for the birthplace of the corner table in the addition. Iconic '50s design. Built by her dad, John. Looks like the picture accompanying the Popular Mechanics' article 'You Too Can Build a Table That'll Look Like It Was Built in the '50s for the Next Hundred Years.' Two tiered, triangular surface with three turned and tapered legs angling to the floor. Lois' dad loved to work with wood. Finished off, plumbed and wired his basement. Their home didn't have a room without his touch showing somewhere.  Always wanted to build his own cabin up north when he retired. A stroke when he was 53 turned his life upside-down. Took away his profession as a teacher and most of his skill as a woodworker. That something he built sits in our cabin up north is only fitting.
     The last of the three was made from left-overs. A two-foot square, double-tiered, redwood legs and frame with a fir flooring top and shelf. Maybe thirty pounds. She won't move unless you politely ask her to. Made it in a day while talking with a friend. Jack had no problem filling the air with whats and whys while I measured, cut and hammered. Over the morning and afternoon a small pile of boards turned into a table. You know how those things go. Put the tape to the scrap and the wood'll tell you how what it wants to become. Guess Jack didn't know how to listen to the wood. That's why he was asking me all the questions. "Why that board?" and "How come you're cutting it that way?" I laughed. He laughed. When she was finished, he capped it off with an "I'll be damned." Good man. Loved his company. But I'm a stick-in-the-mud and don't see him near enough. The table, on the other hand, is hard to miss. On it sit our non-digital radio that likes to wander off into the ozone whenever something worth listening to is on. Also, one of Lois' dad's homemade lamps. Lights up our reading as we sit either side of it come evening.
     Rounding out the good stuff: The cloth wall hanging Lois sewed for my 50th birthday. Cabin, woods, starry night, and poem, all hand-stitched in secrecy. When my number comes up maybe I'll crawl into that scene. Trade my ten minutes of fame for eternity in a place I'd like to be.
     On the pond-side wall, between and above a pair of book shelves, hangs a set of six point antlers mounted on an oak slab. Slab's planed, sanded, oiled, and polished. Bark's still on and the rack sits on a notch. It's a half-assed job if I ever saw one. Reeks of homemade. The whitetail was killed by a friend's father. Added a smear of blood on the rack from his sliced finger. Bambi's revenge. The whitetails shed their antlers during winter or early spring. At least that's what I've read. Been looking but ain't found a one on the ground. Seen both the deer and lots of droppings. None that I've seen were sporting antlers. Maybe it's 'cause I pee so much in the woods. Scares the bucks away knowing there's a carnivore with a large bladder lurking nearby. Maybe I should put out a welcome mat and a Drop Antlers Here sign.
     Lois' grandmother had a Hoosier cabinet, way back when, for kitchen storage. Not a fancy one made from walnut or cherry. Just painted pine and a fitting piece for a small, one-man, one-woman operation. A few milk-cows, chickens, sixty acres and the neatest cedar swamp you'll ever see. The homestead now belongs to one of Lois' cousins. I lust for some of those arborvitae. Not looking to clear cut. A half-dozen logs would do me fine. But it's not an easy thing to ask of a distant cousin. Might mean nothing to him but to me it'd be like asking for treasure. Years back we absconded with a couple of seedlings. One yet lives alongside the path to the outhouse. Fifteen feet tall and an inch and a quarter on the stump. Got a ways to go before I can turn it into a canoe.
     During the Hoosier cabinet's last decade on the farm it sat almost forgotten in a shed. The mice and barn cats didn't forget it. Made it their home and turned it into a holy hell of a mess. No one in their right mind would have looked twice at it even if they had a head cold and could get past the smell. But Lois didn't forget it. She could still see her Grandmother's hands kneading bread dough on its porcelain, pull-out shelve. We brought it home.
     There we tore it down. Rebuilt drawers, polished hardware, put a new back on it. Completely ruined its value as an antique. The finishing touch was removing the smell. Lois did the research. Put aromatic pipe tobacco in each of the drawers. Six months later the cabinet was spring fresh. Couldn't say the same for the tobacco. The cabinet now sits in the addition, by the bedroom and is filled to the gills with what-not. Spent a lot of my time at the cabin rummaging through its drawers for things that aren't there. And finding stuff I'd forgotten about.
     Finally comes Annie's first grade mobile. Made of thread, colored paper, and what looks to be steamed and bent bamboo skewers. What's the life expectancy of an elementary school art project? The mobile's sneaking up on thirty-five years. Hangs from a beam by the round table. All original parts and still balanced. Constantly moves as you pass it by. Life's a fragile beast, just like that mobile. Doesn't take much to snuff it out. Three inches of water, microscopic animals, a half ounce of steel, a match. But it dodges a lot of dangers. Adapts, moves with the flow. Goes on indefinitely. It'd be a kick if that mobile was still there for Annie's grandkids to see.