Monthly Archives: December 2016

In a One Horse Open Sleigh, 1964

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Today is Christmas Day 2016, and I was going through some family history files.  I came across this photo from Christmas Day, 1964.  We were out at the Matthews family place owned by my Grandpa Curley and Grandma Margaret Matthews, located about three miles east and   1 1/4 miles north of Forestburg, SD.  It’s the place where my mom and her two sisters did most of their growing up.  That’s Grandpa Curley on the far right, hood up and smoking’ a heater.  From left-right:  Aunt Shirley, my youngest cousin Susan, her mother Aunt Marge, my Mom, Cousin Laurel (with the pointed hood!), me, Uncle Harvey and my younger brother Bruce.   It was a crisp day with a gray sky but several inches of the freshest, whitest snow you can imagine.  There was also a bit of wind, exaggerated by sailing over the snow in Grandpa’s old cutter.  I can’t tell you a lot about the cutter, other than it was quite old and had been on the farm for decades.

I don’t know if it was the cold, the wind, the white snow or just the thrill of it all, but although I was a month short of four years old (and 52 years ago!),  I remember vividly the experience.  It’s probably my earliest Christmas memory, and quite arguably my best. Over the river, and through the woods….

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Reprise: “Bust A Move”…

(Note:  I’ve been searching for some of my favorite blog posts fro the last year and reprising them if it makes sense.  Since many (most?) of my readers experienced some old-fashioned cold and snow this week, this post from October 4, 2016, seems appropriate.  Happy Christmas! JT)

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Spending time writing about winter outdoor activities got me thinking about the real-world adventures my indestructible running buddies and I attempted/found ourselves in the middle of/were stupid enough to try back in the day. Some of these events have never been described or recounted outside our tight little group, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on all of them. Or at least most of them. I think.

The sport was simply named, “Drift-Busting”. Participants in town needed to be 16 and a licensed driver, although many farm kids started building their skills much younger. All you needed was a big US-built four door family sedan from the late 60’s through late 70’s. The early 70’s Chevy Impala and Ford LTD were ideal, although exotica like the “roomy” Plymouth Fury III, Buick LeSabre, Ford Country Sedan station wagon or Ford Ranchero or Chevy El Camino with extra weight over the rear axle added variety.

The ideal crew for Drift Busting included: 1) The Driver; 2) The Navigator, front seat passenger window who was the lookout for other cars and plows, snow-covered obstacles and law enforcement, and 3) An attractive and animated young lady front-seat middle to supply appropriate shrieks, support and laughter such as you might hear on a roller coaster or in a Steve McQueen movie. You went with just Driver/Navigator if circumstances dictated, but the “three wide” configuration was definitely preferred.el-caminobronco-under-tree

There were three disciplines in Sedan-class Drift Busting. The first was “Classic Drift Busting”, where during or after a big snow ( 6-7inches and up, but more snow and wind is better). you busted unplowed drifts right where God dropped ‘em. “Classic” tested your behind-the-wheel skill to keep from getting stuck or high-centered, and your ability to negotiate a mid-storm corner. The second was “Post-Plow Busting” where you could pick up speed on plowed streets before busting through man-made piles. The heart beat a little faster with this one. The third discipline was “Free-style”, with the car on an unplowed parking lot or playground that was paved and flat, had lots of snow, and fewer things to hit. Free-style tested your artistry with rear-wheel drive V-8 skids, drifting and a set of various consecutive circle-spins and overheated engines referred to collectively as “shitties”.

There were many good Drift-Busters, too many to mention, but as a Navigator my favorite pilot, hands-down, was Thomas P. Harlan. Today Tom is a high-powered lawyer in the Twin Cities, but back then he was a wild-eyed pilot of a classic Dark Olive 1970-ish Chevrolet Impala v-8 equipped four-door sedan. The car was sparsely optioned, but did have a solid AM radio allowing for a long-distance “Boogie Check” with John “Records” Landecker on 89-WLS Chicago. The secret weapon of that car is that it came pre-dented, so when Tom took it home with some fresh dimples no one was the wiser. If you measured pilots solely on driving skill, Tom was well above average but not a savant. His gifts were a total lack of fear, the willingness to thread even the smallest needle, and a happy-go-lucky cackle even in the face of certain disaster. Call it the “Luck of the Irish” if you like.

The demise of the rear-wheeled sedan, improved plowing techniques, fewer monster snow storms and a general distaste for such reckless activities make today’s Drift-Busting the winter equivalent of cock fighting, run by seedy gamblers swilling cheap peppermint schnapps and betting on strung-out adrenaline junkies piloting rusted-out Plymouth K-Cars. But I’ll remember when young princes like Tommy slung around that Detroit iron with a comely lass like Lou Ann Erickson or Susan Arnoldy in the middle, all of us singing “Sultans of Swing” at the top of our lungs, just for the fun of it all.

 

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Reprise: “There Must Be a Pony In There Somewhere”

(Note:  My Mom reminded me of this post I wrote last holiday season. There are a few more of you following this blog this year than last, so I thought I’d reprise.  If you like the story and think your friends would like it, click “share”. You’d be doing me a big favor, too. Merry Christmas!).

I spent last weekend at the Ancestral Manse in Forestburg, SD. As the house is directly behind the only year-round storefront in town, I can report that business was about average for a December Friday at Doren’s Bar. I drove into Forestburg in the dark (sunset this time of year occurring shortly after lunch), but was buoyed by a very respectable display of holiday lights. There was just enough snow to make everything white but not enough to get easily stuck. Temps were in the single digits, but tolerable due to the absence of the usually stiff prevailing northwest winds. Skies were clear enough to see the stars. A sliver of moon made it possible to hear but not see a flock of geese coming in remarkably low. I usually refer to Canada geese as “sky carp” for what I consider to be obvious reasons, but for a moment even I could muster up enough romance to think maybe they were coming in low to check out the colorful lights, too.

Like a sockeye salmon, it’s not unusual for me to feel the pull to return to my spawning ground when it gets close to Christmas. We moved to Minnesota when I was about two years old, but we always returned to my grandparents’ farms for Christmas. And I mean always. For 26 of my first 27 years we made the 300+ mile trip to do Christmas with both sides of the family. In fact the first 21 were in a row, stopped only in 1983 by a monster blizzard which left 10 foot snow drifts on the highways between Rochester, MN (where I worked) and Plainview (where I lived).

Each of those visits had both traditional ritual (oyster stew, the annual photo of my Grandma Linda, my mother and my bothers and me washing and drying dishes before opening presents) and unique memories (the hand-made Batman and Robin costumes sewn by Grandma for brother Bruce and me. I was Batman). However, there was one year that stands out for its unpredictability and sheer wonderfulness. And it had nothing in particular to do with me. It was when I was around 9 years old. After dinner and presents on my dad’s side we made the 15 mile trip through a generous but gentle snow to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Robert Cope’s ranch. It was also home to my cousin Laurel, who is one year older than me. The Copes were unique among my extremely small extended family. They were Horse People. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d make the bet that there were always more horses on the ranch than there were people. This, considering the combined number of horses on all of the farms of all of my relatives was zero, most definitely made them the Horse People in our little group.

Horses have always scared the heck out of me. In fact, I’m not terrible fond of any big animals. Frankly, the little ones don’t do much for me either. My total time on a horse amounts to less than five minutes of sheer terror. I’m not usually a control freak, but for me five minutes on a horse had all the allure and romance of a bungee jump, a car wreck and a plane crash all rolled into one. But I know Laurel loved horses. Much later in life when I returned to South Dakota, I caught a glimpse of the 2006 South Dakota State Park Permit on the windshield of a car. It’s a photo of a couple riding horses through one of South Dakota’s State Parks. Yep, that’s my cousin Laurel and her husband Manley.

Anyway, back to Christmas 1970 or so. The Cope’s house had a big rectangular picture window on the east side. There was a grass lawn extending out the gravel road that ran by the ranch, covered this Christmas with snow. As presents were distributed to four generations of family seated throughout the living room, the drapes on the picture window were closed. Presents were opened and thank-you’s exchanged. As everyone was basking the post-present afterglow, there was a rustling of sorts outside. Santa making a delivery, perhaps? Someone peeked behind the drawn drapes, and then turned around with a look of astonishment. Slowly the drapes were drawn, parting like drapes on a theater stage. The front lawn was brightly lit with two big spotlights. There was no wind, and the huge snowflakes falling against the black night sky made the 3D view through the picture window better than IMAX. There, tied to a post as big as life was a real, live PONY. SANTA BROUGHT LAUREL A PONY! It was simply the most amazing Christmas gift I had ever seen. Everyone in the room was mesmerized by this living, breathing, moving life-size shadow box. It was breathtaking.

Looking back, what made it all so memorable is that while the pony was a gift from Santa to Laurel, the moment was a gift to all of us. There was no jealousy, no “Laurel got a pony and I didn’t”. It was simply a magical moment, whether you were the one getting pony or not. Too often we judge our happiness against the happiness of others. We’re jealous of what they have, and mad about what we don’t, missing the point that the shared moment was the real gift.

Age and time may have embellished this Christmas memory, as age and time will do. No matter. I know where Santa comes down on the deal. And I always go with Santa.