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.

Gazing At The Crystal Ball

Like many Americans I stayed up into the early morning hours on Wednesday to see with my own two eyes the crowning of Donald Trump as President-Elect of the United States of America.  When I did finally get to bed I had some of the most curious dreams ever. Upon waking I did my best to recall what I’d dreamt and attempted to write it all down.  I believe I was given some insight or vision, allowing me to see parts of our collective future.  It was either that, or the consequences of an over-indulgence of leftover Halloween candy waiting for election results.  In any case, a glimpse into our future….

1. It will be discovered that Donald Trump had some “inside information” a couple of weeks ago when proclaiming this presidential election had already been “fixed”.
2. On January 19, 2017, security staff at the White House are surprised when large trucks roll through the gates with a work order to install 30 ft. flashing gold and silver neon letters spelling “TRUMP PALACE” on the roof. In describing the esthetics of the Vegas-style sign, the President Elect sets some kind of record by using the word “great” 27 times.

3. Upon learning of Hillary Clinton blowing a double-digit lead in the last week of the campaign to a 70-year-old orange-haired former TV reality show star, Inventor of the Internet Albert Gore Jr. angrily revokes Hillary’s email privileges for the rest of her life.

4. Among the first calls of congratulation to President-elect Trump is from former President Bill Clinton.  While wishing Trump well, Bill whispers a “thank you” to Trump for saving him from “four years of being called the “First Man” and avoiding having his dating style cramped by moving back into the White House with Hillary.

5. Trump makes his next billion dollars collecting the burkas confiscated from muslim women deported by the US and selling them at a profit to every American woman who isn’t a “10”.

6. Following inauguration, the over and under is set at 10 months for Trump, bored and tired of being “answerable”,  leaving the US for a prolonged 36-month global vacation.

7. Reality Television, now redundant, fades into the sunset.

8. Now without O’Bama or Clinton to blame for all the world’s ills, Shawn Hannity suddenly leaves his Fox News rant show to open a wall-building business on the Mexican border with Arizona.

9. Trump bus buddy Billy Bush becomes White House Press Secretary. He later becomes wealthy inventing Kevlar-armored women’s underwear, and upon early retirement is succeeded as Press Secretary by Roger Ailes.

10. Having figured out they’ve been duped by The Donald, Trump supporters riot and burn down large chunks of the US. Seeing a business opportunity President Trump declares the entire country a total fire loss, files Chapter 11 bankruptcy on the entire country, uses the lost Gross National Product as a tax write-off, and with the proceeds moves to Europe and purchases Monaco.

Meca Leca Hi Meca Hiney Ho….

Making My Neighborhood Great Again

(Note:  If you like what you read, please share this post with your Friends.  If you don’t like what you read, share this post with your friends anyway, or with those idiots who support the other guy who you can’t STAND.  Thanks….)

Well, we’re down to about two days until this, ah, “unusual” campaign season wraps up and votes are cast. I can’t say for a fact the races will be “over” because election night in November 2000 just popped into my head, where I left election coverage at the AM 1500 KSTP studios around 12:30pm thinking the Bush/Gore election was wrapped up, only to slip into my jammies, hop into bed and turn on the radio at around 2 am only to find out things were far from over.

Anyway, I have been very hesitant to get involved online in the vitriol for a number of reasons. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I have many. However, I used to follow and discuss this stuff on talk radio for a living in one form or another for almost 20 years. While I tried my best to keep the conversation substantive and civil, it got quite ugly to one degree or another every time.  After every election cycle I felt like I should open the Yellow Pages and find an exorcist to drive out all the demons.

All those elections, and talking to all those candidates, managers, party people etc., did give me a hard-earned education on the finer points of running negative campaigns. And if a race was the least bit contested, they ALWAYs turned negative to one degree or another. I wish I could say that education in some way makes following the current contests easier or more palatable…but I can’t. Knowing how the campaign blutwurst is made and distributed by today’s soulless campaign and media strategists doesn’t make it any easier to see it turn citizens in general, and friends and acquaintances in particular, so remarkably red-hot angry and at times hateful of one another. I feel uneasy saying this, but I find myself wondering which is worse for our society: The Blissful Ignorance of not participating in a democracy, or the Seething Anger of Participatory Ignorance amplified by the speed and ease of social media and on-demand nature of digital demagoguery? I also can’t shake the fear that the harshness of insty-commentary easily available on social media is going to leave a lot of open wounds  where once solid friendships once resided.

I’ll add only this: While Hillary/Trump is on the top of the circus poster and playing in the big tent, the place where you and I can make the largest political difference and improve society is in our place on the block where we live. Effort spent on being the best parents, children and neighbors we can be will have more tangible impact on our quality of life than any of the bread and circuses promised by party sycophants (WHO, by the way, are the same schlocks which gave us all the “choice” between Hillary and Trump). And once you have those ducks in a row, expand to your neighborhood school (even if your kids have moved on), or volunteer efforts on activities which grow spirit and understanding of people different from you but which most of the people on those campaign signs and TV commercials have abandoned or stopped funding. Things like art, music, history and other humanities. Scouting is great, too, as is helping with your local cancer walk.

So yes, vote on Tuesday. I’m planning on it. But remember long after the “winners” and “losers” are reduced to fuel for Cable TV news, your influence and effort is needed down the street, on your block and down the hall. That’s how we “Make American Great Again”.

“Take a Peek Inside My Brain…”

“Take a peek inside my brain where fishin’ tales are spun.
My psychedelic fish parade has only just begun.”

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A lot has happened in the 9 years since I moved back to South Dakota. Some of it has been personally difficult, some grossly unfair and some just plain terrifying. But much more of it has been very special, made that way primarily by some special and inspirational people. Among those people is a tall, gentle, terminally cheerful fellow with extraordinary talent and imagination. His name is Steve Bormes. Steve and wife Tova own a very cool retail establishment called Rug and Relic in the 8th and Railroad building in Sioux Falls (rugandrelic.com) It’s a gallery full of genuine Turkish rugs, antiquities and folk art that shares space for Steve’s artistic creations, which mix a crazy array of found items, lights and an imagination unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

A year and a half ago Steve was notified he had been chosen for a major exhibition of his art at the big gallery at the Washington Pavilion. He immediately went to work creating the most wonderful and whimsical creatures which would inhabit his “Imaginarium”. Last Friday my wife Joan, my Mom and I went to see the show and reception for Steve. The show was even more enchanting than I had expected, and I’d expected a LOT. It was like walking into a backlit giant aquarium with these fish/creatures suspended on wires or mounted to pedestals, all glowing from within with lights of all colors. The Little Johnson fish (pictured) are crafted from vintage Johnson outboard boat motor cowlings, grandma’s wire wisks for fins and airhorns off of a Peterbuilt for tails. There was chrome from 50’s cars, tail lights from a Caddy ambulance and on and on. It was especially neat to see the gaggle of kids who accompanied parents to this show. I can’t begin to guess what was going on in their little brains, but I bet it was neat

Full disclosure: On occasion I’ll hook Steve up with some interesting items I find in my travels. It was surprising and delightful to find a few of those pieces artfully repurposed within the Imaginarum. It reminded me of the day when I found the words to describe the difference in what I do with old junk for repurposing and what Steve does as an artist. I can look at a late 50’s Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner, or a giant steel sieve sleeve from a long-ago combine or some whirly roof ventilators off of an old barn and say, “These things have style and personality. Someone could do something neat with them”. Steve however, can look at the same pieces and say, “These things have style, and I’m going to do THIS with them.” This creative invention is born in Steve’s brain in a millisecond.

Enjoy the photos, but If you’re in the Sioux Falls area stop in and see the show in person, which runs until the first week in January 2017. Bring along some cabbage if you have it and take something cool home with you. And in the process I hope you get to meet Steve, because there’s only one and he’s it. JT

 

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Bust A Move

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This month I was fortunate to receive the second freelance writing assignment of my long media career. Its for Dakotafire Magazine, a spirited and driven bi-monthly magazine dedicated to the revitalization of rural living in The Dakotas. I’m writing a story in the November-December edition, which explores how and why we live outdoors in the winter months, and how rural South Dakota communities might parlay winter outdoor resources into economic gain. My first freelance writing gig, by the way, was when I was 17, working for the Plainview News, writing game stories for the 1978 Plainview (MN) High School Gophers football squad as it battled week to week in the long-defunct but lovingly-remembered Hiawatha Valley League. The team lost more than it won, but the coverage was riveting. Or so I was told.

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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.

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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.

The Day The Earth Changed

It was exactly 15 years ago today just before 8am CDT. Dan Terhaar and the late Mark O’Connell were wrapping up the AM 1500 KSTP morning show when video popped up on the studio TV showing something crashing into the World Trade Center. I didn’t know it then but in that moment my career and life were about to change forever.

Radio the years before 9/11 was carefree. The economy was great. In Minnesota, things were cruising along so well it could afford to make Jesse Ventura governor. Money was flowing freely at work, and my station was soaring, having mastered a unique way of building comic and quirky shows using the news of the day as material. But on 9/11/2001, life got VERY serious VERY fast, and many of the station’s hosts had no idea how to go forward. One called me wanting to cancel his show as he had no idea what to talk about. Another went on air and immediately used the 50,000 watts to scream “Nuke all the Middle East bastards RIGHT NOW”. The enormity of the situation brought fear, and fear can manifest itself in very negative behaviors. A few individuals with news background, like O’Connell and the late Ron Rosenbaum, grabbed on and steered the boat straight, but it was abundantly clear the carefree days were OVER.

For me, the already high stress level went ballistic It exposed mental illnesses inside me which I didn’t know I had, and which I’d been coping with for decades in very unhealthy ways. Eventually I quit the job, but one set of stressors were quickly replaced with others. The mental illness and I spiraled downward. I eventually found an imperfect but sustainable pace, but it took chemical dependency treatment, a couple of exceptional doctors and health professionals to discover my mental health issues and get me constructive medical treatment. I also had a spouse who stuck with me when it would have been easier to bail on me and start over.

We’ve all been living with terrorism, war and tragedy (both individual and shared) for 15 years now. That’s 11 more years than the American Civil War, 11 more than WWII, and even longer than Viet Nam. With that much physical and mental stress and damage should we be surprised at all when the world or people in it goes crazy?

Whenever I meet someone or pass a stranger on the street I always try to say hello, show a smile and treat them kindly. The battle scars on the outside can be seen, but you never know the scars and wreckage they carry around on the inside.

(Note: I didn’t lose anyone in the 9/11 tragedy. I didn’t lose a family member or have one damaged physically or mentally in military action, although a family close to me lost a son. My damage is manageable. Their loss and sacrifice are permanent.)

Strange What You Remember

Memories are fickle. Sometimes they take you back gently, clouding over the bad spots and putting halos around the good. Other times the past returns and smacks you in the face. A couple of days ago Memories flashed me back to October 22, 1989 and punched me in the gut. Like countless others I stopped in my tracks upon learning that the Jacob Wetterling abduction case had been solved, the body found, and the abductor/killer in custody. After all the years of dead-end tips and broken hopes the case had the feel of a mystery which would never be solved. But there it was, in gruesome detail, all the answers to all the questions of what happened to an innocent 11 year old snatched off his bicycle at gunpoint near his home in tiny, safe St. Joseph, MN. The killer, Danny Heinrich, a serial child sexual predator currently charged with child pornography, confirmed every one of our darkest, worst-case nightmarish horrors: Sexual abuse, two bullets, two burials, other victims.

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Danny Heinrich

It’s strange what you remember. It was late in the evening of the Tuesday following the abduction. I was in Rochester, MN and the 28-year-old Program Director at KROC-AM. We were the only local station with a link to the state’s only satellite network.  A man named Douglas Wood, a neighbor of the Wetterlings, had written and recorded a song called “Jacob’s Hope” , which radio stations all over MN were asked to play at the same time the following morning, with the hope that Jacob would somehow hear the song wherever he was and somehow know people were looking for him.

Remember, this is 1989. no one was walking around with cell phones, email was extremely limited and nowhere near able to send audio files, no websites, no universally accessible satellite downlinks. There was no Amber Alert and no apps. The newsroom was just transitioning from electric typewriters to word processing. Not only was it impossible for stations to download the song, it was impossible to let them all know they were supposed to play it the next day. Impossible, except for the old-school ways. I remember getting one shot at capturing the satellite feed (got it), then made copies on reel to reel tapes. I then got in the car late at night and delivered those tapes one at a time to every radio station in town,

The sun was coming up by the time I finished my deliveries. Everyone got the song and played it the next morning at 10am. I knew in my heart the chances of that young man hearing that song were zero. It was an exercise which made no difference, other than give a state full of people a way to show they cared, wanted to help, but had no idea how.

I can’t imagine what the Wetterlings and those close to the case have gone through the past 27 years, and in the last few days. I hope I never have to know. The case was instrumental in making states create the first sex offender databases. It marked the end of small-town innocence in this part of the country. No more kids riding bikes and running unsupervised around small towns in the summer. Afterwards kid’s activities were supervised and scheduled. No more unlocked doors at night. The loss of trust.

Strange what you remember.