Coming Clean At Last

The following is true ... mostly. In the first grade, 6-year-old Danny Brown was struck in the head with a metal lunchbox by classmate Mary Spranger after he tried to push her into a busy street while they were walking home from school. Mary's older brother, Pete, the only witness to the entire incident, did not defend her honor, which is why she chose to clock Danny Brown.

It's not fair. You hit one person in the head with a lunchbox full of buckeyes and you're labeled for life. It ain't fair, I tell ya!

Today the headlines would shout: "Boy Assaulted by 6-year-old Girl with Lunchbox Full of Buckeyes." Back then, though, it was quickly hushed up. But, more than thirty years later, people still bring it up. You can't escape it.

It's like the lone survivor of a plane crash who is only able to survive the ordeal by resorting to cannibalism. You eat one person, and you're labeled a cannibal for life. People start telling cannibal jokes when you're not in the room and then have to delay the punchline if you come in. "Why don't cannibals eat clowns? They taste funny!"

Okay, okay. Maybe they're not on the same level on the heinous scale, but you're still haunted by your past the same as a plane-crash-survivor-turned-cannibal who prefers blondes (with mushrooms and a nice white wine).

This stuff follows you around for a long time, sometimes your entire life. People find out you're the one who did the dastardly deed and suddenly they start to look at you differently.

They all move to the other side of the copy room at work when you come in. They laugh nervously when the subject of your crime is accidentally or unavoidably brought up, and may even back away a little bit. Others crouch in a corner and cover their head with a wastebasket and whimper.

You try to move on with your life, but they won't let you. Just when you think everyone has forgotten, someone will pick up a lunchbox and innocently ask "I wonder how many buckeyes would fit in here? Do you know, Mom?" And there it is.

It all comes rushing back, like it was only yesterday. You hear the taunting in his voice and remember the hot flush in your cheeks as he tried to push you into the street.

In a white-hot moment of angry passion you reacted without thinking, swinging the lunchbox you had just filled with the chocolate-brown chestnuts, the arc of your swing straight and true to his forehead.

You remember the horror of seeing the blood flowing from where you had connected. You remember it all.

You remember your mom telling his mom that he deserved it, and how sweet those words sounded to your ears. You had never loved her quite as much before as you did at that moment.

The excitement died down eventually, and you thought it had been long forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until that day so many years, miles and towns later when the mysterious Christmas gift showed up under the tree like a Ghost of Christmas Past, unbidden to our family celebration.

You pulled the wrapping off to reveal the contents: a miniature lunchbox, new, but not empty. It was heavier than it should have been, and it rattled in your hand. You opened it, and the color drained from your face as you gazed upon the tools of your shame. Inside the miniature lunchbox several chocolate-brown chestnuts gazed back at you. Someone knew!

It was at that point I knew we'd be moving again, maybe this time to a town where the only chestnuts they know are the ones you sing about roasting over an open fire.

Maybe to a town with a known cannibal, so my lunchbox-swinging wife can blend into the background and find peace at last.


Copyright ©2004 Mike Zimmerli All Rights Reserved

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Living the Dream

I've been sleeping with a college girl, and now I'm sleeping with a college graduate. And my wife knows all about it. And she's ok with it. Honest.

Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing my wife take that special stroll across the stage at Concordia University in St. Paul to receive her degree in Organizational Management and Communications. I can't exactly call it a four-year degree because she started in 1980, so let's call it a twenty-four year degree.

It doesn't matter how long it took her to finally finish. What matters is that she finished. It was something she wanted very badly, and she found a way to do it.

After first going back to school at Itasca Community College here in Grand Rapids, MN to get her AA, she discovered the accelerated program through Concordia. For eighteen months, she drove the 70 miles to Cloquet every Wednesday afternoon for four hours of evening classes at Fond du Lac Community College, and then drove home again.

Meanwhile, she was also busy working full-time, being a mom to a high school senior and a wife to me. In the middle she tacked on the responsibility of being a surrogate mom to a foreign-exchange student for nine-months.

Mary in front of the sign at her new alma mater.

Yes, we called her "SuperMom." OK. We really didn't. We usually were so into our own lives that we ignored the load she had taken on and expected her to solve our problems like she always does. We SHOULD have called her "SuperMom," because she was and still is.

Actually she's more of "SuperWife" now, since our youngest has finished her first year of college and is no longer calling our nest her permanent roost. She'll finish at ICC next year. Our son and his wife are graduating this weekend from Shepherd College in West Virginia and then moving to Wisconsin this summer to start grad school.

There are no more babies to raise. We are DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). Empty nesters. So, we're pulling up stakes and leaving the Northland we have called home for 17 years to start the next chapter in the book of our life together. For the first time in 24 years, it's just the two of us.

(L-R: Nadine, Becca and Adam)
We've almost wrapped up the sale of the house, we've sold most of our belongings and we have set our sights on the warm, sunny shores of coastal Georgia. We're not retiring, just relocating. We're pursuing a dream we've shared for quite a few years.

There's a quiet little town on the Florida/Georgia border called St. Marys (no apostrophe). It's the second-oldest city in the United States, located just an hour up the coast from the oldest city, St. Augustine, FL.

St. Marys has a rock shrimp festival in the fall. There's a crawfish festival in April. They just opened a new waterpark this spring. The HGTV Dream House 2004 is located there (we entered the giveaway but didn't win).

They have live oaks with Spanish moss. They have palm trees. They have flowers blooming in March. They have warm ocean breezes. They have a very long growing season. They don't have snowmobiles or ice-fishing.

While many people tell me "You'll miss the snow. You'll miss the four seasons." I say it's a chance I have to take. I must say that I will miss the people I have come to know in the last 17 years more than I will miss anything else. This has been the best place in the world to raise my family, and I wouldn't change that. But miss the snow? Get serious!

They actually have had snow in St. Marys, though. It was the winter of 1988-89. The 1-inch snowfall covered the front lawn at the old Presbyterian church so they took a picture of it and hung it in the local museum.

It was the same winter that snowfall amounts here caused our garage roof to collapse. I think the dream was born as we looked at the garage rafters laying across the car that cold Super Bowl Sunday morning.

You'll probably notice a few new phrases appearing in my stories as we pick up the local vernacular, such as y'all and its plural: all y'all's. And I may need to rename my column which appears here and in the Grand Rapids, MN newspaper. Maybe we'll call it Southern Exposure by Mike Zimmerli.

(Maybe I can get it published in the local St. Marys paper and call it That Damn Yankee!)

I'll try not to gloat too much when I plant tomatoes in February and harvest them in April. And at Christmas, I promise to go to the museum and look at the picture of snow and think of all y'all's. And I'll smile.


Copyright ©2004 Mike Zimmerli All Rights Reserved

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Waffle House Today?

How y'all doin'? That's what people here in the South say when you meet them. Not Hi, Hello, Hey (ala Goober) or even the simple, yet elegantly adequate, upward head tilt. The proper greeting is How y'all doin'?, sometimes shortened to just How y'all?

And yes, if you ask, they will tell you.

I think so many people from New York and New Jersey came through here enroute to winter vacations in Florida that a variation of their standard greeting - How you doin'? - took root here in coastal Georgia's sandy soil. Although I suppose the opposite could be true...

It has been an educational experience as well as an aural workout getting acclimated to our newly adopted home here in Kingsland, Georgia. Let me give you a quick example.

Here in Georgia you change the oil in your car or truck and the people here eat boiled peanuts. At least, that's the way it's spelled. However, in each case, the letters "oil" rhyme with bowl, as in what you do at Midway Bowl. So you get the "owl" changed in your car, bring the water to a "bowl," line the grill in tin "fowl" (foil), etc. You get the idea.

So let me share our difficulty in church one Sunday. First was the announcement that we could buy a bushel of boiled peanuts (pronounced bowled pay-nuhts) for a fundraiser. Bowled = boiled. Easily translated.

A little later, though, the pastor said "Are you being bold for the Lord ..." Now we were a bit confused. Bold=Boiled? Yes, it's been hot, but no, we haven't been boiled for the Lord or anyone else, for that matter. We had difficulty not giggling out loud.

(How y'all doin'? Are you keeping up? Bless your heart, cuz there's more.)

They ain't no car accidents round here, neither. But they do have a lot of car wrecks. And every restaurant serves sweet tea, which is kind of like tea-flavored Kool-Aid.

Instead of going to a cafe for breakfast, we go to a Huddle House or a Waffle House. Anyone who has been south of the Mason-Dixon line has seen these little temples to cholesterol. There is no Minnesota version. You just have to experience it. Once.

The best comparison I can make to the Huddle/Waffle house experience is the old Happy Chef restaurants. Not the new ones with the extra dining rooms and salad bars, etc. The old ones when they first became popular and there was one in every hub city across the southern half of Minnesota. If you remember those, you can get a pass to skip the stop at the Waffle House. Unless you miss that sort of thing, in which case, c'mon down!

Anything of any size is described as big ol.' Our neighbor, Gordon, has two big ol' German Shepherd dawgs. Another neighbor, Bubba (I kid you not), has a big ol' truck. Bubba is from Texas and is stationed at the nuclear (pronounced newk-yoo-ler) submarine base here.

We have lizards that crawl on the outside of the house and look in the windows of the office at us. We think they're cute now. After only a month we no longer marvel (aloud) at the palm trees that are everywhere. Like the majority of folks here, we live in a one-story house on a slab with no basement. Unlike most people, though, we can still fit our cars in our garage.

Our first church potluck introduced us to green beans allowed to grow too long "a-for" being picked and then cooked to within an inch of their life, even a bit beyond. We encountered okra as a side dish. Crowder peas. Hop'n John. Beans and fatback. Fatback by itself.

We've adjusted to the heat. I did have to gain a bit of respect for it the hard way, via a case of heat exhaustion brought on by mowing the lawn in the heat of day without pre-hydrating or stopping in the middle to rest and get more water. No trip the E.R. was needed, but my wife shadowed me the rest of the day.

The sting of my folly was lessened somewhat by an email from my older brother in Texas admitting to a similar experience the weekend before. And he's lived there for more than twenty years and should really know better, bless his heart.

And somehow, none of it is worth getting riled up about. We have met some very nice people who have been warm and welcoming to us. (Our neighbors DID say they had never ever had anyone move in and come over and introduce themselves, but hey! It's called Minnesota Nice. We don't know any better!) It's a little warmer, so you walk a little slower and you talk a little slower. But we think it's right nice here, and we're staying.

One last comparison. Minnesota has crows and skunks. Everywhere. The skunks used to like to root around in the yards of our old neighborhood at night, looking for snacks. In Georgia we get visited by an armadillo several times a week, digging for grubs in the yard. Fences pose no obstacle, as they simply burrow underneath.

Crows were the highway roadkill cleanup crews in Minnesota, but in Georgia that happy task falls to black vultures. The second Sunday after we arrived here we were driving to church when we saw about six vultures on the road ahead cleaning up a possum that had been hit the night before.

Do you suppose they consider a dead armadillo on the road a box lunch?


Copyright ©2004 Mike Zimmerli All Rights Reserved

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