June is Busting Out

I can't believe how busy May was. I thought all you had in May was flowers ("April showers bring May flowers. What do Mayflowers bring? Pilgrims!"), but instead you have to cram in all the last minute deficiency reports from teachers, concerts, the calls from teachers who are "afraid that your son may not pass" their course, the graduations of dozens of strangers' kids, the spring high school sports tournaments, Mothers' Day, fishing opener, plant the garden, talk to contractors about getting city water hooked up (Goodbye, noisy old pump and well! Hello city water bill!), the Indy 500, women at work having babies and having to work overtime because they're gone..... I'm not complaining, I'm just fatigued.

School is out. I can tell, because when I came home for lunch today - the first day of summer vacation - the house was in shambles. It was 10am. (I work early, so I eat lunch early.) Clothes strewn all over the living room. Dirty dishes piled high in the sink. Newspapers all over the dining room table. Mixed in with the newpapers: crayons and other arts and crafts things. A huge pile of toast crumbs on the counter. Empty cat food cans next to the sink. The recliner was broken and in a permanent state of recline. And only ONE kid was up! Yes, the teenage boy was still fast asleep. I woke him up. It's going to be a long summer.

He is limited to what he can do for a job this summer. He will turn 15 this month, but for many jobs you must be 16. Good thing the house needs repainting, the lawn needs to be mowed every week, the deck needs restaining...it's a good thing everything is in disrepair so he can keep busy. (By the way, he passed everything, after all. Some by the skin of his teeth, and some with flying colors. He's very intelligent, but doesn't like to apply himself to things he can't see a need for in the future. Youth is wasted on the young!)

The garden is in: tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, peas, radishes and carrots. The strawberries are blooming, the raspberries are razzing anyone who walks by, and the asparagus has been aspering the gooses (??????). To those readers who live in more southern, gentle climates: here in the great white north, putting the garden in is a big profession of faith. Or maybe it's a crap shoot. It's hard to tell sometimes. A late frost in June can wipe out everything and you have to start over, but no one has ever come up with a variety of corn that matures in 30 days, or a watermelon or tomato that can ripen that quickly. So you take your chances that Mother Nature will be kind, and you put it all in the ground, and it grows, and you harvest what's left after the deer and the racoons have had their fill.

People think it's really neat that here in northern Minnesota we can wake up early to the sight of two deer walking slowly across the yard in the pre-dawn fog, the silver crescent moon hanging just over the dark-green pines, the eastern sky just beginning to show the faintest shade of pink. Those deer are walking slowly because they're bloated from the salad bar out back they think I planted just for them! The racoons have a regular maitre 'd and candlelight dinners, and the bears wander through the raspberries, strawberries and crabapples like it's the annual Taste of Zimmy's Garden Festival! Birds and chipmunks get more strawberries than I do, and the cat just rolls around in the dirt, soaking up the sun while the product of my sweat and backache gets devoured by furred and feathered transients.

Despite all my belly-achin', I really do love this time of the year. The only problem is: it's too short. I think we need to erect some giant fans and have them blow the opposite way the earth rotates. Maybe that way we can hold our current position, with the earth tilted at the angle that provides us with summer. The southern hemisphere would get used to the slightly cooler temps, and we'd be able to garden year-round. It's worth a try anyway, right?


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


Free Refills

My son still has nightmares about it. Even though it happened several years ago, the details of what happened that day are still vivid in his memory. They lurk just below the surface of consciousness, waiting for sleep to release them.

We were at a Bakers Square Restaurant in the Minneapolis when it happened. We were having a nice, normal meal during a weekend getaway to the Twin Cities. We had been to a Minnesota Twins game, and had spent a day at the Minnesota Science Museum and OmniTheater. I don't recall what feature was showing at the OmniTheater, and I don't recall whether the Twins won or not. I don't remember what hotel we stayed at. We had made this pilgrimage several times before, but nothing like this had ever happened. We were at the Bakers Square, filling the voids in our stomachs in anticipation of the trip home. It had been a good, family weekend. Then it happened.

The boy had been going through a growth spurt for a while, and was always hungry. Still is, for that matter. He is also always thirsty. Poison of choice: Mountain Dew. Plenty of caffeine, plenty of sugar. Gets you wired pretty quickly. The Bakers Square - come for the food, stay for the pie - offered free, bottomless refills on soft drinks. The boy had his usual half-pound hamburger and a large Mountain Dew. He drank the first Dew before the food came. He drank the second one during the inhalation of his meal. He drank the third while we were finishing ours. His eyes were starting to turn the golden color of Mountain Dew when the waitress came back with another refill. This fourth large glass went down slower than the first several. We were having after-dinner conversation and coffee by then. He had just finished the last, slow drink of the sweet, stimulant-laden beverage when the waitress appeared again and asked if he'd like another. His eyes began to dart back and forth, like the eyes of a chipmunk cornered by our cat. There was no exit. He was sitting in the inside part of the booth; nothing but wall and window to his right, and his "stupid sister" to the left. And a crazy woman asking him if he wanted a fifth Mountain Dew. His parents were just sitting there, looking at him with no measure of reproach, no looks filled with subtle messages, no glares, no hidden clues, just sitting there, waiting for his answer. It was his decision. It wasn't costing us any extra. An opportunity to drink as much as he wanted. But by now the half-pound burger and the four previous glasses of Mountain Dew were becoming friends in his stomach, and the message had finally begun to get through to his brain that he had eaten. Bright red-orange letters began igniting in his brain. Messages were coming in fast and furious from various portions of his anatomy. A signpost up ahead told him he had just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

He mumbled something about being full, and the waitress hesitated, then asked if he was sure. It was free. Bottomless. We told her to go ahead and bring him one more, and with a perky "OK" and a quick about-face, she was gone, returning in record-time with another large Mountain Dew. Total liquid volume if he drank all five: about a hundred ounces. That's nearly a gallon. He looked at the Dew and excused himself to go to the bathroom. He was gone for a long time. When he came back, he said he was ready to leave now. The Dew went untouched. To this day, when we go to the Cities and ask where the kids want to eat, Bakers Square is not on the list.

Jump ahead several years. Hometown. The boy is now in his fifteenth year. Saturday night we were at a local pizza establishment, and, partway through our meal, the waitress came by to check on things. Seeing his empty glass, she asked if he wanted more Mountain Dew. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, his breathing quickened, and his eyes started zipping from right to left, searching for exits. Struggling to regain control, he looked to me for a sign. I smiled slowly, seeing the terror behind his eyes as the scene from several years earlier at Bakers Square replayed itself on the movie screen in his brain. Finally I said I thought he'd had enough and we were about ready to go. Flashbacks can be a terrible thing to behold.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli



Growing up in a rural area of southwestern Minnesota in the 60s was a gastronomical delight. We're talking about potluck suppers and potluck dinners here, folks. The most incredible feasts a young boy could ever imagine.

Note: a potluck supper was Sunday evening. A potluck dinner was after church on Sunday. We didn't know anything about something called "brunch". It was unthinkable not to have had breakfast by 7:30A.M. at the latest, except on Saturdays. This concept of having a breakfast/lunch meal and calling it "brunch" was unheard of. Farmers would come in for coffee and a little lunch at midmorning. They'd had breakfast hours ago, and now it was time for coffee, a sandwich or two, cookies, bars and cake and maybe some milk or nectar (Kool-aid). Couple more hours, they'd be in for dinner, which was as large as the evening meal (supper). Middle of the afternoon was time for a little lunch, which was remarkably similar to the little lunch in the morning. Then more work til suppertime. After supper was bedtime.

The potluck supper was always the best. A potluck dinner after church on Sunday was good, but a potluck supper was the stuff dreams were made of. And, for a boy who would always o-d on cakes, pies and bars at these soirees, it was also the stuff more than a few nightmares were made of. The potluck supper was better because the women would spend all day getting ready. Reputations were made and reputations were lost based on the reception a new recipe got at the potluck supper. And summer potluck suppers were the pinnacle, as women trained and prepped for the big show in late July or August: The County Fair. Pies, pickles, breads, cakes, bars, cookies, all kinds of culinary delights were judged, graded and awarded at the county fair. And as a tuneup, a potluck supper could carry almost as much importance as the judging at the county fair. This was the Olympic trials, the qualifying heats, the prelims. Not only could women try out new recipes or variations on past champions, but they had time to make adjustments before the big event and size up the competition.

A typical potluck supper offered scalloped potatoes and ham, turkey noodle hotdish, chicken and rice hotdish, tuna noodle casserole, swedish meatballs, tater tot hotdish, a potato/hamburger hotdish, fried chicken and then many variations on these basic must-haves. There'd be scalloped corn, regular corn, creamed corn, creamed peas, buttered peas, plain green beans, green beans almondine, green beans with bacon and/or ham, pickles galore, breads and buns of many sizes, shapes and flavors, potato salads, pea, cheese and macaroni salad, three-bean salad, carrot-raisin salad, cole slaw, Waldorf salad and the many salad variations. Then came the jello salads. Orange jello with grated carrots and miniture marshmallows and whipped cream on top. Lime jello with the same ingredients, just a nice color contrast. Red jello with fruit cocktail mixed in. No one brought plain jello.

Plain jello implied:
A - you were a complete flop in the kitchen
B - you were just plain lazy, and probably didn't keep house very well, either
C - you were city woman who accidentally married a farmer and sat around all day doing your nails, curling/coloring your hair, reading gossip magazines, and wishing you could change your lot in life
D- you were having an affair, which usually went along with "C", or
E - you were a former Catholic or Episcopalion. Methodists and Lutherans had potlucks. Catholics had bingo. No one knew anything about Episcopalions.

Then came the motherlode, the apex, the acme: the dessert table. Everything else had been just a lead-in. This was the main event for a lad with a sweet tooth and parents busy talking with friends to notice how many times you piled your plate high with sweet, heavenly goodies made by farm women married to men who grew up with the addiction and needed a daily dose to maintain an even disposition. Strong coffee loaded with cream and sugar and cakes, bars, pies and cookies with even more sugar, butter, cream and eggs. Kept a man going between breakfast and dinner, and between dinner and supper.

Pink cake with pink frosting. Pink cake with white frosting. White cake with pink frosting. White cake with white frosting. White cake with chocolate frosting. Chocolate cake with white frosting. Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Angel food cake with frosting, angel food cake without frosting. Lemon bars. Apple bars. Apple pie, peach pie, rhubarb, blueberry, and cherry pies. A wider variety of cookies than you thought possible. Who WERE these women who could create these divine confections? Sure, your mom could cook and bake pretty good, even won some ribbons at the fair, but you were accustomed to the things she made, and could always pick them out at a potluck and skip them. You were here for the non-traditional. The cooks themselves were often hovering nearby to gauge the reaction to their masterpieces, and would positively light up at the sight of you coming back for seconds and thirds of their gustatorial offerings. After all, men - and fair judges - were just little boys in bigger bodies. If it worked on the little boy, it would work on the man.

People still hold potlucks - I've even been to one at a Catholic church! - but they're not the same. Hamburger Helper. Deli salads. Bakery breads and desserts. No one has the time or the inclination anymore. I married a recovering Catholic (see "E" above) who doesn't share my fond memories of these social gatherings/contests. Every so often I go to a smorgasbord and get a little misty as the memories take hold, but it's not the same. I firmly believe someone could make a million dollars off a chain of restaurants called "The Church Basement - Potluck Supper," and hire retired farm women to cook. Some long, folding tables with butcher paper taped on top, some brown, metal folding chairs and you're in business. And just like thirty-some years ago, I'd be the first in line to eat!


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


The Magical Allure of the Swirl

I really enjoy fishing. I don't do it often enough, but I still really enjoy fishing. When people say "It's not the fish, it's the fishing," it usually just means they didn't catch any fish. I like to catch fish, but sometimes it really is enough just to be there.

On a recent trip to southern Minnesota with my wife, I spent an afternoon down by a nameless river while she was putting on a workshop. After spending about an hour by the water and just soaking up sun and water smells and sounds, I got the itch. I had tossed a fishing rod and my tacklebox in the trunk of the car "just in case." I left the stretch of river where I had been sitting and drove through town to another little park where the river was wider and the people less plentiful. I had watched several young towheaded boys with angleworms and bobbers back by the dam where I had been, so I knew there must be some kind of life in the water. I walked along the bank for a ways, looking to see if any structure could be discerned through the murky brown water with the green July skin on top, but it wasn't about to give up any secrets. Then I saw it.

A hump of grass sticking up about twenty feet out. A swirl. A big swirl just on the far side edge of the grass. I put down the tacklebox, put the two sections of rod together and took out a plastic worm which had done me right a few days earlier on a stress-reliever with my friend Jack. I had taken four largemouth bass that evening, and each one had danced on the water as I reeled it in. So I felt pretty confident that if there was a bass keeping house just past the hump of grass, I could probably entice him to take a swipe or two at my plastic worm.

I really enjoy fishing and it doesn't matter if it's on a lake or on a river. The exciting thing about a river is you never know what you're going to find. It may be a big ol' walleye or a snaky little northern or a big hawg bass. You just never know. Of course, it could also be a slimy bullhead , carp, sucker, redhorse or other roughfish. But you just never know what's going to happen when you plunk that lure into the water and start to reel in. I have seen people spend forty-five minutes playing a 30-pound river cat. I have spent hours playing with little tiny sunnies and bluegills. I have spent long, lazy days floating down the Mississippi River, catching an occasional walleye, more than an occasional rock-bass (a red-eyed robber who always shows up when I'm fishing for walleyes), and dozens of perch and snake, slimy, razor-toothed northerns in the half- to one-pound range. The largest thing I ever caught in the river weighed fifteen pounds, and I caught it in the same spot where I had seen someone else lose it three days earlier.

I was on a solo mission on the Mississippi, just outside of town and just a ways downstream from the Pokegama Dam. I had just unloaded the boat into the water and was getting everything ready when an elderly man backed his boat down the landing. We got to chatting, and he told me it was only the second time he had taken the boat out. Brand new 14-foot Lund with a brand new 10-horse Evinrude motor. He had retired several years ago and his kids had finally talked him into getting a new boat, seeing as how he had plenty of time to fish and seeing as how we have a thousand lakes in our northern Minnesota county. First time out, she had nearly sunk when a bilge or livewell pump sprang a leak. Try again. So we exchanged other pleasantries, and I helped him unload, and then I went one way and he went another.

About a half-hour later, he came downstream to where I was drifting along a drop-off. He hadn't had any luck up by the dam, so he thought he would try along here. I told him there was plenty of room. So he trolled downstream a short ways, and I saw him drop anchor. A few minutes later, he was trolling back upstream past me. As he went by, I asked him why he was leaving so soon. In his brand new Lund with the brand new Evinrude motor. Said he had a brand new anchor to go with his brand new boat and motor. Still had the price tag on it from L&M Fleet Supply. In his preparations, he had neglected to attach the new anchor to anything in the boat. So when he dropped the anchor downstream from me, the anchor went straight down, and went it got done going down, took the rope right with it. So his brand new anchor with the price tag still on it was sitting on the bottom of the river. He'd had enough for one day.

Three days later I related that story to my fishing buddy, Jack, as we fished that same stretch of the river. I told Jack I was going to catch me a new anchor for my boat. Less than a half-hour later, I had a snag, which is very common for that stretch of the Mississippi, what with all the branches and logs from upstream floating downstream and sinking. As Jack trolled us back so I would have a better chance of freeing my hook without breaking the line, I could feel it coming up. Suddenly I saw a yellow color just below the surface. I had hooked the anchor rope tied to the anchor the retired gentleman had lost three days prior. I had not only hooked the anchor rope, but I had hooked it in just the right place so I could pull the rope to the surface and then haul up the anchor. I turned the anchor around, and there was the price tag from L&M. Jack and I laughed nonstop for about ten-minutes. He has since related the details of that fishing trip to numerous people, none of whom truly believe it. But it is true.

And it is also true you never know what you're going to catch when you fish a river.

So what was the swirl I saw just past the hump of grass on the nameless river in southern Minnesota? I don't know. I never caught anything that day. But then, it's the fishing, not the fish.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli



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