Monday, November 29, 2010

Tis the season....

Cooler Near the Lake
That gift giving season is indeed upon us and I know many of you are making your lists (and checking them twice) for your Holiday gift giving. I just might have an idea to help your gift giving along.

Yes, it's true...I'm hawking my book once again!  It's just that I've got all these books to sell and someone's got to do it. So run to your local bookstore to buy my book, Cooler Near the Lake... or order on line at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Here's my pitch....
"Cooler Near the Lake is a collection of Jim Heffernan's classic newspaper columns that spans his lengthy career in Duluth Minnesota as a popular newspaper writer and columnist for the (formerly) Knight Ridder Duluth News Tribune. Heffernan's writings are known for his wry humor, interesting perspectives on life and for capturing the colorful culture of northerneastern Minnesota. Also included in his book are unique perspectives on John F. Kennedy, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Gregory Peck and other famous people who visited Duluth. Heffernan, now a retired newspaper writer, continues his musings on a blog and writes a regular magazine column."
I've heard it's a great "bathroom reading" book or a book to keep by your bedside, to read a column at a time.  You can check it all out on my book web site too. (Click HERE.) And...thanks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turkey day: Time to flip that bird into the oven...

By Jim Heffernan

On Thanksgiving eve, as we were preparing to gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing the next day, I was intrigued by some of the contents of the Duluth daily newspaper.

Some ads got my attention first. Several large and well-known department stores would be open for business on Thanksgiving Day, they proclaimed.

You wonder if the Lord is blessing that move, although, whether the churches like it or not, Thanksgiving is a civil holiday, set by law. It is not in the Constitution itself, though, much to the chagrin of Tea Party partiers, you’d think. It’s founding fathers, not founding feathers.

But onward. One of the stores in the ad inserts that caught my attention advertised as a suggested Christmas gift a home brewing kit called “Mr. Beer.”

Mr. Beer. For Christmas. Under the tree. I was brought up in a more or less non- or anti-drinking (the anti- being observed more religiously than the non- in some cases) home and church environment in which even talk of drinking alcohol was pretty much taboo.

Now in 2010 we might find Mr. Beer under the Christmas tree? We should have seen this coming, Mr. Coffee having made such inroads, outlasting even Joe DiMaggio, who used to hawk the Mr. Coffee machines after his baseball and Marilyn Monroe careers. Who might be a good spokesperson for Mr. Beer? Send nominations to Milwaukee.

I hope I don’t receive a Mr. Beer set for Christmas. Maybe Mr. Vodka, but not Mr. Beer, thank you very much.

Setting aside the ad inserts, I found the potpourri of the day’s news on Page 2 most interesting. In keeping with recent trends (the past 2,000 years or so, give or take a millennium) the news was not good in this collection of snippets from the wires of the Associated Press and other sources. Some of it was appalling, but there it was, and I noticed.

Under the headline “Man found guilty of torturing teeen” (are teenagers getting so powerful they get three e’s now?), a guy in San Francisco was found guilty of the following charges: aggravated mayhem, torture, kidnapping and false imprisonment. You’d think just plain mayhem would do, but aggravated mayhem? Boy, this is one bad dude. Then on top of that “false” imprisonment? If he imprisoned the teeen, wouldn’t it have been “true” imprisonment? Inquiring minds do not want to know. This was enough.

Then, on the same page, a few headlines away, appeared this one: “Priest accused of trying to hire hit man.” Yes, a priest in Texas allegedly hired a hit man to erase (my word) a teenager who accused him of sexual abuse. Well, there’s a new low. At least aggravated mayhem didn’t involve erasing anybody. For the record, the priest was caught before the hit occurred.

It happened in what was described as, and I quote, “the West Texas community of Rock Springs, a rural enclave known for sheep and goat herding.” Now, I ask, why bring innocent sheep and goats into this priest abuse story? You wonder.

As an aside, I had thought that America had gone beyond sheep and goat herding. Afghanistan, yes. But Texas? Maybe we should let the state secede from the Union after all, as its Gov. Rick Perry, R-Mars, has suggested.

Finally, still on Page 2, we learned that young Bristol Palin – described as a 20-year-old single mom but we all know who HER mom is -- was finally eliminated from “Dancing With the Stars.” Said Bristol before the outcome: “Going out there and winning this would mean a lot. It would be like a big middle finger to all the people out there that hate my mom and hate me.”

I don’t know about you, but I was brought up in a home and church environment where even talk of raising a big middle finger to people was largely taboo.

But enough. We’d better get to flipping our bird into the oven. Twenty pounds this year. Weighs more than our late dog.

Happy Thanksgiving…in spite of it all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas City of the North parade memories: God save the queens...

By Jim Heffernan
Photo from Northland News Center's Christmas parade site
This is the week of the big Christmas City of the North parade, ushering in the holiday season for Duluth and the Northland.

The parade is a tradition that has lasted longer than most. Somehow, my own involvement, in one way or another, is also a tradition lasting longer than most.

I was a fledgling newspaper reporter in Duluth on Nov. 22, 1963, (I had worked at the Duluth Herald and News Tribune for about a month), the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

One of my duties that afternoon in the newsroom was to determine if the Christmas City of the North parade, scheduled for that night, would go on as planned in light of the assassination. I called the powers that were at WDSM-TV, the then sponsors, at about 3:30 p.m., a mere two hours after the assassination, and was told the parade would not be canceled. But about an hour later, after word had spread that the entire nation was shutting down, WDSM did cancel the parade.

The annual tradition was already so strong it took a presidential assassination to knock it out.

Much happier parade involvement for me followed. Just a year or two later, now a much more seasoned reporter, I was assigned to cover the parade for the newspaper. Parade coverage is pretty much up to the person writing it up – in other words you have a lot of latitude, and some longitude too. Good thing.

In those days, parade-sponsor WDSM was located across Superior Street from then Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza senior residences), and for the parade the television station would rent a corner hospitality suite off the ballroom overlooking the holiday promenade. The station stocked the room with things to drink – Tom and Jerrys prominent among them – and tasty treats to eat.

This was for visiting dignitaries who, after being driven through the parade in open cars, would be whisked back to Hotel Duluth on side streets and escorted to the then-WDSM hospitality room to “warm up.” It is quite easy to warm up in a room with an open bar, congenial TV station personnel and, oh yes, visiting queens after their arduous trip driven through the parade route in a white Cadillac convertible, top down.

Queens like Miss Minnesota, Miss Minneapolis Aquatennial (known as Queen of the Lakes), Miss St. Paul Winter Carnival, Miss Duluth, the Duchess of Duluth and a host of other misses and near-misses from throughout the northern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It was from this cozy, warm, well-stocked room that I would cover the always-chilly if not downright cold parade. If memory serves, I did it for two or three years running. Nice work if you can get it.

That first time stands out though. I had never met a Miss Minnesota or Miss Minneapolis Aquatennial or miss anything before. This, it must be recalled, was the era when these queens and the contests that selected them – all the way up to Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe – were taken seriously.

Still single, I welcomed the opportunity to be in the midst of such a dazzling array of young queens, tiaras gleaming, satin gowns draped over, one suspects, long underwear. Who could say what might result? I employed my usual technique for impressing women of my generation: Stand against a wall and depend on my innate animal magnetism to draw them to me – you could call it the Elvis Effect.

And as might be expected, the result was that I met very few of them, and those I did meet showed zero interest in getting to know me better, even though my teenage acne had disappeared and my hairline was still strong. These queens seemed to be more interested in older – to me, old – men like mayors of various area cities, in town for the parade and WDSM’s hospitality, not to mention leering TV personalities.

Oh, but I go on. Only a few years later, after some time off (my parade reporting having given way to more serious stuff like professional wrestling), I found myself again attending the Christmas parade, this time as a spectator, now married and with children. That became an annual holiday ritual until the kids grew out of it, and so did we.

But hold it. What seems like only a few years of taking the parade off, there we were again a few years ago, shepherding grandchildren through the throngs lining Superior Street on parade night.

We’ll be there again this Friday night, watching the bright eyes of the grandkids and the marching by of still another generation of area young people worried about being cold (at least their parents are), the brass players in high school bands concerned that their lips are going to stick to their instruments, but not those of their boyfriends and girlfriends. It never changes.

God save the queens – from freezing to death.

For more information about the Christmas City of the North Parade, check out Northland News Center's Christmas City of the North site HERE or the VisitDuluth site HERE.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Confessions of a quasi-veteran on Veterans Day...

By Jim Heffernan

This is a big week for American veterans, as I was reminded in a church service on Sunday (Nov. 7). In recognition of upcoming Veterans Day, they asked all veterans in the congregation to stand and be honored with a round of applause.

I didn’t stand, although I am a veteran of sorts. I served the Army, if not IN the Army, for six years in the 1960s, but only for six months plus two weeks every summer on active duty. Being a weekend warrior (oh yes, we spent one weekend a month on “active duty” too), I have never felt that I am a bona fide, genuine, real, 100 percent veteran.

So I didn’t stand with the grizzled old vets (most appeared to be of the Korean Conflict era) when the preacher invited them to rise. My father would have stood right up, though. He was a proud veteran of service during World War I, the end of which – eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 – is the reason Veterans Day is observed on Nov. 11.

My father was a sergeant and waiting on the East Coast to be shipped to France and trench warfare when the armistice was announced. Instead he and a few buddies did New York City, the only time he was ever there, and then came home, proud veterans. He was a charter member of the American Legion when it was organized in the 1920s and remained a loyal member for the rest of his life, which ended in 1971.

His Army service, in the telling, was a high point of his life. It was not such a high point of my life, but certainly memorable. As a member of the Minnesota National Guard (and later Army Reserve), I only had to serve six months on REAL active duty, but it’s the worst six months as a trainee.

Going from enlistee to soldier was accomplished in those days (as it no doubt is today in somewhat different form) in eight weeks of basic training, or, as some call it, “boot camp.”

Thinking all of this over in the intervening years, I have come to the conclusion that I was not cut out to be a soldier. Maybe it was because I was three or four years older than the majority of the men in my basic training unit. I had graduated from college and many of the other guys were fresh out of high school.

I think the older you are the more you question and analyze the techniques the Army used to mold civilians into soldiers. At that time, the main technique was fear, administered by Army-sanctioned bullies called “drill sergeants” who, in addition to their apparent 24/7 meanness and anger, were the finest cursers I have ever known, with the oaths directed indiscriminately at individuals and groups. Many intimate body parts were mentioned, in addition to some of their purposes, including procreation.

It was not a good sign – at least I didn’t think it was after being trucked into a quadrant of buildings (barracks left over from World War II) -- that three of the sergeants administering our eight-week punishment were named Savage, Poison and Drear. I am not making that up, although I have altered the spelling a bit for effect. Poison spelled it Poisson, and Drear’s name was spelled Dreher.

Theirs was not an easy job, having to act angry all the time, leading troops on long marches through muddy Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., overseeing maintenance of barracks that involved constant mopping, wiping and polishing (including toilets) on the parts of their charges, getting up at 4:30 every morning in time to shake the bunks of sleepy soldiers-to-be.

In retrospect, I almost feel sorry for the sergeants, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. I felt sorry for me. Oh well, it was an experience.

One of the most interesting experiences was watching the sergeants’ favorite recruit, a Private Stahr, get out of almost all of the training due to alleged football injuries and other ailments. Stahr was a bulldog looking guy with a thick gorilla-style neck, who, it was rumored around the barracks, had been a professional football player -- nobody knew what team. Bart Starr was a Green Bay Packers standout in that era and the similarity in names rubbed off on our Stahr, for no sensible reason, but it did.

He did look like he could clean the clock of anyone who challenged him, and I think the sergeants were in awe of him, even a little afraid to get tough with him. The result was that Stahr spent most of his time in the barracks, reading and relaxing, while the rest of us tromped off – often at double time -- on what seemed like death marches. It was explained that Stahr’s old football injuries had cropped up, but, as the sergeants often put it, if Stahr could participate in the training he’d show you wimps what a real man was like.

I wonder if Stahr would have stood up last Sunday in church to be honored as a veteran. He was a six-monther like me who, it was rumored, would be drafted by the National Football League as soon as he got out of the National Guard, not sure which team, or if the injuries that prevented him from the tough stuff of boot camp would have healed in time for the next gridiron season.

But, as stated, I did not stand up to be honored. I looked around at the old vets who did stand up with great respect. Some had undoubtedly been shot at in Korea, and laid their lives on the line. Some might have spent their military time behind a typewriter. Armies need both.

So happy Veterans Day, or, as my father always put it, “Armistice Day.” Good thing they changed the name. There have been at least six wars involving America since 1918, including the two going on right now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Minnesota Elections: A Housecleaning in More Ways Than One...

By Jim Heffernan

Minnesota State Capitol–St. Paul Minnesota
A few thoughts on the election in Minnesota…

The legislature has changed hands, with Republicans gaining majorities in both the state House and Senate for the first time since, let’s see, maybe since Eve said to Adam, “Hey, Adam honey, come over here and try this apple.” Something like that.

But we all vote (well, we don’t all vote, but a lot of us do) and hope our candidates will win (not all of them do, but some of them do) and do what we want them to do when the Legislature convenes in January. Election over; let’s get on with our lives and let the politicians get on with theirs.

But it’s never over for winners of seats in the Minnesota Legislature. Republicans, who have now gained control of both houses, and Democrats, who have had power for so long, resent one another, not to say dislike one another. Why not say it – sometimes they truly dislike one another.

I have spent time at the Minnesota capitol during a legislative session, and here is what I experienced: Democrats take you aside and complain about Republicans and Republicans take you aside and complain about Democrats. Talk about policy issues that might, just might, benefit the state and its people is secondary.

What follows is one reason why they so resent one another -- that almost never gets reported.

When a party has a majority in either house, or, as often happens, in both houses, that party’s leaders and members have their pick of offices in the capitol. Members of the party in power choose offices closest to the chambers of the House and Senate, and also the largest offices with the best views of the capitol grounds, the towers of St. Paul in the background.

Lawmakers in the majority get to choose these nice offices, personalizing them with photographs (family scenes, poses with high officials like a president) and art on the walls, knick-knacks on their desks and favorite books. Comfortable chairs are positioned for cozy conferences with constituents or school kids who are brought there for lessons in Democracy. There was a time – I don’t know if it’s still the case – that some offices had liquor cabinets where lawmakers of the same political persuasion would gather, say, at the end of the day (or after breakfast, for that matter) for a nip of scotch, a sip of vodka, or even a humble beer.

These nice offices, close to the House or Senate chambers, become a home away from home for the lawmakers, a comfort zone, a place to reflect on how accomplished and important they are, how far they’ve come in life, and where they can have thoughts like, if only gramps and gramma could see me now. Oh, and sometimes they conduct the state’s business, which most see as their party’s business.

A person can get attached to such surroundings, even enjoying a feeling of ownership, although everybody knows the offices are owned by the state, or, as they say, “we the people.”

So, when we the people speak and say we want the OTHER political party to run things, guess what? Members of the victorious political party tell the movers to vacate the nice offices of the newly minted minority – the desks, the pictures, the knick-knacks, the opposing lawmakers themselves, who are so comfortably ensconced – and gather their stuff from a much less desirable office in the basement, or even a nearby building and move into the rooms with a view.

The lawmakers who survived the election but whose party is no longer in power get to move into the dingy basement offices formerly occupied by some of the people who will be moving into their nice offices.

That’s the way it works.

So if you ever talk quietly with a lawmaker and he or she rails against lawmakers of the other party, you’ll know one reason why they resent each other so much. It’s not fun to be kicked out of your home away from home.

And it’s coming to Minnesota in January.