Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Gift: When my Grandma played Jingle Bells

Note: My mother, Ruth Heffernan (a local church organist and choir director, now deceased), could play the piano with skill and feeling. It was when Ruth sat down at the piano at Christmas time to play for her family a thrilling rendition of Jingle Bells that the magic of Christmas was realized by us all. My son, now grown and the father of three young boys, writes (below) his recollections as a youth experiencing Ruth at the piano at Christmas, especially playing Jingle Bells. Jim Heffernan

By Patrick Heffernan
I cannot describe the way my grandma could play the piano, but I will try. She had a natural gift for playing and could play anything she heard by ear immediately. She enhanced this gift with about 57 years of being a church organist and also giving piano lessons for much of her life. Unless you’ve been in presence and up close – I mean right by the piano- with someone who can play like she could, you simply can’t understand it. Her hands would fly; her feet would frantically press the pedals as she would make the piano sound like an orchestra or a big band, depending on the piece she played.  

Of course my grandma could play everything including beautiful, complex piano pieces, but in my mind there was one song that she played that was far and away her very best. That song was Jingle Bells. My sister and I loved her version of Jingle Bells so much that we would request she play it year 'round. Many times she would arrive at our house for a Sunday dinner in the middle of the summer to be greeted at the door by my sister and me begging her to play, of all things, Jingle Bells. Now I understand that it probably gave her great joy to play the piano with two of her grandchildren right by her side. I know it gave us great joy.

My Grandma’s version of Jingle Bells was incredible. She’d sit down and quietly start as we began “dashing through the snow". The song and the sounds would build and build with her hands frantically flying way, way up into the air while the keys were pressed all over the place–the left hand creating a deep booming almost drum-like beat while her right hand was way up creating the sounds of bells.   Those hands of hers…now I look back and realize, especially in her later years, they probably looked frail, but to me they looked like pure magic. I can honestly remember grabbing her hands after she played to see if she had more than the usual ten fingers. 

The song built and built–one time I think I may have seen a spark fly from the piano as the keys caused those strings within the piano to scream a beautiful sound.  At some point each time she would play, I would wonder if maybe, just maybe, even in the middle of summer, we would get a visit from someone who we called “The Jolly Old Elf” but most call Santa Claus. 

On that note, you don’t need to take my word on her piano playing, just ask Santa how my Grandma could play Jingle Bells. You see, each year on Christmas Eve we would gather with a bunch of family members and enjoy Christmas together. After all the food was eaten and all the dishes were done it was finally time for my Grandma to make her way to the piano–it seemed like it was 2 am to me but probably more like 8 pm. My little grandma would sit at the piano and begin my favorite song-and it was pure joy. Just like every other time it would build and build. But on Christmas Eve it got so loud that way, way up in the sky Santa could hear it. Can you imagine the chaos of that evening for Santa, the elves and the reindeer? At this point they were probably running behind so he had the reindeer going full tilt through the freezing sky. 

“On Dasher, On Dancer, On Comet, On Cupid” as he cracked his whip into midair. “On Donner, On Blitzen……whoa…..whoa…… Ruth Anna Aurora Heffernan is at the piano! To Duluth we go!” So down the reindeer would dive and they would go into a free fall pointing directly at Duluth, Minnesota.  I imagine Santa would arrive and peek in a window and see my grandma playing with all the kids around smiling at her playing and all the adults around smiling at the kids smiling, and of course, the song. I’d bet at this point he would say “now that is a gift”. Just about at the end of the magical song the doorbell would ring and there would be Santa. We’d hear the bells ringing and he would pass in a big, huge bag of gifts for the kids. We’d run to the door to catch a glimpse of him but, sure enough, by the time we got there he was on his way.

Every single Christmas Eve went exactly this way and it was pure joy for the young and I’m sure for the old, too. What could be better than being all together and having my grandma play Jingle Bells?   But just like everyone else, my Grandma started to get a bit older. One year it was time for her to move out of her house and into a nursing home. Her old piano happily found a home at my parents’ house where it still sits. I was about 10 years old at this point, so my memories are that of a child. I remember visiting her at the nursing home and finding she was getting foggier and foggier. I didn’t know it then, but I now realize as an adult that elderly loved-ones march into heaven too fast for your heart and too slow for your head. This was the case for my Grandma.     

I remember one time in particular my dad and I visited her and she didn’t seem to know who we were- pretty confusing for a ten year old. But I think I started to understand what was happening, as much as I didn’t want to accept it. At this time, we decided to see if she could still play the old piano. Life is pretty funny; while time and her advanced age had taken her ability to walk and her ability to reason, it had not taken her amazing ability to play the piano. Almost instinctively, I asked her to play my favorite song. And away she went, playing Jingle Bells just as good as she always did. I can assure you, that nursing home piano had never, ever been played like that–not even close. Yet again, I wondered if just maybe the Jolly Old Elf would come walking in the nursing home and in the room. 

That would be the last time I would hear her play her magical version of that song. After all those years of her playing Jingle Bells on Christmas Eve, I knew I would miss it on that special night and I sure do.  But I soon realized that, even if she wasn’t here with me, my Grandma playing Jingle Bells would be with me forever. I’m sure my grandma gave me many thoughtful gifts over the years–toys, hockey stuff, and games, but the only one I remember is the one she played on the piano for all of us. And oh, what a gift it was.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories: The Coal Man cometh, with the Night Stalker not far behind...

By Jim Heffernan
One of my grandsons, a five-year-old kindergartner, is concerned that he might be getting a lump of coal for Christmas. We all know why he has that concern, although lumps of coal aren’t as prevalent these days as they used to be.

A lump of coal for misbehaving was not part of my Christmas tradition growing up. We heated our home with oil, assuaging any concerns I might have had. Our next-door neighbor heated with coal, though, and I think the excitement and drama of the arrival of the “coal man” has been lost in our time.

Coal was the main source of furnace fuel when I was a child, and throughout the winter large trucks loaded with it crisscrossed the city in winter. Their boxes had a sliding trap-like door at the back with a handle that, when lifted, would release the coal into a chute positioned so that the coal could fall directly into houses basement coal bins.

If the truck couldn’t maneuver close enough, the coal man – a grim looking fellow covered from head to toe with coal dust – would load a wheelbarrow and push it into position above the coal chute. Coal was king well into the era that Nat King Cole started singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire (over coal?).

The thing that intrigued children about the process was the hope – never fulfilled – that they could slide down the coal chute into the coal bin. Nobody in my neighborhood ever pulled that off, probably realizing that when they completed their slide they would be, like the coal man and a certain jolly old elf, covered with black ashes and soot, the result being the threat of receiving only a lump of coal for Christmas.

But rest assured, the threat of receiving a lump of coal instead of colorfully wrapped gifts beneath the Christmas tree still exists, as witness my grandson who might never have even seen a lump of coal, unless charcoal for a grill counts. I suppose it does.

But enough coal. In keeping with the Christmas theme of this reminiscence, this week I heard a program on National Public Radio that devoted fully half an hour to discussion of the movie “A Christmas Story,” which has become as much a Christmas entertainment tradition as “White Christmas” (or Not-So-White Christmases in the coal era.)

People love that 1983 movie about the boy, Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and whose adventures leading up to the grand holiday include getting his tongue caught on a metal pole, encountering and triumphing over a neighborhood bully, a fall in his snowsuit so stuffed that he couldn’t get up by himself, and a nightmarish visit to a department store Santa Claus and his elves. No further description is needed – everyone surely has seen this delightful romp written by Jean Shepard, one best humor writers of the 20th century.

I was reminded, listening to the radio program, that actor Darren McGavin played Ralphie’s father, he of the living room leg lamp. If you have seen the movie, you know what I mean by leg lamp; if you haven’t go straight to Target where I notice they are selling them this year.

McGavin had earlier played a character on TV called “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” in which the title character investigated strange crimes of violence that the police had given up on. At the time, mid-‘70s, I was writing a column for the Duluth News Tribune and devoted one to “The Night Stalker.” I can’t recall what I wrote, but somehow in that pre-Internet era it caught the attention of McGavin himself.

Soon after I received a box in the mail from a Hollywood studio containing a nice personal note from McGavin thanking me for mentioning his show in the paper, and a narrow-brimmed straw hat, a replica of one the actor wore in his role as Kolchak (or should I spell it Coalchak?).

I wore the hat once, on Halloween one year, and now it has disappeared from my hat bag. (I do have one; it contains, among other hats, my father’s World War I “Smokey the Bear”-style uniform hat and my own coonskin cap from my Davy Crockett years.)

McGavin died in 2006, the gospel according to Google reports, hastening to add, “of natural causes.” No night stalker involved, nor any coal men, I trust.

Oh... and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Devil missing from hell; said lurking in details...

By Jim Heffernan
Here’s some good news you won’t find in the mainstream media – just in time for the holidays.

DATELINE HELL -- Officials here announced today that the devil has gone missing. “Our ruler disappeared from his golden throne the day after Thanksgiving and hasn’t been heard from since,” a Hades spokesman stated in a terse message. He denied the disappearance had anything to do with Black Friday, a perennial favorite of the prince of darkness.

Christians and others around the planet, together with multitudes already in heaven, were jubilant, although U.S. church authorities urged caution before jumping to the conclusion that the devil is dead. “Without the devil, of course, there would be no need for the churches,” said a retired Episcopal bishop who asked not to be identified by name for fear of being struck down.

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI said Catholics should celebrate the news in Christmas masses, and veteran protestant evangelist Billy Graham issued a statement from his hospital bed expressing hope that reports of the devil’s demise are true. “If they are, I’ve finally won,” Graham exuded.

President Obama spoke briefly from the Rose Garden, saying, “First we got Osama bin Ladin and now I am pleased to learn that Satan might also be eliminated.” Obama faces a tough election next year.

The surprising news had the effect of shaking leading Republican candidates for president, catching them off guard. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn the devil had taken up residence in the White House, “where he has often been a guest.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been rising in the polls, said on Fox News, “Beelzebub is a wily character who throughout history has been known to show up at various times and various places outside of his home base. I know him well, and he’ll be back.”

In a statement from the Netherworld, where he has resided since his death in 1972, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said his agents know exactly where he is. “The devil is in the details,” said the disgraced ex-top cop.

Film at 10.

Monday, November 28, 2011

When wolves almost got the deerslayer...

By Jim Heffernan
Firearms deer hunting season is over in Minnesota, but the Wisconsin nimrods are still going at it.  I do not hunt, but my father did – deer only. Never partridge or ducks in the years our lives overlapped.

The old dad, George, died 40 years ago this month, and with deer season and that anniversary plying my mind, I recalled the time he and his three hunting buddies (they were known to their wives as the Four Horsemen) went beyond their normal range well into the 
wilds of extreme northern Minnesota to Mizpah, up there by Northome, in Koochiching County. We all know that terrain, right?

They stayed in a hunting camp with a bunch of other deerslayers, and, unlike today when most hunters climb aloft into camo-draped stands and wait for deer to wander by, my father’s generation of hunters did the wandering around in the woods and frozen swamps hoping to encounter unlucky deer.

I must have been about 10 years old, putting this hunting expedition in about 1950. Could have been ’49 or ’48. In any event, when George returned, he had quite a tale to tell, one I believe to this day because he was not a fibber or enhancer. He truly believed he had stared down a pack of wolves in a clearing somewhere near Mizpah as he hunted alone.

Here’s how he described it. He had set his rifle – his trusty pump-action Remington 30 – against a sapling in the middle of the clearing to light a smoke when all of a sudden an unseen wolf howled from the nearby denser ticket. Then another howled a short distance from the first. Then another, and another.

George believed he might be their next meal. So he forgot about the smoke and slowly reached down, picked up his rifle and stood his ground. He believed if he showed fear or tried to run he would have been attacked. 

So he just stood there, rifle at the ready, and eventually – I suppose it was just a few minutes – the sounds disappeared. He said he never saw a wolf, only heard them.

Back at camp that evening, he was told by locals that wolves had attacked a hunter once and all they found were his boots, with his feet inside.

Can this story be true? George was not given to hyperbole that I know of. Certainly not with the family. But I have come to learn that cases of wolves attacking humans are virtually nonexistent. And if there were wolves surrounding him, they didn’t attack. He believed it was because he didn’t panic.

I only remember him bringing home one deer in the years he hunted. The gutted doe was hauled into the basement of our house to await the grisly ministrations of the Four Horsemen, which involved skinning the animal a short time later in a shop of one of his companions as we children watched. I found the process fascinating at the time, but nothing I would care to partake of as an adult.

George continued to hunt well into his elderly years, seeking other companions after the other three “Horsemen” died. Then he joined them 40 years ago, leaving two sons who never took up hunting, maybe because he never took us with him when we were young.

Come each deer season, I never feel the urge to join the thousands who take to the woods in search of venison. I just can’t bring myself to kill a brown-eyed mammal.

Moral: If you’re going to hunt around Mizpah, be sure your toenails are neatly trimmed. Just in case.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reflections on 11/11/11: The ignominious final salute to an ancient uniform...

By Jim Heffernan
WWI campaign hat
 Veterans Day 2011, or, as everyone has noticed, 11/11/11. The first Veterans Day – marking the armistice among the World War I belligerents – was signed on 11/11/18, but has often been referred to as 11/11/11, with the final eleven connoting 11 o’clock in the morning, the official time when everybody was supposed to stop shooting.

The observance used to be called Armistice Day until that name became obsolete with subsequent wars.

My father was in the U.S. Army during World War I, a training sergeant stationed at a base in California. Finally, when his unit was going be sent overseas, the men boarded a cross-country train in San Francisco. While they encamped at Camp Kilmer, N.J., before boarding ships to the front in France, along came 11/11/18 and the unit was kept stateside.

All of this took place long before I was born. But after mustering out the service and returning to Duluth, he kept his uniform, first when he joined his mother and father in their home, and later in their own home when he and my mother married. By the time I came along, the uniform hung on a wooden hanger in the basement of my childhood home in what we called the oil room. That was the room containing the big tank for oil to fuel our furnace.

Why he hung it in the dark and greasy oil room, I don’t know. It just hung on the wall there, year after year, deteriorating – the tunic, jodhpur style pants that laced at the bottom, and what we have come to regard as a “Smoky Bear” hat.

After the folks died many years ago and the old homestead was sold, I took the World War I uniform with me to my own home and hung it in my garage for about 20 years, where it became more and more moth-eaten, and then brought it with me to our next home and into that home’s garage – for another 15 years.

Finally, in our most recent move to a condominium, I decided I’d better get rid of what had become a valueless antique, unless you value artifacts of history. I brought it to the Veterans’ Hall at the Duluth Depot but they didn’t want it. Nor did they want my own Class A (dress) uniform from my Army/National Guard/Reserve days, nor an “Eisenhower” style wool uniform my brother had worn when he served in the early ‘50s. Too many uniforms in their collection, we were told.

The World War I outfit was in bad shape; little wonder they didn’t want that. The Duluth Playhouse gladly added my uniform and my brother’s to its collection, but I took the moth-eaten old uniform back home again.

WWI sergeant stripes
Finally, knowing there was nothing I could do with it, I tore off the sergeant’s strips on the sleeves, saved the ancient buttons, and stuffed the rest of the uniform my father had so proudly worn some 90 years earlier in the garbage can, an ignominious end to a piece of cloth representing so much American history.

On garbage day, I made a point to watch as the truck hoisted the plastic can into the air, making me think of a snappy salute, and dumped the uniform into its refuse-laden box. I watched as the truck pulled away, thinking of the old dad who so proudly wore that uniform.

I often think of him and his uniform on Veterans Day, my most reflective moment devoted to the holiday.

Oh, and I kept the Smoky Bear hat. Maybe one of these Veterans Days I’ll  dig it out of its box in the garage and wear it. But not this year. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Trick or treat, smell my feet...

By Jim Heffernan
First Captain Underpants book
Three of my grandchildren – boys ranging in age from 3 to 5 – are getting geared up for Halloween, it should go without saying. It’s a great observance for that age group, when ghosts really do exist, and goblins…well…I’m not really sure what goblins are myself. But they go with ghosts, that’s for sure.

The older two of these three children, twins, are in kindergarten now, where the real world outside their own home exists with all of its variety. Accordingly, they are learning through their new friends certain Halloween sayings that have not been part of their own Halloween upbringing.

Thus, they have adopted, or at least mentioned, a new phrase for begging for candy on Halloween night: “Trick or treat, smell my feet.” They have taught this to their younger brother, of course, one of the benefits, or liabilities, of being the youngest.

Really, what is the world coming to? “Trick or treat, smell my feet.” Is nothing held sacred these days?

Their parents have admonished them for such a vulgar utterance, and we – their paternal grandparents – have warned them that their neighbors might not give out the goodies if the boys beg with that slogan, but to not-much avail.

“Trick or treat, smell my feet” apparently tickles the children’s funny bone, the way Captain Underpants captured the imaginations of children long ago – around 2004, before these boys were born, certainly – but yesterday in the minds of horror-stricken grandparents of that ancient era.

Speaking of which (ancient eras, not Captain Underpants), I had my day in the harvest moon of past Halloweens, trick or treating through my childhood neighborhood. But we were GOOD children. No smell my feet. Certainly no Captain Underpants, or, if you will, the Bionic Booger Boy. Good, you won’t.

We were enamored of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, and his ilk, and look how well we ran the country once we grew up.

Our saying at the doors we called on for candy way back in my childhood was not marginally vulgar like today’s, but rather only mildly threatening to donors’ homes (actually non-donors’ homes). We shrieked, “Trick or treat (OK, so far), soap or eats.” Yes, “Trick or treat, soap or eats.”

Just think how clean cut we were in those days. Begging for soap on Halloween. Unfortunately, the soap was not for personal hygiene (we weren’t THAT goody two shoes). It was a threat that if they didn’t dish out the candy, we would soap their windows. Smearing dry soap on windows is an irritant, forcing the resident to wash those windows sometime before the hard freeze or Christmas, whichever comes first.

It was an empty threat, though. We didn’t even carry soap, except for one year when we targeted the home of a really nasty neighbor who wouldn’t even answer the door on Halloween and chased us out of his yard on every other day if we trespassed.

He would not forgive us our trespasses, just as we did not forgive his, come Halloween. So we soaped him. But it might surprise some to learn that a bar of dry soap, say 99 and 44 one hundredths percent pure Ivory, doesn’t really make very good marks on windows at all. We should have used Fels Naptha.

Growing up, I longed for the old days of Halloween pranks described by my parents, the most prominently mentioned being the tipping over of outhouses. There were plenty of outhouses in Duluth in the 1920s and, I’m sure, ‘30s. I have it on very good authority that there were still 900 outhouses in Washington, D.C., in 1939, the year I as born, and adopting the role of Major Diaper.

By the time I aged a bit and made it to the Halloween rounds, though, there were no outhouses in our neighborhood to tip over, so we made do with soap, which we used only that once. I’m a Halloween prankster failure, looking back on it.

Back in the future, I look forward to seeing these three grandsons on Halloween, and hope their parents have persuaded them to beg with something other than “Trick or treat, smell my feet.” Or if they do, I hope their neighbors will forgive them their trespasses, just as we forgive those who trespass against us. Well, almost always. On Sundays at least. And All Saints’ Eve.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Norwegian royalty in Duluth today....

In case you hadn't heard, King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway are visiting Duluth today. They're scheduled for activities with local Norwegians and a re-dedication of Enger Tower in the afternoon. While we have  many Duluthians who have Norwegian heritage living here, even non-Norwegians (including half-baked Swedes like me) are pretty excited for their visit. Dan Kraker, local Minnesota Public Radio reporter, did a nice job of unearthing the spirit here in town around this event. Check out his piece on today's Minnesota Public Radio to learn more HERE. In addition to listening to Kraker's report on this link, you'll be able to see a nice slide show of interesting historical photos and other photos of Enger Tower and activities surrounding the Royal visit. And... you'll even hear my two-cents worth on the air about why it's such a big deal here in Duluth.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Norwegian royalty visit prompts interview by MPR

If you're up and at 'em tomorrow morning, tune into Minnesota Public Radio Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer between 7-9 am. (It's 100.5 on your FM dial in the Duluth area and may be somewhere else on the dial where you live.) Dan Kraker, local reporter for the Duluth station, interviewed me and others about Monday's visit to Duluth by King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway to, among other things, re-dedicate Enger Tower. As you know, I used a little tongue in cheek as I reflected on this visit in the spirit of the old rivalry between the various Scandinavian cultures of long ago. Kraker takes a look at how the city is responding to the royal visit, including my two cents.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Norsk royalty visit goes to head of local Norwegian citizens...

By Jim Heffernan
King Harald V & Queen Sonja 
I’m happy for all of the local Norwegians that King Harald V (motto: “Alt for Norge!”) and Queen Sonja of Norway are visiting Duluth next week.

Of course there will be no living with them after this (the locals, not the king and queen). If you thought (you think, don’t you?) the local Norwegians were an uppity bunch before this visit, well, what do you suppose this royal invasion will do to them?

Oh well, we’ll just have to live with it, for how long we don’t know. I think maybe until the second coming of You Know Who, but what do I know? I’m only a half-baked Swede calmly taking it all in from a well-calculated distance.

I will be nowhere near Duluth's Enger Tower when the royal couple rededicates it, even though I feel a special kinship with King Harald. He and I are close to the same age – he’s a little older, but not much. In the 1940s after World War II broke out, Childe Harald and his mother, Princess Martha, lived in the United States – at the White House with President and Mrs. Roosevelt and, at times, other guests like Winston “Win” Churchill. They had fled Norway when Germany invaded the country. (See historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent account of this in her book “No Ordinary Time.”)

At that very same time here in Duluth I was living in the yellow house in the West End with my Swedish mother (and Irish-German father and brother), where we entertained guests as well, including my Uncle Win (not short for Winston, but rather Winfield), who could imitate almost any European accent, especially Scandinavian, including, of course, Norwegian. What a stitch.

So you can see King Harald and I have some things in common, nationality not being one of them, but that’s OK. My Scandinavian heritage is on the Swedish side of the Baltic Peninsula where today good King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia hold forth on the throne and Greta Garbo is still dead.

Oh, how I long for the day that King Karl Gustaf  (they usually leave off the Roman numerals in second reference, Italy being so far away) and Queen Silvia would come to Duluth and rededicate, well, let’s see, oh, rededicate the Svithoid Hall in the West End, where local Swedish folk used to dance the schottische on Saturday night and deny it on Sunday in the Lutheran church. It’s upstairs of that auction place on 21st Avenue West and Third Street, across from a vacant lot that could use a little sprucing up (attention Mayor Don Ness).

Now that would be a red-letter day in Duluth.

Addendum: Hey, I’m kidding, OK? I used to write newspaper columns about the competition between Duluth Swedes and Norwegians. This is in the spirit of that.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Aha moment: Fight your own battles

Hi Everyone,
I was invited by the Mutual of Omaha Aha Moment people to share my personal "Aha Moment" with the world when they came to Duluth this past August. As many of you know, I steer clear of public speaking whenever I can. Guess it's writing I enjoy... not so much public speaking. My wife encouraged me to accept their invitation and I thought about my "aha moments" of my past and decided I did have something worthy to share. So... here's the video (click HERE)  where I bare my soul to all of you with my personal "Aha Moment: Fight your own battles."

Just in case you've never heard of an "Aha Moment," it's a moment in your life where a light bulb goes on and you "get" something, hopefully something important. To learn more, check out the Mututal of Omaha Aha Moment web site HERE. And while you're at it, check out the other people from Duluth who entered the traveling Airstream trailer video studio that was parked in Duluth's Canal Park for a couple of days this past August HERE.

Now... what was YOUR aha moment?  We want to know....

Friday, September 30, 2011

Birthday confession: I’m older than Johnny Appleseed

By Jim Heffernan

I was going to ignore my upcoming birthday (Oct. 4) blogwise because I’m getting so old, but, what the heck, there’s no denying one’s age, so I’ll reveal right now for the record that I’m older than Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed? Why Johnny Appleseed?

Here’s why: I have twin grandsons enrolled in kindergarten. They are 5 now and starting to figure out the world. Apparently one of them (they’re in different classrooms) has been learning about Johnny Appleseed’s exploits, something that always fascinates children. I remember being very interested in Johnny Appleseed when I was about that age, but I got over it.

The boy also learned that after spreading all of those apple seeds, Appleseed died at the ripe old age of 70. It prompted him (my grandson, not Johnny Appleseed) to question his mother about the relative ages of his relatives, including grandparents.

It turns out I am the oldest person in his extended family, two years older than a presumably healthy guy like Johnny Appleseed was when he died. Here’s this great historical figure who trekked through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois planting apple trees along the way – could a healthier lifestyle be imagined? – dies at 70 and a sloth like me, who doesn’t even eat apples, is still going strong at 72.

Yup, life is unfair, but I’m not complaining. It never does any good.

Friday, September 23, 2011

We left our cheese in Baraboo...

By Jim Heffernan
James Dean in Giant
A recent road trip took us to a wedding held in an Indiana corn field and the homelands of two American icons, James Dean and Frank Lloyd Wright. And... we had some wine and cheese along the way.

When we travel long distances by car, we generally pack a bottle of red wine, a box of snack crackers and some cheese. Then, at the end of a long day of driving, we can relax in our hotel/motel room with a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres before going out to dinner in a restaurant.

We just returned from such a trip – down to central Indiana by way of Wisconsin and Illinois for a family wedding. Very nice trip at this time of year, if a little agriculturally oriented in this section of the country. If you think Iowa is where the tall corn grows, you ought to try Indiana. Illinois is no slouch either when it comes to growing corn. Tall corn stalks everywhere.

So after miles and miles of cornfields, come evening it is good to stop, check into overnight accommodations, pour a glass of wine, slice the cheese, slap it on a cracker and reflect. We had quite a bit to reflect about on this trip. Aside from the family obligations, it was devoted to a pair of American icons we met along the way.

The first was the actor James Dean, whose hometown, Fairmount, Indiana, was just minutes from our family gathering. We stole a couple of hours alone and went to the Fairmount museum devoted almost entirely to Dean. It is chock full of James Dean memorabilia, ranging from things he wore, to motorcycles he owned to letters he wrote and movie contracts he signed, together with hundreds of photographs depicting his youthful days in Fairmount through his New York and Hollywood years, and back to Fairmount where they buried him in 1955 at the age of 24.

It gives you pause. At least it gave me pause. Dean became a famous movie star when I was in high school, an instant teen idol, and he was killed in a sports car crash when I was still in high school. He made a big impression on my generation, appearing in just three movies: “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” all released during my high school years.

You wonder how this kid from a very small Indiana farming town could establish himself as a genuine American icon in just half a dozen years after graduating from high school. He shows himself to be a fine, even brilliant, actor in those three movies (and several television productions, mostly before he became famous), but brilliant actors bubble up every so often, not all of them becoming icons and remaining household names 56 years after dying.

At the Dean museum, I spoke with what could only be described as an aged woman. White hair, wattled skin, portly figure, cane to steady her when she walked. She said she’d gone to school with Dean, a few classes ahead of him. You wonder, how could this young, vibrant guy have gone to school with this old lady, but, of course, looks and generations are deceiving. Dean would have turned 80 this year. Amazing.

Next stop? Several hundred miles northwest, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, at the home of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright – another American icon. Taliesin, as Wright’s home is called, is an imposing structure near the top – but not on the top – of a hill near the Wisconsin River, with a panoramic view of other hills, farm fields (yes, some corn) and winding roadways.

Wright’s colorful life is reflected in the home’s unique design, including some baffling qualities such as low-hanging doorways and passageways. It’s been said Wright was not concerned with people taller than he, who might bump their heads on the doorframes. People like me.

Oh, there’s so much to say about Frank Lloyd Wright that people either already know or don’t care about. But like James Dean, he’s an American icon, although there’s one big difference. Dean achieved this rare status by the time he was 24; Wright slowly achieved his icon status over 91 years.

Time to return home to Duluth, with one last stop along the way: Baraboo, Wisconsin, the logical place to spend our last night on the road. Baraboo, not far from Spring Green and cheek by jowl with the Wisconsin Dells, is the home of another iconic American family, the founders of the Ringling Brothers circus empire. We didn’t visit Circus World there, opting instead for a glass of wine and a few pieces of cheese on crackers.

But by then the cheese was very soft, having been kept at car temperature for many miles. So we left our cheese in Baraboo. Not everyone can say that. No cheeseheads we. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Norwegians are coming...

Duluth's Enger Tower
It's almost here... the visit from Norway's royalty to re-dedicate Enger Tower on October 17th. (Read more about it in the Duluth News Tribune HERE.) King Harald V and Queen Sonja  of Norway will arrive for activities with local Norwegians and a re-dedication of Duluth's Enger Tower.

As you may remember from a previous post (read it HERE), I took the opportunity to climb Enger Tower coincidentally on the very date that it was originally dedicated by then Crown Prince Olav and his wife, Princess Martha of Sweden, 70 years before. That day I noticed the plaque adorning the inside of the tower wall commemorating the dedication 70 years ago.

Of course, since that June visit at Enger, the tower has undergone some needed structural improvements and efforts have been made to upgrade the tower and park (see HERE). If you have never visited visited Enger Tower and Park, you ought to. It's a gorgeous park on the top of Duluth's skyline and the vistas of lake Superior and our fair city are fantastic. It's a great place for a picnic too. Enger Tower also  has new lighting that shows it off in our evening skyline, thanks to a project from local Rotarians.

King Harald V was only two years old when his father, then Crown Prince Olav, and his mother, Princess Martha, came to Duluth for the original Enger Tower dedication. During WWII, Crown Prince Olav was forced to lead his government in exile and Princess Martha and their children (including Harald) lived for a while in the White House as guests of the Roosevelts. Much is written about Princess Martha during that era, especially in the Pulitzer Prize winning biographical account of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the home front in the war, "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Contagion: Pandemic hits Northland in current movie...

By Jim Heffernan
Poster for movie, Contagion
The current movie “Contagion” is about what the title implies: How a global pandemic is caused when a virus that has no known remedy spreads from person to person until millions are infected and who knows how many are dead. Two percent of the world population is mentioned.

And in this fictional treatment of an alarming worldwide emergency, we are not spared. We means Northeastern Minnesota. Here’s how.

Part of the film is set in Minneapolis, where one of the stars, Matt Damon, resides with his wife, played by the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who returns from a trip to Hong Kong with the virus and the threat radiates out from her. The lissome Paltrow doesn’t seem to worry much about her image as a great beauty. She is seen throwing up some awful looking fluid just before she dies of the virus.

Meanwhile (never underestimate the power of “meanwhile” in journalism), her grieving husband (Damon), trying to save his children, contacts various officials trying to deal with the spreading pandemic and is given some very bad news for Minnesota: “It’s in Ramsey County and even Carlton and St. Louis Counties.” (That’s in quotes, and might not be exact, but it’s close.)

Nice to see we’re not forgotten when it comes to a deadly worldwide pandemic.

It’s an engrossing movie, though. Highly recommended. But if you do go to see it, be sure not to cough in the theater.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Northland population almost free of scurvy, beriberi and brucellosis...

By Jim Heffernan

It is not comforting to pick up your local newspaper – in this instance the Sept. 2 Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune -- and read the headline: “Risk of dying is greater in the Northland.” (Read HERE) I have seen the Northland and it is us.

Yes, various government agencies that collect statistics on who dies of what and where report that Northern Minnesota (AKA the Northland) is the unhealthiest place to live in the state, with mortality rates for diseases like cancer and conditions like heart trouble vastly exceeding those in other regions. Also cirrhosis of the liver, an accurate measure of the drinking rate.

The mortality rate is the chance that a given person will die of any cause in the course of the year. It should not be confused with the “morbidity rate,” which measures the frequency with which a given disease appears in a given population, and also the number of horror movies shown in a given year at a multiplex near you.

Still, I believe we in the Northland should not be greatly alarmed by such headlines and statistics. There are more diseases than cancer and heart trouble, after all. We should look on the bright side, focusing on the morbidity rate, which these government agencies actually fail to mention at all.

Accordingly, I believe it is safe to say, without conducting any research whatsoever due to lack of qualifications, that there is absolutely no danger of contracting scurvy in the Northland. You remember scurvy. Sailors and pirates got it on long sea voyages when they ran out of fruit. The morbidity rate for scurvy in the Northland must be close to zero, which we can count as a blessing in disguise.

So too with beriberi, another diet-related disease having a strong association with long sea voyages, but not on Lake Superior. Statistics would indicate, if anybody ever compiled them, that there is virtually no beriberi in the Northland to speak of, although it could come up among the drinking population, already suffering from cirrhosis. We see no mention of beriberi in Minnesota health statistics at all, heaven be praised.

And where is brucellosis in these statistics? We do not see reports that there is any problem of brucellosis in the Northland whatsoever. For those readers who are not familiar with brucellosis, you can get it from animals like goats and cows, but not our good Northland goats and cows, it would appear.

So it is safe to say, I believe, that the Northland is a great place to live if you don’t want to come down with scurvy, beriberi or brucellosis. We should capitalize on that, instead of scaring the population half to death with headlines like “Risk of dying greater in the Northland.”

Better to read headlines like “Northland almost free of scurvy, beriberi and brucellosis.” Thank you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

True confessions of a phonephobe...

By Jim Heffernan
“I was born to Twitter, I was born to tweet, log me on to Facebook, that’d be a treat.”

That might be a refrain for some, but not for me. I don’t expect to twitter in this lifetime, a span getting shorter and shorter for my generation.

All this was inspired – if inspired is the word for such mundanity – by a Sept. 1 New York Times column by Frank Bruni (read it HERE) in which he posited that the more ways we have to contact one another, the harder it is to reach anybody.

I’ve noticed that, too. Seems to me that in ages past, when everyone had just one black land-line telephone maintained by AT and T, you were able to reach people more readily than you can today with cell phones, texting, voice mail, Facebook, e-mail, whatever. I’m so behind I’m not sure I even know about some of the latest communication devices, AKA “social media.”

So, I’ve concluded that the trouble with America today is that there are too many ways to contact people, causing mass confusion and widespread frustration, leading to gridlock in Washington, extreme partisanship in Congress and the legislatures, not to mention indigestion. OK, I won’t.

It wasn’t always that way.

There was a time in this sainted land when you could pick up the telephone and a sweet-sounding woman would be there, asking you personally what number you would like to call. “Number please,” she’d chirp, after which she’d ring it for you. All of these women were known as “Central,” regardless of which high school they’d attended.

“Hello Central, give me heaven,/ For I know my mother’s there./ You will find her with the angels,/Over on the golden stair.” Yes, THAT Central.

I am old enough to remember Central. Talked to her often as a child, calling my cousins. Their number was Melrose 4819, although sometimes, just for fun, you’d say 481 apple. Get it? Central did not like to be joked with, though.

Various parts of Duluth had different telephone identifications. We were always Melrose 4504, but other parts of town had names like Calumet, Market and – get this – Hemlock. What was it that Socrates drank at the behest of Athenians who didn’t like him, resulting in death? It wasn’t Mountain Dew.

One bad thing: party lines. I know they sound fun, but they weren’t. They caused a lot of trouble in neighborhoods. A party line is when two or more telephones are hooked up to the same number, so that all phones on the line ring when someone called one of the party. And if somebody was using the line, no one else could call out, but they could listen in. Bad. Very bad.

We had one other person on our party line when I was a child, a mean and nasty old woman who would repeatedly complain that we monopolized the line. Looking back I think she was right. And while we were cool toward this neighbor in the party line days, when they ended we became more cordial and realized she wasn’t mean and nasty at all, and very likely went straight to heaven, for I know that she is there, you will find her with the angels, over by … Well, you know.

Dial phones knocked out party lines here after World War II and Central disappeared too, replaced by a woman known as “Operator.” Operator was not nearly as much a part of our lives as Central, only responding to queries about numbers that you didn’t know and couldn’t find in the book (telephone directory, yellow pages and all). Operator gave what was called “Information,” and also “Long Distance.”

Oh, but I go on with this ancient history. Really, I was going to write about how as an adult I became what I call a phonephobe, which is a person who fears making telephone calls. Utter fear isn’t quite the emotion, but I resist calling and always put calls off if I can.

I think this comes from years and years as a working journalist. Much of the news is secured over the telephone. You hear something newsworthy happened somewhere and call someone who was involved.

Many of the recipients of the calls were surprised to be called, or didn’t want to comment, or resented the calls, or would chew you out for calling too late. One time I was told to call a civic leader who the city editor said had made a speech earlier in the evening. You do what you’re told, so I called the guy about 10:30 p.m. and asked him what he’d said in his speech earlier in the evening.

“What?” he said in exasperation. I reiterated that I understood he’d given a speech and would he kindly tell me what he said so that I could write a story about it for the paper.

“That was last year,” he snapped. “I gave that speech a year ago.” Click.

You can see why I’m a phonephobe.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Local publishing house changing gears...

Local author/publisher, Tony Dierckins, announces some exciting changes ahead for his publishing company, X-Communication. This longtime Duluth publishing company is in the process of transforming into Zenith City Online, celebrating regional history. Zenith City currently is in the development stages– both in design and content–and will be officially launched in January of 2012.  Tony invites you to take a peek at Zenith City's preliminary site at and welcomes your ideas and input. As many of you know, Tony (X-Communication) published my book, Cooler Near the Lake, in 2008. I and other local writers and historians will be regular contributors to this new creative enterprise.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lew Latto: Memories of a 65-year friendship

Lew Latto, 1940-2011
Memories of a 65-year friendship
By Jim Heffernan
Lew Latto: WDSM 710 radio photo
My friend broadcaster Lew Latto is dead. Suddenly, unexpectedly, before we could get together for our next birthday observance (mine), which we have done with a few other friends for many years.

Lew and I were good friends -- good in the sense that we had a high regard for each other and our shared past -- not close friends -- close in the sense that would describe a friendship in which the participants have daily, weekly, regular contact.

We got together on our birthdays, mine in October, his in January. It was enough to maintain a warm friendship, warm in the sense that we liked each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and shared years and years of memories, going back to when we were elementary school-age children and first met at Duluth’s Lincoln school. That adds up to around a 65 year acquaintanceship, much of it friendship.

There are so many stories involving Lew over those years that are interesting, some of which I shared with readers of today’s (Aug. 25) Duluth News Tribune when interviewed by the paper’s John Myers. (Read HERE.) Here are a few more impressions and memories.

When we were at Denfeld High School together, when our friendship cemented, Lew was like no other student. He had physically matured early, and, as the fates would have it, was given a deep, resonant speaking voice, perfect for radio. I don’t know if it was the voice that drove him to his early interest in radio, or just an innate interest coming out, but that voice sure helped, and it never failed him.

During those later teen years, Lew seemed to straddle two worlds like no one else I knew, or have ever known. With his friends he was a fun-loving, sometimes mischievous teenager, doing all of the frivolous stuff that age inspires, but at the same time he was an adult, already working on the air in radio, dealing with station managers and producers and operating in the adult world.

I knew a Denfeld teacher whose first year on the faculty was Lew’s senior year. When she first encountered him, she thought he was a fellow teacher, not a student. That was Lew’s adult side. He seemed to skip adolescence and jump from childhood to adulthood.

But, thinking back on his life and our association, I’m going to share a to-me favorite story that for some reason came rushing back yesterday when I was informed of Lew’s death.

Although I was one class ahead of him (but only four months older) we were assigned to the same gym class at Denfeld. And while Lew had been a varsity junior high basketball player, he had no interest in participating in high school sports. He was too busy getting on with his life. But we had to take physical education – a mandatory class for sophomores and juniors.

So we’d dutifully change into gym clothes and go through the motions of physical education because we had to, often playing shirts-skins basketball, but Lew and I concocted a scheme wherein we could show up for the class during roll call and then slip away for the hour into the parking lot and sit in his car and smoke. Yes smoke. We were high school cigarette smokers, a not uncommon trait in the 1950s when more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.

To pull off our exit, we’d stand for roll call – the classes were large, probably about 60 boys – and then fade to a corner door in the gym that led to the parking lot. We’d scamper to Lew’s car – he always had a car – and sit for an hour smoking cigarettes in our gym clothes and listening to music on the radio, most likely on the station that later that day he’d be the deejay himself. At the end of the hour, we’d sneak back into the class in time to go to the locker room and dress for the next class, our urge to smoke satiated for awhile -- at least until school let out.

Why such small, inconsequential and distant memories come to mind these many years later on news of a death of a friend, I don’t know. Maybe it’s those small, shared moments that are the mortar of the building blocks of a long-lasting and deep friendship we share with so few people in our lifetimes.

The last time I heard from Lew, he e-mailed me to remind that our next birthday gathering would be October 4, my birthday. It’s so sad to realize he won’t be there. 
Promo poster for famous Latto sponsored event

Monday, August 22, 2011

What I did on my summer vacation...

Just got back from a week of vacation with our adult kids, their spouses and all our grandkids. We spent the week at a nearby Wisconsin lake and enjoyed good family fun while swimming, boating, eating s'mores by a fireside... and a whole lot more. Here are a couple of sunset photos to give you an idea of the beauty we enjoyed in the woods this past week.  Stay tuned....

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hampston's Swinging Doors...

"Mischief and mishap figure into Quinlan Michael Hampston's hilarious stories of how a kid who couldn't read grew up to be a man who would write a book."
Printed above is the first line in the web site promoting the book, Swinging Doors by Quinlan Michael Hampston, local boy who makes good. (Hampston is a co-owner of the Downtown Duluth bar, R.T. Quinaln's located downstairs at 220 W. Superior St.) 
Hampston's newly published memoir will officially launch with a book signing affair at R. T. Quinlan's from 4-6 p.m. on Saturday, August 20.  Everyone's invited to this public event.
I've read the book and anyone with an interest in interesting people's lives, especially when they hail from Duluth, will find this very enjoyable reading. I wrote a blurb about the book and I think it tells it all...
Author, Mike Hampston with book in progress
"It's often said that there's a book in everybody. Maybe. But not everybody can write as well as Quinlan Michael Hampston–known by his friends as Mike–or recall details of their lives as vividly as he does in his memoir, Swinging Doors. Here's an unvarnished Duluth life the likes of which you're unlikely to encounter on any other printed page. His unflinching willingness to recount in detail his failures in school, painful marriages, tough careers in baking and bartending along with a  lot of drinking in Duluth's less polite establishments makes compelling reading." Jim Heffernan in advance praise for the book.
To learn more about the book, check it out on the book web site:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The ghost of Calvin Griffith lives on...

Cal Griffith, the late outspoken former owner of the Minnesota Twins, is still outspoken when a "diehard twins fan" ( blogger, Tim Bouvine) interviews him from the beyond: (August 8th HowieBlog post, The ghost of Calvin Griffith speaks in 2011). It brought to mind a poem I wrote more than 30 years ago, when Cal was still at the Twins' helm. He had caused considerable controversy in a speech and I commented in a form baseball fans might recognize as strangely familiar (try "Casey At the Bat"). It turns out Calvin, like Casey, struck out. That poem, Calvin at the Plate, (see below) was originally written for my Duluth News Tribune column and is included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake.

Calvin at the Plate
By Jim Heffernan

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Lions Club that day;
The chaplain muffed the praying and the Lions would have to pay.
And so when Calvin took the stand, and after they hand dined,
The Lions sat back to listen up, looking leonine.

The subject would be baseball, appropriately enough,
But who could know the speaker would be dishing out such guff;
A simple little meeting, in a simple little town,
Would make the club look foolish and the speaker look a clown.

But Calvin didn’t know that day the ripples he would cause;
He tried his best to stand the test and gather up applause.
But his audience included, much to his distress,
A writer taking lots of notes, and he was from the press.

So when Calvin started talking, and missing not a point,
The air was filled with silence, and smoke filled up the joint.
The speaker tried for laughter, and getting himself none,
He thought he’d toss some spice around, to add it to the fun.

He started out with marriage, an honorable state,
But Calvin said it had no place on or near home plate;
He said his catcher Wynegar would be better off still free:
He didn’t care that Wynegar’s wife would deign to disagree.

Free love, he said, comes pretty cheap for players of the game;
A lad should take advantage, and build upon his name,
And then when extra innings in the game of life are played,
There’s plenty of time for marriage, when life’s a bit more staid.

There was ease in Calvin’s manner as he shifted on his hips;
There was pride in Calvin’s bearing, and a smile on Calvin’s lips;
There was scotch in Calvin’s belly, and a redness on his face,
When Calvin turned the subject to a place known as first base.

His voice boomed like thunder when he talked of Rod Carew;
And everyone was shocked when he called him a damn fool.
Rod sold himself too cheap, he said, so we gave him a bonus;
He really should to appreciate such treatment from the owners.

Then Calvin changed his visage, his voice a quiet roar;
“In the old days players cared,” he cried, “but they don’t any more.”
And throwing out an epithet, the kind we know so well,
He told the stadium commission that it could go to hell.

And hitting Billy Martin–he couldn’t let that pass–
He said the feisty manager could charm a monkey’s---. 
And he said Bill never punched a man who looked to be his size;
He’ll have to live with that one, until the day he dies.

And then as if to top the rest, ol’ Cal went on to say,
The team could leave tomorrow, but it’s still here today
Because we moved from Washington, balls, bats, gloves and sacks,
When we heard that Minnesota had but fifteen thousand blacks.

Oh!  Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there was no joy in Twinsville, When Calvin G. spoke out.

Included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, still for sale in area bookstores and on line!
(Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, October 8, 1978)