Saturday, April 3, 2021

A brief history of smelt in Duluth...

Crowd of smelters at mouth of Lester River on April 25, 1986.
 Photo by Steve Sterns for the Duluth News Tribune
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

"The nice thing about smelt is all you have to do is decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease."

About once every decade or so, give or take, I like to recall the halcyon days of smelt “fishing” each April in Duluth. The ranks of those of us who experienced the anarchy and chaos of smelt season here are thinning, even if our midsections are not.


Plus, a few generations of native Duluthians and those who have moved here in the past 40-some odd (I’ll say) years did not experience this unique aspect of our history. It needs to be recorded somewhere. So here goes.


It all started shortly after World War II, in the mid-1940s. One can only imagine the scene in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States. Smelt were still saltwater fish but getting restless.


Smelt leadership began getting concerned when their multitudinous schools of tiny, silvery subjects began complaining that things just weren’t the same anymore in the ocean. No more German submarines darting through their waters just off the coast; flotillas of U.S. surface naval ships headed for Europe came to a halt. It was getting boring for smelt.


So their leadership decided something had to be done. “I’ve got it, let’s go to Duluth,” the king smelt said.


“How can we do that? We’re saltwater fish and the Great Lakes are fresh water,” said the queen.


“We’ll adapt,” said the king Fish.


And adapt they did, swimming their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway, which didn’t formally exist at the time but the water was there. The change in smelt biology shocked ichthyologists in Duluth, although there weren’t too many to be shocked because the University of Minnesota Duluth (which was only getting started) was not yet used to big words like ichthyology, which is even harder to spell than it is to pronounce. Those fish scientists agreed, though, that to have their study of fish taken seriously in the academic world they had to have a name nobody could spell or pronounce.


But enough ichthyology. It’s too hard to type.


So those intrepid Atlantic smelt finally arrived in Duluth en masse by the mid-to-latter years of the 1940s but few people here knew what to make of it at first. The few who did realized they could get huge net seines, wade in pairs a few yards into Lake Superior off Park Point two or three times and come back with enough smelt to feed the 5,000, to respectfully employ a Biblical allusion.


Word got around fast. Word about free food always gets around fast. Soon it became common knowledge that the North Shore streams also were full of them and all you had to do to get a pail of smelt was to don hip boots, use a hand-held dip net a couple of times against the stream’s flow, and, voila, several potential meals, deep fried.


That is if the smelt were “running” up the streams to spawn. It was sporadic, but if they were running the take of fish was incredible. We are talking tons. Smelt were running along the North Shore long before people took it up.


Duluthians went nuts as those early years rolled by, ending the ‘40s and into the ‘50s and well beyond. Word spread beyond the city and soon caravans of smelt seekers from distant venues — the Dakotas, Iowa and especially the Twin Cities — descended — and I mean descended — on the Zenith City of the unsalted seas, so recently hosting the adapting smelt in their journey west. Even the staid Chamber of Commerce embraced it.


Many of the natives (that was us) and outsiders also found that dipping or seining for unlimited smelt went well with consumption of various intoxicating beverages, and smelting parties were organized around huge bonfires, many of which were fueled with old tires. This was before the environmental movement got started. Tires really burn well but create a lot of greenhouse gasses, many later observed.


It reached a point where you could stand on London Road at night and gaze across the wolf nose of Lake Superior to Park Point and see, literally, scores of bonfires lighting the darkness on the sandy beach, some even fueled with driftwood. And along the mouths of North Shore streams — the Lester, the Knife, the French, the Sucker (there’s some irony in that name) — thousands of intrepid smelters from the Upper U.S. converged en masse for free food.


The state of Minnesota was caught flat-footed. Incredibly, state officials and political bigwigs didn’t realize at first that this could be a good source of revenue for the state. It took them several years to mandate that smelt fishermen and fisherwomen (of course there were both) actually have fishing licenses. That made the food less free, but didn’t diminish the multitudes.


And the nice thing about smelt was all you had to do was decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease, tails and all if so inclined. I am not much of a fish eater — you can have your walleye or kamloops or trout or whatever — but I love smelt. I did get caught up in actual smelt fishing as a child early on and then as a smelt partier later, but I recovered.


There was a down side. Eager, sometimes inebriated, smelt seekers plying the shore streams and on the Point often lacked respect for private property near the smelting sites. Many felt, for example, that if they needed firewood somebody’s nearby picket fence would burn nicely. This was very frustrating to residents and challenging for law enforcement officials overwhelmed by, well, overwhelmed by everything. Chaos and anarchy reigned, along with King Smelt.


Most of the activities occurred after dark. Nighttime traffic on London Road in Duluth was — oh, how should I put it? — bumper to bumper (there’s no other way to put it) from near downtown to Lester River and beyond. (This was back in the days when cars actually had bumpers.)


And, yes, there were casualties. Sadly, in many years, there were one or two drownings.


The smelt themselves largely brought it to a close after a strong 40 years or so of offering themselves up for food and frolic in Duluth. Suddenly it tapered off. Now only professional fisher persons net them way off shore and sell them commercially.


It’s enough to make an ichthyologist cry.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

NOTE: Today's column in the Duluth News Tribune was printed for the last time in Duluth. As a 43 year employee of the DNT, I find it noteworthy that my column appears today. Read that story HERE.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Not so great a day for the Irish...

Heffernan Bar in Wexford, Ireland
Photo was taken by a friend about 20+ years ago
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shure and begorrah (oh-oh, careful Jim), we just celebrated the day for the wearin’ o’ the green (calm down, kid). St. Patrick’s Day came and went on Wednesday, apparently without incident. No observance that I know of inspires so many clichés.


St. Patrick’s day was always big around my house as I was growing up. The name Heffernan is Irish. My father was very proud of that heritage and often said that in the Emerald Isle (oops, there I go again) back in the days of the clans, our family name was O’Heffernan. Like O’Hara or O’Connell or O’Connor, the last name of a cousin of mine who had a few more pints of Irish blood than me.


It wasn’t mentioned as much that my father was half German as well. His father, my Irish grandfather and namesake, came to Duluth from Canada about 140 years ago where he met and married a German woman, thereby diluting the Irish bloodline. But the Irish name remains with me and my kids and some of their kids, who are mostly other nationalities and very little Irish. I’m actually one half Swedish.


Growing up, I took my Irish heritage more seriously than I do these days. I didn’t know diddly about what St. Patrick was being honored for. Something about driving snakes from Ireland is all I knew. Good for him. I hate snakes. And what is more, we weren’t even Catholic.


But we always wore something green on St. Patrick’s Day, even if it was only a furry little shamrock.


I never knew my Irish grandfather. He died in his 80s when I was just two years old. He had been a bricklayer by trade, and family lore had it that he was acquainted with Duluth pioneer entrepreneur Chester Congdon who, it was said, hired him to build the brick standards that hold up the metal fence along London Road at Glensheen, the Congdon mansion. I don’t know if that’s true, but I always think of him when I drive by.


Over the years I have come to know a few of the descendants of Chester Congdon and I’ve told them about my grandfather’s alleged role in building the Glensheen fence. They always seemed unimpressed. Can’t blame them. Their ancestor built an imposing mansion and mine built a fence?


The arrival of my Irish grandfather in Duluth around 1880 coincided with the burgeoning of Duluth as a city, when tycoons like Chester Congdon and many others — whose names are still recognizable and portraits of whom are on the walls of the Kitchi Gammi Club — were building the city. Many of these businessmen acquired great wealth, but my Irish grandfather just became a bricklayer. I wish he would have joined them in their enterprises. I could have used the money.


I did inherit a song from the old grandsire, sung lustily to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman”:


“Ooooooo, I wish I was back in my Irishman’s shanty, / Where money was scarce and whiskey was plenty, /A three-legged stool and a table to match, /And a door in the middle without any latch.” This did not fit in well with my family’s strong Swedish Lutheran associations.


Still, well into early adulthood, when I stumbled into a career in journalism, I took my one-quarter Irish heritage quite seriously. In the early days of my career as a reporter for this newspaper it was obligatory for the paper to run a local St. Patrick’s Day story on the front page each March 17.


Whoever was chosen to write it always got a byline with an O’ in front of their name no matter what ethnicity their name might imply. Names like O’Olson or O’Johnson or O’Leone or O’Pearson or O’Lhutala or O’Cohen or O’Konski (how’d he get in there?) might show up atop these St. Patrick’s Day ruminations. Tee-hee.


How I longed to be chosen to write the St. Patrick’s Day story so O’Heffernan could appear in the byline. At least it would be a genuine article. Finally I got the chance.


I have no recollection of what I wrote, save for a stirring final paragraph when I stole a line or two from that old Irish ballad “Galway Bay” by writing something like “if you ever go across the sea to Ireland, you watch the sun come up on Galway Bay.”


I was quite impressed. And I got my O’Heffernan byline for my father to see. The following day, when I showed up in the newsroom, I was met by one of the old guard working there, a man I didn’t know well at that point. He happened to be of Irish extraction himself.


“Watched the sun come up on Galway Bay, did you?” he growled. “Galway Bay is on the west coast of Ireland. The sun goes down on Galway Bay.”


Ooooooo, I wished I was back in my Irishman’s shanty…


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Vaccination denial recalls earlier Duluth controversy...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNews Tribune on Saturday, March 6, 2021

 I see where some people going through this global pandemic are refusing to get COVID-19 vaccinations because…well, because they’re afraid the vaccine is harmful to human health, or something like that. More harmful than the disease itself, apparently.


Let the record show that as a registered geezer I have had two inoculations of the COVID-19 vaccine and I am: 1) still alive, and, 2) feeling fit as a fiddle, to employ a well-worn cliché. But that’s just me, of course. I’d bet it’s you too, once you get the shots, although some people briefly feel a little sick after the second shot, they say.


Gosh, I go all the way back to the initial development of the Salk polio vaccine that saved so many lives and prevented serious crippling in others. I’m a true believer, I guess.


This vaccine phobia business reminds me of what I believe is the long forgotten controversy over the fluoridation of Duluth’s water supply. The addition of fluoride to our water to prevent tooth decay was being proposed in the mid-1960s, right around the time I started working as a reporter at this newspaper.


I had never even heard of fluoridation before then, having been an indifferent college student, more into smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo. So I had some catching up to do. That catching up involved being assigned to cover various civic gatherings organized to promote and explain the benefits of fluoridation and writing it up for the newspaper.


And what was said at those gatherings was most vehemently uttered by the opponents of fluoridating Duluth water — rabid opponents, obsessed opponents who fought fluoridation as though their lives depended on it. And, of course, they believed it did, just like the vaccine deniers.


The organized Duluth dentists all favored fluoridation in spite of the fact that if it worked their business likely would decrease. However, of course, one prominent dentist joined the opposition and readily issued statements warning about the dangers of fluoridation to the health. And the business community, generally in favor, also had one prominent opponent. I could use names here, but just about everybody’s dead anyway (not from drinking fluoridated water).


Fluoridation of the public water supply, opponents claimed, was part of a communist plot to poison Americans so that Russia (then called the Soviet Union) could take over the world, or at least defeat the United States because all Americans would be sick and dying from fluoride ingestion. That was one of several arguments. Communism is often a bugaboo, even used today in political campaigns.


While pro-fluoridation speakers and organizers did their thing, usually standing before a community club gathering of 50 to 100 people and explaining the benefits of fluoridating our water, the antis would mix with the crowd as it assembled or was leaving and bend the ears of anyone who would listen.


And the fluoridation opponents loved me, believing that as a reporter covering the meeting they could lobby me into including their side of the story in my report. Which, out of fairness, I would do. 


So the communist plot would find its way into my stories along with the scientific evidence that fluoridation would save the teeth of every child because cavities would soon disappear. That sounded pretty good to me, but I listened to the anti fluoridation people nevertheless.


I remember one prominent woman — her husband was a well known city official not involved in the campaign — trying to bend my ear at every meeting and who presented to me the most unique argument of all against fluoridating our water. After the usual claims that our health would be ruined and the communists were behind it she said (and this is a pretty accurate quote recalled from so many years ago): “Albert Einstein’s nephew in Seattle is against it.”


Well now, I didn’t know that Albert Einstein had a nephew anywhere, including Seattle, but maybe. I think I did the woman the favor of not including that argument in my story in the next day’s paper. Hope so.


I can’t recall the means by which the whole thing played out. There might have been a citywide vote approving it. In any event, they started fluoridating our water eventually, have been doing so for more than half a century, the dentists didn’t go out of business, and I’m not aware of any communist cells in Duluth cropping up in that period, although there were plenty 30 or 40 years earlier, before anyone even heard of fluoridation.


As for me, I can say I have been ingesting fluoride here in Duluth the whole time and I’m still going strong in my efforts to support Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin gang as well as keeping my Red flag flying, polishing up my hammer and sickle lapel pin and committing Marx’s Manifesto to memory.


So you can see fluoridation of drinking water has no deleterious effects at all to speak of.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Duluth lags behind on Proud Boys, conspiracies...

Written By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, February20

 One of the problems we have here in Duluth is that it seems like we’re always behind the times — not in step with what’s going on in the rest of the country.


Right when such issues as “conspiracy theories” are a really a hot thing in other parts of the (not very) United States of America, we don’t even have any. We’ll take care of that later in this important column.


But first, you also hear a lot about this boisterous jingoistic camo clad group known as the “Proud Boys,” and what do we have here? A bunch of timid fellows who call themselves the “Shamed Boys.” They meet on alternating Wednesdays in the basement — of course, the basement — of the former YWCA (Young Women’s Chastity Alliance) headquarters, abandoned in the 1960s.


I was introduced to a Shamed Boy recently at a COVID-19 mask wearing fashion show sponsored by a local philanthropy under proper social distancing conditions. Besides a paisley mask, he was wearing faded jeans and a sweatshirt bearing the inscription: “Go Ahead and Tread on Me.” I was wearing my buffalo plaid mask.


“How’s it happen that you call your group Shamed Boys?” I asked the neatly turned out fellow whose mask bore the inscription “Leave Me Alone if Possible.” My mask is inscribed “Bigfoot Lives.”


“Well, we’re ashamed of the way things are going in this country, all the riots and stuff like that,” he said. “We’re ashamed that the politicians can’t get along and nothing gets done in this country. We’re perturbed as heck and hope we don’t have to take it anymore.”


I could see his point. I’d been feeling a little ashamed myself, and thought maybe I should join the group, although Wednesdays are choir practice in normal times when there’s no global pandemic threatening, among other things, choral singing. We’ll see when it’s over.


Meanwhile, we have to address our conspiracy theory — elsewhere labeled QAnon — shortage problem. While they’re gaining currency in Congress and elsewhere, we don’t have any here in Duluth at all. Other parts of the country are swimming in them and we’re frozen out up here in the north. I think it’s time we came up with a few to get in step with current trends.


And, of course, we have to keep in mind that our conspiracy theories will be accepted as gospel truth by some readers of this, a number of whom could use them as a basis for mounting political campaigns or rising up against the government, or else they aren’t really conspiracy theories, right? Good.


So let’s get started. We’ll call them DAnon (D for Duluth, get it?) conspiracy theories.


DAnon No. 1 — Everyone thinks our Enger Tower, atop the Duluth hill, is an innocuous tourist attraction and a good place from which to view the city from above. That’s what it appears to be, but it’s not really just a tourist trap.


People believe it is named for a dead Norwegian furniture dealer, but ENGER really stands for Electronic Notification Gyroscope for Emergency Reconnaissance. The tower is wired to communicate messages to a subversive naval alt-right nationalist group known as the Proud Buoys (naval branch of the landlubber Proud Boys) out on Lake Superior plotting to attack Duluth beneath the winter ice. (See DAnon No. 2.)


DAnon No. 2 — During World War II agents from Hitler’s Germany smuggled parts for a submarine (U Boat) through rural Canada for assembly in a remote cove of Lake Superior. The purpose of the submarine was to attack iron ore shipping on the big lake but the war came to an end before the submarine was ever used. The German agents were captured and sent to Remer, Minn., to cut timber, and several married local women. But that’s another story.


The assembled submarine remained in the remote cove until recent years when the seafaring Proud Buoys commandeered it and are conspiring to attack the massive installations of the Salvation Navy on the Duluth waterfront after sneaking through the Duluth ship canal beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge under water and ice in the dark of night. (See DAnon No. 3.) 


DAnon No. 3 — The Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge figures strongly in our final DAnon. Duluthians and tourists love our bridge. It is an iconic symbol of everything Duluth, with all of its ups and downs, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is the most photographed single object in Minnesota. But what people don’t notice is a pipe running up one end of the bridge, across the top, and down the other end. The pipe is a conduit for all of the raw sewage from Park Point, making it the most photographed sewage pipe in the western hemisphere. Put that in your sewage pipe and smell it.


Hold it! That’s no conspiracy theory; it’s true.


Never mind.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Why not put some humor in your obit...

Written for the Duluth News Tribune by Jim Heffernan for Saturday, February 6, 2021

I noticed in a recent obituary in this paper that the elderly gentleman who had died was fond of the Three Stooges. What a delightful, and insightful, thing to include in a man’s obit. I didn’t know him but wish I had.


It got me to thinking about what comedy team I might want to mention in my obituary when that day comes. I like the Three Stooges a lot too, but I think I’d prefer to be survived, on paper, by Laurel and Hardy. They are my all-time favorites, and when they show up on TV even today I am always compelled to watch. Their movies were still making the rounds in theaters when I was a kid


Still, the Three Stooges were great too — Moe, Larry and Curly (the bald one). I liked Larry the best, I think. Don’t know why. Moe was so dominant but poor Larry, a study in self-deprecation, was always the victim. Curly was he who got slapped.


Maybe more of us ought to think about what comedy team we liked best to include in our final public mention. In thinking about this subject, and before choosing Laurel and Hardy, I considered several other comedy teams.


I suppose many in my generation might choose Abbott and Costello — Bud and Lou — but not me. They were very popular when I was a kid, but even at a young age I thought Costello was too silly, presaging the serious approach to life I would take when I grew up, as readers of this can readily discern. 


When Costello sadly dropped dead in the early 1950s, it seemed like he and Abbott were almost immediately succeeded on the screen by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They became perhaps the most famous comedy team of all time, but I didn’t particularly care for them. Of course I went to all of their movies — what else was there to do? — but Jerry Lewis didn’t speak to me (too silly too) and Dean Martin was just his straight man. (In the old sense of straight.)


Back in the Abbott and Costello days, a comedy team on radio was very popular but seems almost politically incorrect to mention these days. They were called Amos and Andy and I feel it perilous to go into detail about their racially associated schtick. Not going to show up in any obituaries, I’d wager.


In more recent years (but not that recent) Rowan and Martin made a big hit with television’s “Laugh In” program but are now largely forgotten by today’s funeral directors, to whom obituary material is dictated by surviving family members. They were funny though, as was their cast of characters including Goldie Hawn and Richard Nixon, who showed up there once and uttered the famous “sock it to me” line featured each week on “Laugh In.”


Let’s see here… I’m running out of comedy teams. Well, around the same time as Nixon and Agnew were a couple of comics called Allen and Rossi. The usual fat clown and thin buddy, but they did a lot of TV and could be amusing. I don’t think they’re of obituary quality though.


I’ll digress now to a confession of a low point in my long-ago newspaper reporting years when I was assigned to go to Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza) to interview one half of an old radio comedy team called Lum and Abner. (No relation to Lil’ Abner of newspaper comic pages fame.)


Lum and Abner? I’d never heard of them. Unbeknownst to me they were apparently on radio forever with a folksy show purportedly out of some bucolic small town in Arkansas. I didn’t know that, though, when I dashed over to Hotel Duluth to interview whichever one was here to speak to some group.


The place was crowded with cheerful attendees apparently eager to hear either Lum or Abner speak, but my problem was I didn’t know which. My quest to find out became a low point in my reporting career.


The speaker was pointed out to me (of course I didn’t recognize him; I’d never heard of him) as the crowd assembled for a cocktail hour, so I approached the star and introduced myself as a reporter there to cover his lecture. He didn’t seem very friendly but that often happened when speakers realized they were going to be covered by the newspaper, especially politicians. They’d have to watch their fabricating more closely.


It was awkward for me because I didn’t know if I was talking to Lum or Abner and couldn’t proceed without knowing, so I asked:


“Which one are you, Lum or Abner?”


That pretty much ended the interview as he turned on his heel and got on a nearby elevator, the doors mercifully closing as he glared out at me after admitting he was Lum.


Not going to put Lum and Abner in my obituary.


I’ll end all this by mentioning a husband-wife comedy team on radio known as Fibber MaGee and Molly, played by Jim and Marian Jordan. They were enormously popular on radio before TV hit big in the 1950s, as they engaged their neighbors and other characters like Digger O’Dell, the friendly undertaker.


As an aside, they had a local connection. Peggy Knudsen, an actress who was born and raised in Duluth and who had considerable success in Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s, was married to their son for a time. You can Google her.


All, of course, have now been visited by Digger O’Dell’s successor brethren, hardly remembered by anyone…except me.


Even after all this, I believe I’ll stick with Laurel and Hardy.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at  

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Winter Dance Party 1959: Revisiting three days before "The Day the Music Died"...

Today is the anniversary of the Winter Dance Party Tour in Duluth on January 31, 1959,  three days before "The Day the Music Died." I've written my account of attending that historical event (along with famed Bob Zimmerman, now known as Bob Dylan) many times, most recently here on this blog. Buddy Holly and tour musicians died in a plane crash shortly after they performed in Duluth, sadly and abruptly ending the tour.

Click HERE to connect to my most recent blog post about this concert.  Kevin Pates, retired DNT sportswriter and preserver of pop history, ran a wonderful and comprehensive story in the DNT for a past anniversary of that concert. You may find related photos and his story HERE in the Attic of the Duluth News Tribune.

The Duluth National Guard Armory where this event took place is under renovation with hopes to resurrect to it's former days of glory. The Winter Dance Party Tour in Duluth on January 31, 1959 was promoted by and emceed by my old friend, Lew Latto. Latto, now deceased, was a youthful entrepreneur and radio personality while in college.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Between heaven and that other place...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, January 23, 2021

Cooped up avoiding COVID-19, witnessing history in which American Democracy is seriously challenged, and not getting any younger prompted some of these devilish thoughts:

 When I was growing up I was told that when you die you either go to heaven or to hell. If that is true, and it should turn out that I end up in hell, I’ll be interested to encounter some people I assume are there or will be coming as time goes by.


I don’t mean the usual suspects like Adolf Hitler and his team, Benito Mussolini, Joe Stalin, Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun, Roman emperor Caligula and quite a few others who have made names for themselves doing bad things.  Who would look forward to meeting them?


Not that I am responsible for condemning these men to eternal fire (yes, all men but there probably are women in hell too; read on). “Judge not that ye not be judged,” the Good Book says but I think we can agree this bunch of evildoers is roasting down there with many others of similar ilk.


Women? I had to dig a little in my memory bank, but you’d think Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose would be holding forth in the fires along with others of their gender like Lizzie Borden, who took an ax and gave her mother and father 40 and 41 whacks respectively. Their exploits in life might send them downward. Many younger people might not be aware of the exploits of Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose during World War II. Google them and you’ll find out there were several of each.


But that was long ago. Surely we have more recent malefactors to populate the place of perdition. It’s not my place to condemn anyone but if I could I’d recommend certain robo callers who telephone me several times a day to inform me that my computer has gone awry (lie) or my vehicle warranty is running out (ain’t got one) or my credit cards are being hacked (by Russians?). There’s a special place down there for them.


And then there are the young-sounding guys who greet me on the phone as “Grandpa” and want me to send money to bail them out of jail, where they are ensconced for a crime they didn’t commit. These guys are well on their way to hell at a very young age as far as I’m concerned.


Or how about some of the U.S. Capitol invaders on Jan. 6? One of them showed up doing an actual devil impersonation — horns, flowing mane, bare chest, painted face and body. Just think how proud the now ex-president must have been to have that clown among his fervent supporters. Is hell their destination? You be the judge.


Still, hades might not be all that bad all the time. There have to be some interesting people who didn’t go around starting holocausts and world wars or sacking Rome or the U.S. Capitol or whatever. The other night I was watching a movie channel on cable TV in an effort to escape that day’s news when on came “Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, the best of many actors who took that role on.


Flynn might be largely forgotten by many or unknown to today’s generation, but he was pretty hot stuff in his prime as a movie actor. Provenance of the expression “In Like Flynn” is said to have been inspired by his chosen lifestyle. Still, he seemed like an amiable guy who might be interesting to talk to if, as many surely assume, he became a denizen of hades, joining others with similar proclivities like Donald “Don” Juan and Casanova. The composer Mozart sent Mr. Juan into hades in spectacular fiery manner in one of his operas, “Don Giovanni.” Juan, Giovanni, same guy, same destination.


But there are many whose dissolute lives overlapped my own generation you’d want to avoid down there. Gangster Al Capone comes to mind. How about infamous bank robber-killer John Dillinger? Or the gang in the airplanes who were responsible for 9/11, inspired by Osama bin Laden. You can’t go around blithely murdering people and not eventually meet up with the devil himself.


In my growing-up years I was often told that any man “who never stuck his nose inside of church” would be headed in the wrong direction when his time came. I don’t know if regular church attendance is the sole criterion for eternal salvation or lack of it. I have noticed at times that when final rites are pronounced for such a person it’s said they were saved at the last minute from heading toward perdition. Good for them.


But I have to admit old Beelzebub can’t be all bad. He came up with some pretty good eats like devil’s food cake and deviled eggs.


But enough Faustian folderol. No one can be sure where one is headed or where others are going or if they’ll be going anywhere at all. It could be a surprise to some, such as the person quoted on a bumper sticker I once saw: “Where am I, and why am I in this hand basket?”


Like the great singer-songwriter Iris DeMent put it in a memorable song, I think I’ll just “Let the Mystery Be.”


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, January 9, 2021

When hair decides to part for good...

New York Magazine
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on January 9, 2021 

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m pretty bald (and there’s nothing pretty about it). Calling it “pretty bald” is a caveat; I still have some humdrum hair on my pate but it’s nothing to run the fingers through.


Most of us balding men (some women are balding too, but that’s an entirely different issue) have spent years of denial and cockeyed optimism that it somehow will cease and desist, that you’ll end up with a full head of hair in the long run. Doesn’t happen.


So we live with it as it progresses, doing our best to try to disguise it, with varying degrees of success. In some cases, these vain efforts can be an outright embarrassment, employing something called a “combover” which involves growing healthy hair remaining on the side to an ungodly length and then spreading it across the baldness on top. See Rudy Giuliani before he gave up and now just dyes his remaining hair as the dye runs down his cheek on national television. Our politics has come to this?


Speaking of politics, outgoing President Trump apparently goes to great lengths to cover a degree of baldness — who knows how much? Only his hairdresser knows for sure. It actually works pretty well most of the time. When the wind isn’t strong, his hairdo actually resembles a popular style in the 1950s, with lots pushed on top and long sides swept back almost into what we used to call a D.A. The initials stand for duck’s…well, duck’s behind.


There are certain contexts of words that are not deemed appropriate in a family newspaper like this one. You could say Biblical Samson defeated a charging lion with the jawbone of an ass (the donkey euphemism) but you shouldn’t write that Trump’s hairstyle is swept back in a duck’s same word, different meaning.


Not to pick only on outgoing President Trump. Nobody seems to mention it, but I clearly remember many years ago when President Elect Joe Biden was in the Senate and he showed up on TV with bandages on the forefront of his head after undergoing a hair transplant. I think it works better than a D.A. but I’m prejudiced. Transplants are OK as long as corn or grass onions don’t come up.


Speaking of sitting presidents, outgoing presidents, presidents elect and past presidents, I have always believed that a good head of hair is almost a requirement for getting elected president of the United States. Think about it: most of the successful presidential candidates have had pretty good heads of hair. Oh, I know President Eisenhower was quite bald, Lyndon Johnson had thinning hair and Gerald Ford was as bald as a billiard ball (to put it unkindly in a cliché) but take a look at most of the others in recent memory.


John F. Kennedy, succeeding Eisenhower, had thick hair that was a great asset to his youthful robust appearance. Johnson followed him, but then Richard Nixon, with a somewhat receding hairLINE, appeared to have a full head of healthy, rather curly, hair.


Hair-needy Ford succeeded Nixon, of course, but he was never actually elected president, having assumed the office upon Nixon’s resignation and then defeated by hirsute Jimmy Carter, who shifted his part from one side to the other during his presidency. (Just think, that used to be considered news.) Carter served just one term before Ronald Reagan showed up with a Hollywood head of hair that nobody could top…or stop.


I once read that actress Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife, recalling their marriage, remarked that Ronald had a great head of hair. I’ll say. It helped get him into the movies and the White House, no small accomplishment in one lifetime.


I’ll jump to Bill Clinton next, passing on George H.W. Bush, who had a fine head of hair but unremarkable. Clinton seemed to be all hair, and he’s never lost any of it to this day. Taking us to the present, the younger George Bush had a full head of unremarkable hair like his dad, ditto Barack Obama, who defeated Mitt Romney, who you’d think would have been elected on the basis of his own thick head of Hollywood hair, and John McCain, very thin on top.


So here we are in 2021 with a president-elect sporting transplanted hair and an outgoing (boy, is he outgoing) president with a doo so complicated it’s distracting. Vice President Elect Kamala Harris has a thick mane of brunette hair, with perhaps some shards of glass remaining from breaking through the glass ceiling.


I’m going to dispense with Vice President Mike Pence, whose snow-white full head of hair suits him fine. It’s been said that snow on the roof means a fire in the furnace. You decide.


Hmmm. Dispense with Pence. That has a ring to it.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at