ONCE UPON A TIME in The Land of Plenty, a lowly worker headed off to work in the local wagon repair shop. He wasn’t feeling particularly well. But he couldn’t take a day off simply because he felt sick. He had a family depending on his paltry wages to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
In the depth of his heart (his mother had always modeled mindfulness of others), the young man felt a tinge of guilt about laboring when he was ill. He, after all, was fully aware of a deadly virus which swept through the region and well beyond the borders of his homeland. None-the-less, need prevailed over his underlying fear of The Great Invader.
The wagon repair shop owner expected him there, sick or not. The wealthy owner held no concern for the virus and would quickly dismiss anyone who failed to show up, so focused was he on filling his coffers with gold.
And so the young man went off to work, feeling he had no choice in the matter. He continued to repair carts and wagons and sometimes even chariots inside the dank, windowless shop. Occasionally he paused to swipe the back of his filthy hand under his runny nose and to sip tepid water from a dirty tin cup.
Within days, those who worked beside him fell ill, the sickness spreading like wildfire. Even the wagon repair shop owner, who sat in a corner enclosure counting his coins, fell ill. But that didn’t matter. Everyone was expected to be at work. There were carts to fix. Wagons to repair. Chariots to get on the road. A coin box to fill.
Then one day, the young man overheard a conversation between the senior repairman and the wagon repair shop owner. The older man shared how sick his wife had become with the virus. She lay in bed wracked by fever and coughs, unable to function. Guilt swelled within him. And anger rose as he listened.
“Everyone’s sick,” the shop owner said dismissively. “You can’t stay in your hovel and hide when there’s work to be done.” The lowly worker heard not an ounce of care or concern. No compassion or mindfulness.
Regret overwhelmed the young man. What if the senior repairman’s wife died? He could not shake his sense of responsibility, his role in spreading the virus. If only he had listened to his inner voice, his conscience, his heart. His mother. If only he’d cared about those who toiled beside him and their families. If only he’d joined the line of villagers who waited for hours for a magical potion distributed throughout the region to help stop The Great Invader. If only…
IN A WINDOWLESS ROOM of Armstrong Hall on the campus of Mankato State University, I pounded out a fictional obituary on a manual typewriter.
The year was 1976. And I was learning the basics of newspaper reporting. Lesson number one: Always spell a person’s name correctly. Never assume. Ask for the spelling. There is no reporting sin worse than misspelling a name. I remembered that during my first reporting job out of college when I interviewed Dayle. Not Dale.
I learned from two of the best—Robert O. Shipman and Gladys B. Olson. They were old school journalists, determined to teach Woodward and Bernstein-hyped students how to gather facts and report with truth, accuracy and integrity. They taught the basics—how to write a strong lede, how to infuse interest into feature stories, how to get the story right…
But beyond that, they cared. Deeply. They cared about the roles newspapers play in communities. To report hard news. To share human interest stories. To inform. To keep tabs on government and schools and other groups entrusted with public monies and policies. To share and express opinions on the editorial page, considered the heart of a community newspaper. To publish obituaries. And much more.
All these decades later, I remember those lessons learned from Shipman, Olson and others who taught mass communication classes at what is today known as Minnesota State University, Mankato. I graduated in March 1978 and shortly thereafter started working as a newspaper reporter at a small town weekly, The Gaylord Hub. My career would also take me to full-time reporting jobs in Sleepy Eye, Mankato and Owatonna, and to a short-term assignment in Northfield with freelance work also tossed in the mix.
Through the years, I’ve maintained my passion for writing and grown my passion for photography. Even while raising three children, with minimal time to write. Yet, I’ve had no desire to return to the long and odd hours of working for a newspaper at low pay with the stress and pressure of deadlines and a public that criticizes more than values the free press.
Much has changed since I typed a fictional obit in Armstrong Hall on a manual typewriter. For one, technology. Two: Newspapers charge to publish obits. I still struggle with that change. But I understand given the declines in ad revenue. Three: Attitudes. The easily flung accusation of “fake news” simply angers me as does constant criticism of responsible media. “Don’t kill the messenger,” I advise those who target the media for reporting “only bad news.”
I wonder what Professors Shipman and Olson would teach students today. I expect they’d still focus on the basics. On accuracy and integrity and spelling names correctly.
While writing this post, I wanted to assure I spelled their names right, which led me to search online. It was then that I discovered some interesting facts about Olson, a petite spitfire of a woman. Shortly before she turned four, Gladys and her infant brother were orphaned as a result of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. Their parents died within 24 hours of each other, among more than 8,000 North Dakotans who died of influenza in 1919. The siblings were raised by their paternal grandparents. I wish I’d known this when Olson taught me how to become a good, decent and fair newspaper reporter.
Today, as I read Olson’s 2016 obit, I understand her backstory, what shaped her strength and resilience and kindness. The list of her accomplishments beyond journalism professor emphasizes service to others. She lived to age 101. That she died only four years before the COVID-19 pandemic is not lost on me. I’m thankful she didn’t have to endure another pandemic. I’m also thankful that she, and Robert Shipman, taught me old school journalism style. To write with fairness, integrity and accuracy. And to value the role of newspapers in a democracy.
I’m taking a bit of a break this week in my regular blogging. So please don’t worry because I’m not posting each weekday as is typical of me.
My focus now needs to be on other writing projects with deadlines in a few days. Those require my near full attention. I fell a bit behind when my father-in-law recently died and I couldn’t focus so much on writing. I still feel emotionally-drained from that and other challenges.
Be assured that I will be back soon to consistent weekday postings.
Thank you for continuing to follow Minnesota Prairie Roots, even when I pause briefly. I appreciate and value each of you and hope you are well.
Ah, a fairy tale, you say. Not exactly. Rather, this is a story rooted in reality. A story with a main character who, for ease of writing, shall be identified in secondary references as “he.” Not that The Great Invader is male.
So let’s dive into the story. Once upon a time in The Land of Plenty, The Great Invader landed, making himself comfortably at home. He was, by nature, a traveler. But he wasn’t the type of guest you’d knowingly invite into your home. You know the kind. Ungrateful. Demanding. Messy. And mean, just plain mean. Because of those undesirable traits, he soon found himself on the road, hopping from place to place under a guise of masterful deception. West Coast to East Coast. Then to the South and Up North and to the Midwest. He wanted, above all, to avoid detection and negative publicity.
But word soon got out about The Great Invader. Scientists found him especially fascinating. The more they studied the strange-looking traveler with his signature spiky hair, the more alarmed they grew. They realized he was much more than he appeared. Dangerous. He left a path of death and destruction wherever he went. Yes, that’s a cliché. But it fits.
The scientists warned about the intruder and suggested ways to deal with him. By then they’d studied him in their labs and determined that he traveled mostly by air. No ticket required. “Wear masks,” public health officials who collaborated with the scientists, advised. “Distance yourself from others. Avoid crowds. If you’re sick or feel like you’re coming down with something, stay home.” All of those tactics would discourage The Great Invader. But these proactive protocols were especially difficult for some people in The Land of Plenty to hear, let alone follow. They didn’t like anyone telling them what to do.
The Great Invader was acutely aware of these efforts to stop his adventures. He also recognized the discontent and division spreading across the land like a California wildfire. He needed a plan. And he didn’t have to think too hard. He’d simply rely on people who doubted scientists, who took little stock in warnings from health officials, who spread false information, especially via social media. People who could be a voice. He didn’t much care if that voice was loud or insidiously quiet.
As the months passed, The Great Invader found his hands-off strategy working quite well. He traveled to nearly every corner of The Land of Plenty. Even to the smallest village, where the villagers never dreamed he would visit and leave his imprint. “Why would The Great Invader come here? We have no great theaters or art museums or sports arenas or five-star restaurants or any major tourist attractions,” the villagers reasoned. So many went on with life as usual. Yet, an undercurrent of concern began to bubble when evidence of The Great Invader’s presence surfaced in the remotest of villages.
Meanwhile, across The Land of Plenty, scientists, health and government officials, and even journalists, were tracking The Great Invader on his journey around the country. And the world. They soon discovered they were no longer dealing with a sole sojourner, but rather many with magical powers. The spiky haired traveler had reproduced millions, if not billions, of times and created new versions of himself. This frightened the scientists, who by then had called upon experts to develop a battle plan. They needed to stop the traveler as he asserted his deadly powers. So researchers created a powerful potion to protect the people.
Soon squabbles arose as to who would get the potion first. The Great Invader laughed. He thrived on chaos, confusion and discontent. And lies. He admired selfishness.
He also secretly applauded those who defied common sense and science. He reveled, especially, in those in The Land of Plenty who refused to wear face masks. He celebrated every single person who wore their masks below their noses. And he saw plenty of those, whom he considered valued allies. The mask-less and the half-maskers allowed The Great Invader to travel with ease. If he found himself temporarily removed from a region, he just moved on for a while, only to return when people thought he’d permanently left.
And so, while the people of the land claimed all sorts of indignities brought on by The Great Invader and even tried to stop distribution of the powerful potion, he continued mapping his routes, plotting strategies and documenting his travels in his Once Upon a Time journal.
NOTE:In every story there are truths, this one no exception. To all who have encountered The Great Invader/COVID-19 at his worst, I am sorry.
Observations in my community of Faribault sparked the idea for this story. As COVID-19 infections and deaths rise in Rice County, I see too many individuals in public who are wearing masks below their noses and/or mouths or not masking at all. I am beyond frustrated. We’re not talking just a few people. While I shopped at a local big box retailer, a smaller discount store and grocery stores recently, I saw perhaps 30 individuals who were half-maskers, plus a mask-less couple and children old enough to wear masks (but who were unmasked). Employees were among those half-maskers. I implore the people of Faribault to, please, just wear a tight-fitting, multi-layered mask, and wear it over your mouth AND nose. It’s not that difficult.
I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.
According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”
I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”
The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.
The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).
My poem, “Final Harvest,” and second piece of creative nonfiction, “A Quick Guide to Practicing Minnesota Nice,” were also chosen for publication in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.
This year’s book features 139 poems and stories (selected from 300 submissions) by 92 Minnesota-connected writers. My writing has published many times in The Talking Stick and earned multiple honors.
Copies of the latest book and past volumes are available for purchase at jackpinewriters.com. On the back cover of Insights, the editors note, “In the midst of social distancing, in the midst of mask wearing and Plexiglas shields, we are all grieving the changes in our world. But let’s keep one thing the same—you can still curl up with a good book and read. You can open the pages of Talking Stick 29 and see what your fellow Minnesota writers have written, and some how, perhaps, we can all feel a little bit closer.”
I’d encourage you to order a copy of this collection featuring so many talented writers. That includes Bernadette Hondl Thomasy, a native of Owatonna and a reader of this blog. Her “Mother’s Mojo” also earned honorable mention in creative nonfiction. She co-authored the book, Under Minnesota Skies, with her sister Colleen Hondl Gengler. Minnesota, in my opinion, has produced many gifted writers in all genres. And you’ll find a fine sampling of those creatives in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.
A CARDBOARD BOX, stacked in an under-the-roof storage space on the second floor of my house, holds layers of yellowed newspaper clippings. Not stories of personal value because they are about me or my family. But rather stories I wrote, as a community journalist.
In March 1978, newly-graduated with a mass communications degree from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), I started my multi-faceted job at The Gaylord Hub. I was the first-ever journalist hired at the small rural weekly in Gaylord, the county seat of Sibley County. Prior to that, family at the then second-generation family-owned paper covered all the editorial work.
I did everything from writing news stories and features to taking and printing photos to writing headlines to going to the printing plant and then swinging canvas bags full of newspapers into the back of a van for delivery to the post office. I learned nearly every aspect of community newspapers except selling and designing ads and covering sports. Under the guidance of a supportive, encouraging and kind editor and publisher, Jim Deis, I grew my skills and my passion for small town community journalism.
A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub.
Forty years after I left The Hub, the newspaper still arrives weekly in my mailbox. Jim passed many years ago. His son, Joe, just a kid when I worked at the paper, now serves as the third-generation editor and publisher. And last week he republished a feature, No need for the bubble gum, I wrote in July 1979. Perhaps my one and only sports story. I interviewed the Max brothers—Mike and Marc—for a feature about their sports card collection.
I recall going to the brothers’ home in Lakeside Acres and the piles and piles of bagged, boxed and loose cards numbering some 7,000. But I didn’t remember details of that interview with the 9 and 14-year-olds. So rereading that story I wrote 41 years ago proved entertaining, especially considering where one of those boys landed. Mike Max went on to become the sports director for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities. And more recently, he expanded to hard news by covering the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
WCCO personality Mike Max, up close in a photo I took in 1979. Photo by Audrey Kletscher from The Gaylord Hub.
But back to that 1979 feature I wrote. Here’s my favorite quote from Mike:
“I was always interested in sports. I saw packs (of collector cards and bubble gum), so I would sneak some money and buy a whole bunch,” he said.
That was despite his mother’s orders to buy “only one pack.” He would buy about eight packs, hide seven in his pocket and show his mom the “one pack” he had bought.
Barb Max said she found out about her son’s tricks, but years later.
I love that part of the story.
But I find equally humorous this paragraph from my feature:
The two plan on keeping their cards, but speculate on selling some of them if the price is right. “I’ll save them until I get real old,” Marc said. “I’ll save them until they’re worth more and more, but maybe someday sell them if I need money real bad.”
A section of the republished story from 1979.
Reflecting on that feature of four decades ago, I am reminded of the importance of community newspapers. These are the stories we are losing as more and more small town weekly newspapers, and even some dailies, are folding. Declines in advertising revenue and subscribers, rising expenses and the growth of online media alternatives have all factored into the demise of print journalism. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that saddens me. We are losing such a valuable part of our communities. The watchdogs. The storytellers. The historians. The source of information about public meetings, community events, deaths—news in general. The media is too often under attack, blamed for reporting too much bad news. Don’t kill the messenger, I say.
I will always remain grateful for the two years I worked as The Cub from the Hub, a name tagged to me while in Gaylord. There I learned and grew as a writer, always striving for integrity, honesty and balanced reporting. By far, feature writing proved the most enjoyable aspect of my work. From Gaylord, I would go on to report for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, The Mankato Free Press (St. James bureau), The Owatonna People’s Press and The Northfield News. Some were temporary fill-in jobs, others full-time. But no matter where I worked, I worked long, hard hours at low pay to cover the community. I reported the hard news and attended endless city council/school board/county board meetings into the late hours of the night. And sometimes I wrote, too, about kids who collect sports cards. Kids like Mike Max and his younger brother, Marc.
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
That memorable quote from the movie Forrest Gump rings so true in life. To a point. With a box of chocolates, you can choose. You can use the cheat sheet to find your preferred flavor. Let’s call that planning. Or you can take a risk and just grab a chocolate, any chocolate.
And then you bite into the sweet morsel and it’s either exactly what you expected, a disappointment or a sweet surprise.
Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Life is like that. Some days all goes exactly as we plan. Other days not so much. And then there are those days when you simply want to take the entire box of chocolates and toss them out because the “you never know what you’re gonna get” part is just too much to handle.
Yeah, this seems rather heavy to write about on Valentine’s Day. But there’s a reason. The other evening, while donating blood, I struck up a conversation with the young woman drawing my blood. I noticed a tattoo on her arm and inquired about the poetic sentence inked thereon. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was beautiful and honored the loved one who penned it. Her brother. Today marks exactly six months since his unexpected death.
I told her how sorry I was for her loss. And then she asked if I wanted to hear the story behind her tattoo and that’s when the phlebotomist told me about her brother and how they’d always wanted to get the same tattoo and now it was too late. And then, while paging through her brother’s journals, she found the quote that now graces her arm.
He was a writer. And a veteran. I looked up his obit online. He struggled, after two deployments, to readjust to life.
As I sat on the table, blood flowing from my vein into a bag that would bring life-saving blood to someone, I considered this young woman, her brother and the loss of his life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t angry. Sad, yes. Yet, she had no choice but to go on with life, she said. I admired her positive attitude in the newness of her grief.
She talked, too, about how writing helps her deal with her loss. Like me, she holds a degree in communications, is a published writer and loves writing. It was reaffirming, even in the darkness of the topic which prompted our conversation, to talk shop with someone who loves the craft as much as I do. I encouraged her to keep writing. She smiled. And I felt that in some way perhaps I’d helped her. And myself. We agreed that writing is therapeutic and that we can’t allow life to get in the way of our writing. No more excuses.
And then, four minutes and 17 seconds after blood began flowing, the collection bag was full and we wrapped up our conversation while she filled tubes and wrapped my arm in tape. I thanked her. And it wasn’t just for her work with the Red Cross.
As I sat at the snack and recovery table, I commented on a patriotic tattoo covering nearly the entire right arm of a blood donor. It honors those who serve, he said. And then the young man directly across the table—the father of three young children who came with his wife to donate—shared that he’s a veteran. His wife, too. She was by this time already giving blood. We thanked him for his service, which includes several deployments. I couldn’t help but think of the other vet, the brother gone.
This felt like one of those moments meant to be. Here a small group of people came together on a bitterly cold Minnesota winter evening to donate blood at the local Eagles Club. And by the time we all left, we felt a connection, bonding over tattoos and stories and a genuine care and appreciation for one another.
Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But on this evening we got the choicest of chocolates. Without a cheat sheet. Without any planning or effort on our parts. Because sometimes life brings sweet surprises when we most need them.
FYI:I welcome any chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! Make today the day you will reach out to someone, ask a question, listen to a story, offer support, show compassion and love.
AS A CREATIVE, I always appreciate the opportunity to get my work out to a broader audience. I want to share my images and words. Not because I possess some big ego. But rather I want others to view the world around them through an artful perspective. With joy. With appreciation. Through the creative lens of a writer and photographer who seeks to notice the details within the wider picture, to engage all the senses. I strive for that in my art.
Each month I’ll craft a photo essay, accompanied by several paragraphs of text, in a column titled Through a SoMinn Lens. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you’ll see familiar images. And other photos I haven’t previously published here. All the copy, though, will be new with my column leaning toward poetic prose. As a published poet, I value that art form. Journalistic style writing is reserved for the occasional features I will also pen for Southern Minn Scene.
I also crafted a feature on the annual Germanfest at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. That’s east of Faribault and near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I’ve posted about that ethnic celebration several times here. I love the people of St. John’s. They are friendly, kind, and incredible cooks and bakers. The story proved an ideal fit for this food-themed issue of Southern Minn Scene. Be sure to read other writers’ food-focused stories about tasty desserts in the region to new foods at the Minnesota State Fair.
Beyond that, thank you for valuing art, whether literary, visual or performing. Today, more than ever, we need the arts. They enhance our lives, bring joy, broaden our worlds, our perspectives.
Disclaimer: I am paid for my work published by Southern Minn Scene, but not for this post.
Several years ago friends posted shamrocks in my yard on St. Patrick’s Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2015.
BECAUSE ST. PATRICK’S DAY falls on a Sunday this year, I feel inclined to share with you a post I wrote for Indiana-based Christian publisher Warner Press. I’ve been blogging for Warner for nearly a year now and became the blog coordinator there in January.
This opportunity with Warner Press has blessed me in multiple ways by growing my writing ministry, faith family and personal faith and also financially.
As part of my job, I develop blog post ideas with the marketing team, then assign or write those posts. I assigned myself a St. Patrick’s Day blog post that emphasizes blessings over luck, a word often associated with this Irish celebration.