Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

Crowning a champion

The entire point of spectator sports is to crown a champion. What fun is it if we don't find out who is the best? 

But finding out who is the best is never simple. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series, but nobody in baseball will tell you the Cards are the best team. 

Of the eight teams who made the baseball playoffs, St. Louis had the worst record. They just got hot at the right time, and good for them.  

College football struggles annually to find out who is "the best." With hundreds of teams in the NCAA, they can't very well play each other down to a single champion. Nobody'd be left standing.

So, college football goes with rankings. Sportswriters used to vote who was best, then the coaches, and now they've handed over the duty to a computer. 

Nobody likes the results. Everybody hungers for a "true champion," whatever that might mean. 

The problem gets worse when the ranking fetish spreads into areas where you just can't rank. 

For instance, Rolling Stone magazine came out with a list a few years back entitled "The Top 100 Rock and Roll Songs of All Time."

What gives some magazine editors the right to anoint a champion of rock and roll? Did they hold playoffs? 

Did "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones knock off Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" with a home run in the bottom of the ninth? 

Despite the absurdity of the exercise, the issue of the magazine that proclaimed "Gimme Shelter" the true champion sold like hotcakes.

Imagine a tournament-style bracket which pits the nations of the world against each other. 

Although ranked nearly last in pre-war polls, Afghanistan knocked off the defending champion British before shocking the #2 ranked Soviet Union. Finally, they humbled the #1 ranked United States by playing them to a tie in a game now in its thirty-fifth inning.

Afghanistan clearly deserves to be ranked number one! 

Thirty years ago as a high school senior, I was given the task at graduation of eulogizing a favorite teacher who had passed away during the year. 

After carefully writing out the brief speech, which I thought was perfect, I proudly took the paper out to the field for my Dad to review. 

Dad shut off the tractor, read the speech, thought a bit and said, "Well, it is good, except for one thing."

I couldn't imagine he could find fault with my perfect oration, so I was taken aback. 

"Always avoid the superlative!" Dad said. 

In the interests of creating a touching tribute, I had filled the speech with phrases like "he was the best..." and "he was the most..." 

I had decided to crown a champion. 

Not wise, said Dad.

"Every time you announce that somebody is the best," Dad said, "you invite your audience to disagree."

"Instead of saying he was the best coach," Dad went on, "say that he was an excellent coach." 

"That way you won't put anybody in second place," Dad went on, "and you won't raise yourself to the position of making a judgement you may not be entitled to make." 

I reluctantly purged the speech of the superlatives. I had really wanted to crown a champion. As sound as Dad's advice was, giving a speech that didn't crown a champion wasn't as satisfying. 

But over the years, the wisdom of refusing to rank has become obvious. 

We drive ourselves nuts when we try to turn every endeavor into a competition for a championship. 

Who is the best cook? There are contests on TV. 

In reality, turning the art of food into a competition is blasphemy. Every great meal is a triumph with everybody who partakes a winner!

Who is the best gardener? What a ridiculous question. Good gardeners know that we all have something to learn from everybody else. The more good gardens the merrier.

Who is the best writer? A mud wrestling tournament would probably be as fair a way to decide as any. 

Who makes the best lefse in the world? 

Oh, come on, as long as it isn't like chewing on a sandal, one sheet of lefse is indistinguishable from the next. 

And finally, what is the greatest rock and roll song in history? 

The question is stupid, one that should be confined to a loud, well-lubricated conversation by ex-jocks around a camp fire during deer hunting.

Instead, just say, "I really like 'Gimme Shelter'" and discuss why. 

There's no need to always crown a champion. 


Time for comfort food

As we head into the cozy days of late autumn, our bodies demand that we eat big platefuls of comfort food and then go back and dish up some more. 

Comfort food, to me, is mashed potatoes, gravy and meat. And maybe some white bread with loads of real butter. 

Forget vegetables. As the weather gets colder, my appetite for vegetables withers up to nothing. 

Part of the reason is that the garden is done. 

No more fresh, juicy tomatoes. They froze. If you want tomatoes in late October, it is back to the pink, tough tomatoes from the store. 

Corn on the cob is a distant memory. 

Canned corn is about as good as canned vegetables get, but it is nothing like fresh corn on the cob. 

The apples on the porch have started to wrinkle. They're not what they were. 

As the weather turns gray, area restaurants and cafeterias go back to gray canned green beans and watery gray peas.

Both should be banned.  

Frozen veggies are slightly better, but they aren't as tender as the good stuff fresh out of the garden. 

The only veggies I enjoy in the fall are those which have been pickled into oblivion. 

Something tells me pickled vegetables have so many extra goodies in them that their health benefits are canceled out. But who cares. 

Pickled beets. Pickled peppers. Bread and butter pickles. Relishes. Pickled beans. Pickled garlic. Anything pickled tastes good in the fall. 

Then there is fresh sauerkraut. There's nothing like crunchy, rubbery, delicious fresh homemade sauerkraut. In late fall, sauerkraut is so much better than other cabbage delivery systems such as cole slaw. 

Sauerkraut doesn't get old because it is already old and rotten when it is fresh. 

So, this is the time of year when we eat our veggies fermented. 

Or, you can do like the Lutherans and just change the definition of a vegetable. 

The fall of the year is when I agree with the Lutherans on their liberal redefinition of the term “salad.”

Forget the lettuce. It is too much work to chew, and it is too cold. 

Forget the radishes, the raw carrots, the raw celery, all of that stuff. 

No, in the Lutheran church basement, a "salad" can consist of jello chunks in whipped cream with ground walnuts sprinkled top. Apple chunks are optional.

Yep, that's a salad in Lutheran theology, even though most religions would consider such a dish dessert. 

One should note that even break-away Lutheran sects which prefer their scripture literally interpreted go all wobbly when it comes to the definition of "salad."

I mean, since the days of the Founding Fathers, a "salad" has been something that contains crunchy vegetables. 

Not in this modern age. Not with the Lutherans. 

Bring a tossed lettuce salad, or any vegetable that crunches, to a Lutheran funeral in December and see if you get anybody to bite.  

They won't touch it. Instead, they'll go for a "salad" with jello that contains a few shreds of carrot slathered over with cream cheese. That is about as close as they'll get to a raw vegetable until April. 

Because the concoction is called a "salad," they can chart on their calorie counter like they would lettuce. 

It reminds me of when the Reagan administration declared ketchup a vegetable. 

The Reaganites were trying to save money on the school lunch program. Ketchup was cheaper and less fatal to schoolchildren than gray canned green beans. 

But the Lutherans weren't thinking about cost when they redefined Jello as a vegetable.  They liberalized their definition of salad to include Cool Whip and cream cheese out of respect for the dietary biorhythms of Nordics in the northland. 

Nobody wants to eat fresh, crunchy vegetables this time of year! Who knows where those veggies came from, anyway? Who knows how they were fertilized? Who knows if they're even real? 

Better to be safe and redefine the word "salad" to include anything less sweet than pie and ice cream.

More to the point, Lutheran cooks realize it is better to follow our instincts and allow ourselves the extra padding that fall comfort food provides. 

You can bet that when we're stuck in a snow drift on a township road at thirty below with a dead cellphone, we'll be glad we packed on those few extra pounds. 

A lot of good lettuce will do you then. 


Blessed are the caretakers

For the past twenty years or more, an area church on a busy highway has been known for the spectacular flower bed out by its sign. 

Members took pride in the flower bed. "I go to the church with the nice flowers by the sign," they'd say, and everybody from a fifty-mile radius would know just which church they meant even though there are many other churches with flowers by their sign. 

The woman behind the flowers was Marlys. She picked out the flowers, she planted them, she watered them and she picked off the dead blooms. 

Marlys had the touch. And she took the time. 

Marlys was a caretaker, and the flowers were her pride and joy.

When Marlys passed away last spring, the church made a wise, if sad, decision: They would not try to find a new Marlys. 

Oh, they could have strong-armed a Monica or a Michelle to volunteer to be Marlys, but they would have taken the job out of guilt and obligation. 

Monica or Michelle would be so busy driving the minivan to swimming lessons all summer that the thought of spending what little spare time they had to pick dead blooms off flowers at the church would become unbearable. 


It just wouldn't have gotten done.

So, the church decided to discontinue the flowers. "Nobody has the time," was probably the given reason. 

The real reason is that when you lose a caretaker like a Marlys, you can't replace them. 

Research has shown that 42.7 percent of the flower caretakers at area churches are named Marlys. In second place is the name Phyllis with 24.2 percent. 

But the Marlys's and Phyllis's are getting up there in years and the Monicas and Michelles of the next generation are just too busy.


They aren't yet in touch with their inner Marlys. 

Same goes for Duane, the guy who always took care of the cemetery even though few people realized it. 

When Duane came down with Parkinson's, a full-scale crisis broke out at the church as they sought a replacement who would do the job for the $35 per month Duane received. 

Nobody volunteered, so they brought in one of these new fangled lawn services that hires kids in their teens to run the trimmers and the mowers. 

About five of them show up Tuesday at sunset and roar around for a while and then leave.  The grass is long again by Sunday, but that is never a consideration. 

Those kids aren't Duane. They run over the flowers and kill the shrubs with the weed trimmer and don't even show up until the grass is good and long. 

And when that bill comes in the fall! Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a job Duane used to do for next to nothing. 

"This is just crazy," the cemetery committee frets, vowing to find a new lawn service that will do the job for less. I mean, we are a church, after all! Doesn't that count for something? 

However, unlike Marlys' flower bed, you can't just discontinue mowing the cemetery when Duane gives out. 

So you hope for somebody to leave some money for mowing and "upkeep." 

But those professional upkeepers aren't the real thing. They aren't caretakers, like Duane and Marlys. 

They don't drive by slowly and if they see something amiss, pull in and take care of it without marking down their time anywhere. 

The point of all of this is not to get depressed over the ever-decreasing numbers of Duanes and Marlys's. Caretakers come and caretakers go. 

In time, others may come forward and, as unlikely as it sounds, you might have a Jeremy or a Jerod who takes care of the furnace for the next thirty years. 

Who knows, maybe Chelsea will start bringing flowers when her tattoos start to fade. 

No, the point is to be thankful for the caretakers while they are still doing their caretaking. Offer to help them. Get your kids to help them. 

Maybe one of the helpers will take an interest. Maybe one of them will understand the quiet satisfaction Marlys and Duane got from taking care of things with no fanfare for twenty-five years. 

Marlys and Duane probably knew what would happen when they were gone. 

"Marlys always just took care of it," they’ll say at the committee meeting.

"What are we going to do now?"

Blessed are the caretakers, for we know not what they do until they're gone.


A secular saint

From the moment twenty years ago when I pulled my first Apple computer out of the box and flipped on the switch, I knew Steve Jobs was on my side. 

The only reason I bought a computer was to write. In English. I didn't care to learn a new language, which is what you had to do to use a computer before. 

The computer experts hated the simplicity of the Apple. They hated and mocked Jobs' creation all while trying to imitate it, and poorly. 

They hated that any idiot could use an Apple computer. 

Just as PVC pipe has made it possible for any idiot to think he's a plumber, the magic of the Apple computer was that you no longer had to learn magic to use one. 

Since the beginnings of civilization, the world has been cursed with by complicators, people who take simple truths and turn them into complicated systems described by complicated jargon. 

Their one goal? To make the simple truth inaccessible to the masses and so they can charge them for access to it. 

Every great religion in the world started with a simplifier, a mystical seeker who spouted simple, jarringly obvious truths in simple, compelling terms. 

Then along come the complicators, the theologians, the systematizers, the pasty-faced nerds with more brains than wisdom who muck up simple truths into incomprehensible jargon.

Now, to understand the religion, you have to pay the nerds to teach you the system. 

Once you've gone to the trouble of learning the system, of course you want to maintain its value and specialness, so you turn around and impose it on others. 

"No, you can't simply turn on a machine and write in English," they would say. "You must learn our special language first." 

The motive of the complicators isn't just money. They want a sense that they possess special knowledge. The easiest way to do develop special knowledge is to complicate what is simple. 

Of course, there are a few professions where specialized terms are necessary. Doctors and scientists need thousands of names just to describe the details of creation. You can't just call that thing-a-ma-jig that hangs from your throat a thing-a-ma-jig. 

But in most cases and in most trades, specialized jargon is unnecessary. 

In the nursery trade, we used to grow and sell plants. Now, we are the "green industry" and we "install plant materials." 

Stock brokers used to sell stocks. Now they "take a position in equities." 

People have become "individuals." 

Buildings have become "facilities." 

At every turn, the complicators try to create their own language, their own world, their own specialty. 

The only things they add to the sum of human knowledge are syllables. And textbooks. And degrees. And consulting jobs. 

Enter Steve Jobs, the apostle of simplicity, the prophet of practicality.

Somehow, the impulse to use one's expertise to complicate everything didn't show up in the very brainy Steve Jobs.

Instead, Jobs worked at every turn to simplify, simplify, simplify. 

For this, he was reviled. His crime? Unlike other computer peddlers, Jobs didn't insist that Apple computers bat you over the head with an obscure language and a crazy, impenetrable instruction manual. 

Jobs insisted upon a common language. 

When you turn on an Apple computer, you can be writing in two minutes. If you want to get fancy, you may do that later, but it is optional. 

Jobs insisted that the nuts and bolts, all of the complicated programming that goes into a computer, be hidden behind a simple, friendly front. 

Naturally, the brainy geniuses who create computer programs were offended that the complexity of their creations was no longer visible. 

They were offended that Jobs made computers accessible to the masses, thus robbing the experts of their expertise. 

The technocrats even fired Jobs from the company he founded, before they hired him back to preside over a second period of massive growth. 

Under Jobs, Apple Computer grew from a small business to one of the five largest companies in the world. For once, simplicity trumped complexity. 

Apple isn't perfect. Their computers are assembled by cheap labor in China. They hoard new innovations to get people to buy new machines before their old ones are worn out. 

Yet, Steve Jobs' passion for simplicity and his refusal to complicate have made him, in death, something of a secular saint. 


Aunt Olive turns 100

My great-aunt Olive turned 100 years-old last week.

It is difficult to imagine that she was born in 1911, before the start of World War I. 

Aunt Olive remembers seeing Charles Lindbergh fly over on a barnstorming tour. She remembers seeing her first car. She remembers when women were finally given the right to vote in 1919.

Others of her memories might seem strange to people born later: Olive remembers the first woman in the neighborhood to purchase a purse. 

A purse was a new-fangled idea at that time and nobody on the farm could afford one. This woman, however, flaunted her wealth and lugged along her purse wherever she went. 

Her mortified relatives apologized to Aunt Olive's family when the woman had the gall to bring her purse along over for supper. What a rude display of wealth!

The next-door neighbors of Aunt Olive’s family, the Ericksons, were also wealthy. The measure of their wealth? A three-hole outhouse. Most other farms made do with a one-holer. 

While we were driving through the countryside near her old stomping grounds a few years ago, Aunt Olive pointed out an old church. 

"That’s where I attended my first funeral," she said. 

The service was for a six-year-old classmate who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. 

I tried to imagine how those who attended the funeral dressed. No doubt, there were horses and buggies lined up outside. 

A more obvious question for a 100-year-old: what is the secret to your longevity? 

Aunt Olive would right away tell you it has been her vitamins. She takes various miracle supplements daily. 

Fortunately, nursing homes have liberalized their attitudes towards mail-order pills and they just let Olive take whatever she wants. 

However, I don't think the pills have much to do with it. 

The secret to Aunt Olive's longevity, I argue, is her attitude. Her outlook on life has always been delusionally positive.

There is simply nothing that can happen that Olive will not say was for the best. 

When Aunt Olive got the flu two years ago, she so enjoyed getting hot blankets and lemon tea from the staff at what she calls the Fertile Hilton. 

"It was like a cruise," she said. "I almost hated to get well!" 

When Aunt Olive ends up in the hospital with a broken limb or a heart attack, she is always so grateful to get a chance to meet those nice new nurses. 

Her eyesight is going. "This mackerel degeneration is no fun," she says, immediately adding that she's just grateful to be able to see at all. 

Her brain is going. "I lost a big chunk of my brain last month," she said last week before her 100th birthday party. "I am going to have to just bluff my way through." 

Bluff her way through, she did. But she had been planning this party for a year, and she was ready. 

When I assured her we had enough cake for 200 people, she said, "Well, you'll just have to get donuts for the rest."

People came from far and wide. 

One of her students from 71 years ago drove over from the Iron Range. 

Her best friend from her days of teaching in Las Vegas flew in with her husband. 

Relatives came from hundreds of miles distant, as did local friends Olive has met since she moved into the Fertile Hilton five years ago. 

The party was to start at 2 p.m., but Aunt Olive got up at 7 a.m. and started primping with the help of the Hilton staff. By noon, she called, wanting a ride, ready to roll. 

When we pulled back into the Hilton eight hours later, after after she had greeted dozens of people and held court for hours, Olive said, "Funny, I feel more peppy that when we left!" 

No surprise. 

Aunt Olive despaired a bit in the car on the way home. So many people came. Former students. Old friends. Long-lost relatives. How was she even going to remember everybody who showed up to her big party? 

I assured her that the huge box of cards in the back seat would give her a winter's worth of memories.

Then, Olive settled the dilemma herself.

"I am 100 years old!" she said, as if it had just hit her. "You'd think that would earn me a little slack!"



Happy trails

After the first frost, the trails through the woods once again become accessible. No ticks. No mosquitoes. The poison ivy is bright red and easy to spot. 

From my earliest memory, one of the great charms of living on a large tract of land in the country has been the paths and trails. 

When we pulled our trailer house onto the farm, it wasn't long before a cow path developed around the front the trailer, right along the woods and up to Grandma's front step. 

From single lane walking paths to two-rutted trails for the tractor which ran through tunnels in the woods, trails, especially those carved out by wear and tear, captured my imagination. 

Grandpa, however, despised naturally-formed trails. To his last days, if he was in the car, he ordered the driver to pull up out of the ruts so as not to wear them deeper. 

If a cowpath started to form on the lawn, Grandpa issued directives to walk beside the path rather than on it so the grass would grow more evenly. 

Roads should be well-groomed and placed deliberately, Grandpa believed.

I suspect his strong road opinions were forged when Grandpa was 12-years-old. Due to the death of his father, Grandpa had to contribute the family's share of labor to build local roads in the 1920s. 

Barefoot with his horse and primitive scraper, Grandpa worked with men double his age and learned the craft of building and maintaining roads. 

For the rest of his life, Grandpa did not leave roads to chance, even paths out to the back forty. 

We had a road grader that we pulled with the old Ford Tractor. Grandpa stood on back and adjusted the blade with a pair of parallel steel wheels. 

Just when the driveways around the farm were getting smooth and worn, perfect for riding bike, Grandpa would attach the road grader to the Ford and have me pull him around the farm. 

He used the blade to cut the edge of the road, which pulled big clumps of sod to the middle. He dragged the gravel from the side of the road to the middle to help the road shed water. 

With loose gravel and sod spread all over the road, riding bike became a trick. You had to avoid the sod clumps and rocks to stay upright. 

In about sixth grade, a revolutionary idea hit me. Our farm was filled with woods and swamp. Why not build my own trails? 

I took a lopping shears and cleared out the prickly ash. My first trail was modest. It led out to the edge of the ditch. I could climb the ditch with my little motorcycle, and immediately dip into the woods, go back around on the driveway down into the ditch and up, over and over. 

Then I extended the trail. Each day, my sister and I used it as a shortcut to get down to the corner to wait for the bus. 

On these pure, clear fall afternoons, I couldn't wait to get home after school to get out into the woods to clear more prickly ash and carve out more trails. 

Later, I went on to a larger woods, added the skid steer loader to my arsenal of equipment and made a truly impressive trail around the big swamp. 

I never knew what Grandpa thought of my trail-making. When I once buried the skid steer deep in the woods near the swamp while making a trail, it took Dad and Grandpa and two tractors to pull me out. 

Grandpa sat on his tractor without expression, sort of like a big old dog in the corner at a party who has seen all the stupid human tricks and is no longer impressed or even interested. 

I finished the trail through the big woods and wore it into submission with the three wheeler. When the cousins visited, we timed our laps for the entire 1/2 mile and kept track of our speeds. 

I was sure Grandpa took a dim view of my well-worn trail. 

Then one day he mentioned that his favorite spot on my trail was where twin towering poplars stood at about the trail's mid-point. 

Turns out, Grandpa had been using my new trail for his walk for quite some time. 

Although Grandpa never said a word about my trail-building efforts, if he used the trail for his walk, I took that to mean he must have approved of the result. 


The end of MAD

During the Cold War, the Pentagon armed the state of North Dakota with so many nuclear warheads that if the state had pulled out of the Union, it would have been the third largest nuclear power in the world. 

Despite our proximity to North Dakota, northern Minnesota missed out on the nuclear boom. We're just as close to Moscow, but the Pentagon built no missile silos east of the Red River. 

You wonder which bureaucrat in Washington, D. C. made that decision. 

The nuke boom brought a lot of jobs to North Dakota, but it also made the state a target for missiles from the Soviet Union. 

From where I grew up, we could see North Dakota from my front doorstep. 

As a kid with a vivid imagination, my childhood nightmares often featured dozens of fiery mushroom clouds rising to the west. 

In the case of a nuclear exchange, I knew the Dakotans across the river would fry first, but it wouldn't be more than a few minutes before we'd sizzle on the Minnesota side, too. 

My fears were later confirmed by Cold War era movies that depicted Grand Forks, ND as the first American city to be incinerated by Soviet missiles. 

Of course, if Grand Forks was hit, the effects would be felt for hundreds of miles in every direction. 

In the back of all of our minds, we knew we would be doomed. 

For the length of the Cold War, the prospect of a sudden nuclear exchange between the United States and Soviet Union always loomed, and not just in the tender minds of sixth graders who read Reader's Digest too much.  

The two superpowers nearly lobbed bombs at each other across the Arctic during the famous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was a scary time. 

Less publicized, even today, are other close calls. As aging retired civil servants from the 1960s and 1970s write their memoirs, we learn that the two sides approached the brink other times as well. 

Fears of nuclear annihilation were realistic. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the policy of both the United States and the USSR. 

The plan? If one country launched a missile attack, the other would fire off all their missiles in response. Both nations would be destroyed and nobody would win. 

The policy was insane. However, because both sides retained leaders with at least a minimal sense of responsibility for the fate of humanity as a whole, a final crisis was always averted. 

What kids under twenty-five years of age these days don't understand is the fear we all felt during the Cold War. 

Today, Islamic terrorists might strike buildings in New York and kill thousands, or a right-wing terrorist might set off a bomb in Oklahoma City that kills dozens. 

However scary, those attacks are relatively limited in scope. 

But a nuclear war would have done us all in. Millions of us. At once. City or country. No bomb shelter, no hiding under desks, no ducking in the basement would have saved us.  

When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, that ever-present threat of instant obliteration vanished from our psychology in an instant. 

I'll never forget the unbelievable moment nearly twenty years ago when a trembling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stood next to Russian president Boris Yeltsin and dissolved the Soviet Union. 

The Cold War was over. For the first time since 1949, we could rest easy and feel secure that we wouldn't be fried by hundreds of nuclear bombs while we slept. 

The long-standing nuclear threat was like background noise, a constant buzzing that you forgot was there. 

When the threat disappeared, the effect was like when the fridge quits running. You don't realize the thing was rattling until it shuts off, and then does it ever get nice and quiet. 

But pretty soon you forget how quiet it is and some other distraction comes up and you forget how nice it is not to have the fridge rattling. 

We have moved on, as we always do. The Soviet Union is forgotten except in the minds of a few old Cold Warriors who mistakenly use the term to refer to Russia. 

But we would be remiss if we let the twentieth anniversary of the single most significant, dramatic and world-changing historical event in the past sixty-five years go unobserved. 


Courageously, recklessly free

 "The day we changed" ran the headline in a local daily paper on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. 

September 11, 2001 was a horrific day. Most of us know people who lost loved ones or people who narrowly escaped flying on one of the ill-fated planes. 

We all also know people who have served overseas in the ensuing wars, and we know of the scars they bear. 

The images remain seared in our minds. 

Yet, I think we should fight the notion that our national psychology changed that day. 

The low-grade vandals who pulled off 9/11 hoped Americans would change, that we'd become paranoid, that we'd become less free, that we'd become afraid, paralyzed, unwilling to take advantage of the great boon that is living in the United States of America. 

Up until 9/11, our nation had lived without invasion by a foreign power since the British burned the White House in 1814. 

Yes, it is a shock when our luxurious sense of safety is violated. 

However, other developed nations have survived much worse.

During the three months of the Blitz in England in 1941, the British people endured nightly Nazi bombings that eventually killed 43,000 civilians. 

Due to their military unpreparedness, the British were unable to defend their skies. 

However, the out-gunned Royal Air Force picked off a few Nazi bombers and inflicted enough damage to give the Nazis pause. 

During the nightly onslaught by 2,600 Nazi bombers, the British policy was to recover from each attack as quickly as possible, clean up the mess and move on with daily life. 

The King and the Queen, in an act of patriotic courage, stubbornly stayed in London through it all. 

Winston Churchill made a point of watching the nightly bombing, a "great show," in his words, from London rooftops. 

And in the end, after three months of nightly terror, the British people prevailed. The Nazis failed to soften up the country enough to invade. 

The Battle of Britain, despite the massive casualties suffered by the British public, was a great victory for their nation. 

The victory came in large part due to the refusal of the people of Great Britain to cave in to their fears. They refused to give up. They maintained their stiff upper lip. 

Modern-day Israel suffers constant terrorism. Yet the policy of the Israeli government is to clean up as quickly as possible after every attack and get things back to normal. 

There are other examples too numerous to mention. World War II is full of tales of courage in the face of invaders and true forces of evil. 

Despite our best efforts, we may be attacked again. Somebody might slip through. You simply cannot mount a fool-proof defense against suicidal idiots. 

What we need to realize is that what the people who attack us hate is our freedoms.

They hate our freedom to speak our mind. 

They hate our freedom to live as we please. 

They hate our freedom to move about without restriction. 

They hate our freedom of conscience. 

If an attack such as 9/11 happens again, it will be horrible. We will mourn the victims. We will suffer scars. 

But instead of letting such an attack become "the day we changed," we should militantly and bravely move forward living as free people. 

Instead of spending a trillion to chase stone-age bad guys in the godforsaken mountains of Afghanistan, let's spend half-a-trillion increasing our detective work at home. 


Instead of inspecting the shoes of old ladies at the airport, let's just decide that there are some losses of convenience we won't put up with, some risks we're willing to embrace. 

There is a recklessness to freedom. You cannot be totally free and totally secure at the same time. It is not possible. 

When it comes to a choice between freedom and security, I'll take freedom almost every time. 

Safety is a false promise. Just when we think we've got it all covered, some new threat arises from out of the blue. We're always preparing for the problem that already happened, not the one that could happen tomorrow. 

It is right and good that we commemorate those who died in the awful attack of September 11, 2001. 

But let's honor their memory and the memories of those who have died since, not by giving into our fears, but by continuing to recklessly wallow in our freedom as Americans.  


The Laborers

It isn't in fashion to celebrate the virtues of those who work hard for a wage, but at one time it apparently was. Otherwise, we wouldn't have celebrated Labor Day this week. 

Let's forget for a moment the present day tendency to emphasize the virtues of wealth and fame.

Who are the people that do the hard work? Where would we be without them? 

My favorite working heroes are nursing home employees. They address human suffering like few others in our midst. 

There's no need to go to Haiti to find suffering, although I admire those who do work in the Third World. 

But if you're not one to travel and if you prefer your own bed and your own food every night, you can still roll up your sleeves and help the suffering by working or volunteering at the local nursing home. 

Even the maintenance man at a nursing home can make a huge difference. 

In our home town, Emil has been a walking ray of sunshine in the halls of Fair Meadow for over thirty years. 

In that time, I'll bet he's comforted more troubled souls than most ministers. 

I mean, when your TV doesn't work and that's all you can really do anymore is watch TV, getting it to work again is an important mission!

Janitors are unsung heroes. They know the rhythms of a building. They know where the boiler is and how it works. And they get no credit whatsoever.

In particular, I am fond of the janitors who run our rest areas in Minnesota. I always try to find them and thank them for making our state look good.

Without exception, they are proud of their work. It isn't glamorous to pick cigarette butts out of the cracks in the concrete, but doesn't a squeaky clean rest area brighten a person's day? 

Teachers are also my heroes. They get beat up all the time in the press. Three months off! Who wouldn't love that? 

But until you stand in front of a class of rioting eighth graders and wonder how to teach them things they don't want to know, you don't understand the job of a teacher. 

After trying that gig myself, I gave up. I simply didn't have the stuff. 

But boy, am I glad that there are people willing to put out the energy to work with 180 kids per day, grade their papers, answer their questions and work to stir up their interest.

Because I am mechanically inept and choose to remain so, I admire those who can fix things. I value those who can put things back together, those who take the time to figure out how things work. 

Computers, cars, dishwashers, water softeners, copiers: you can't fix them yourselves any more. You have to rely on experts. What would we do without people who take the time to learn the details?

We take doctors for granted because we figure they make so much money that it makes up for whatever stress they endure. 

But I simply can't imagine what it would be like to be a brain surgeon who cuts into four people in a single morning with each of the patient's lives at stake. 

How do you deal with the responsibility? How do you deal with the inevitable failures? How do you wind down at night? 

If I goof up this column, nobody gets physically hurt. Not so with surgeons. I don't envy a single one of them, and I wouldn't do what they do for any amount of money. 

There's no getting around it, laying concrete is back-breaking work. If you make a mistake, it is frozen in place forever. It's a little like surgery. 

Even that much responsibility would scare me off! 

And finally, the one job I would never take under any circumstance: produce manager at a grocery store. 

How do you keep the displays fresh and at the same time convince people to buy the fruits and vegetables closest to their expiration dates? 

How can you stand to watch picky people ruin your displays as soon as you get them nice? 

What does it feel like to throw away produce that is no longer viable? 

I hurts me to toss the rotten lettuce from last month out of my fridge.


I can't imagine having to toss a crate of moldy peaches. 

On Labor Day, I am especially thankful for the people who do what I can't imagine doing myself. 


The greatest sub of all

With school about to begin, it is only natural to think back to the glory days of high school. 

Last week, I ran into one of our former substitute teachers. 

A dignified woman, she gave me a nice, prim hug.

I took that as a sign she has forgiven me for my part in the humiliations we visited upon her when she subbed in high school. 

The most memorable of those indignities was when she subbed for psychology class just as we got the test back from the sex education unit. 

With grim faces, we argued every answer. Our grades were at stake!

Our real goal was to force the poor woman to read aloud every graphic answer to the exam. 

We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Her face red, the poor sub soldiered through embarrassing Freudian terms and delightfully-detailed anatomical descriptions. 

If she mispronounced a term, we generously corrected her over and over until she got it right.  

Another time, we spent a good twenty minutes trying to convince our Geometry sub that, just as Geometry has a Side-Angle-Side theorem (SAS) and a Angle-Side-Angle (ASA) theorem, so too it would logically follow that there must be an Angle-Side-Side theorem.

In this case, the substitute, more educated in geometry than we understood, caught on and refused to write the initials of the non-existent theorem the board. 

Frustrated, we had to settle for an eraser fight.  

Our crude, juvenile humor turned to pandemonium whenever we had a substitute for band. 

Once we saw the sub enter the band room, we knew it was a holiday and we immediately switched instruments. 

After each song, we demonstrated our remarkable musical versatility by switching instruments again. I once played clarinet, bassoon and trombone within the space of ten minutes. 

Instrumental promiscuity ran rampant. 

We were having too much fun to disinfect our mouthpieces. I tell you, if we had never had a substitute for band, the Great Mononucleosis Epidemic of 1980 would never have happened. 

Then, during my senior year, we met our match. 

When we got to the band room one spring day during peak squirt-gun season, there stood a little round woman with a beaming, innocent smile. 

We rubbed our hands together with glee. 

What cruel administrator had thrown this poor woman to the wolves? 

We didn't care. We switched instruments as usual and started to stockpile spitballs for later in the hour. 

We never used them. We were cut off at the pass. For as soon as the hour began, Sister Mary Ann Stewart ascended the podium and began to work her charm. 

"Oh, I look so forward to hearing your music!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together and looking up towards the heavens. 

Out of guilt, we tried our best to play instruments unfamiliar to us during the first song. 

The piece, which sounded worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, sent Sister Mary Ann into a state of ecstatic glee. You would think she had seen a slice of heaven itself. 

Shamed, we slithered back to our proper seats and took back our actual instruments. 

Sister Mary Anne exclaimed how talented we must be to all play so many different instruments! My goodness, you kids are even better than I thought!

"You know what?" she said. "I’ll bet you are so talented that you can conduct the band, too!"

Of course! One by one, we seniors took the podium and conducted the band as best we could. 

We actually didn't sound that bad. We didn't want to disappoint the ever-increasing expectations of Sister Mary Ann. 

After every piece, Sister Mary Ann carried on about our talents. The music we made transported her into ever greater states of joy. 

For two full days, Sister Mary Ann Stewart convinced us to act like saints and play to the best of our ability. 

I am convinced that if given the chance, Sister Mary Ann Stewart would have coached the Vikings to a Super Bowl championship. 

Instead, they hired Les Steckel. 

My respect for Sister Mary Ann only increased when a few years later, in a much-deserved karmic twist, I tried to make a few extra bucks as a substitute teacher. 

Chaos reigned. Spitballs flew. Those kids had no respect!

As I licked my wounds, I remembered with wonderment the greatest substitute teacher of them all, Sister Mary Ann Stewart. 

I wonder if she ever knew she had worked a miracle.