Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.


 With the development of air conditioning after World War II, the population of Phoenix exploded in all directions. 

People like sunshine and dry air, as long as they can cool off.

In the arid Valley of the Sun, a tacky modern shag carpet was slowly rolled out over the rustic desert floor, covering all in its path––a carpet of 16-lane superhighways, a Walgreen's every mile, and endless trailer parks, housing developments and strip malls. 

When the carpet of development hit Indian land or National Forest, it stopped dead in its tracks,  leaving dense, groomed suburbia on one side of a street and sage-mottled desert on the other. 

Apache Junction, thirty miles to the east of downtown Phoenix, developed late. If you look real hard, you can still find swatches of the old West in between the strip malls and gated communities. 

Or, instead of searching for the good stuff, you can cheat. 

I heard about the Handlebar Pub in Apache Junction from the folks from whom I am renting. 

We met there last week. 

Located on the Old West Trail, which is now six lanes wide with a groomed median, you have to squint to find the little place. 

Coming from the east, you pass a Burger King and then what appears to be some mesquite brush. Behind the brush, in the middle of small a gravel parking lot stands a squatty, brick, stone and pole building. 

The sign barely shows from the road. You pull in and park kitty whompus where you can. 

Smoke pours from the grill out back. The doors stand wide open. Inside are six small tables and a bar. 

And a ping-pong table.

This is the Handlebar Pub, and the proprietor, Jeff, will be right with you. 

When Jeff finally comes over, wiping his hands with a towel, he looks more like a diesel mechanic than a bartender. 

Glasses smeared with grease, shirt untucked and unbuttoned a bit far, dirty and ripped baseball cap having lost all shape and crispness drooping from his head, the main thing evident about Jeff is he's a hard worker. 

Jeff asks you what you want to drink. It is a loaded question, for Jeff is a purveyor of dozens craft beers, and the discussion of what to drink is never short. 

"Whatcha got?" some newcomers ask, and Jeff points to an old slate chalkboard on the wall where dozens upon dozens of beers are listed in smeared letters. 

"Take your pick," Jeff says, deadpan, knowing that the chalkboard isn't much help.

Eventually, Jeff gets you to describe what you like. Something hoppy? Something dark? Something bitter? Something wet? 

"I'll tell you what," Jeff says, like the mechanic who just decided he's going to try a little trick on your carburetor which won't cost a thing, "let's start you with a Dipsy Doodle Amber." 

When the Amber comes, Jeff checks back often for reactions, results and discussion. He's already planning what you might like next. 

Then, a second surprise: The menu. In this dive-like joint, the simple menu reads like a foofy upscale eatery. Bruschetta. Polenta. Heirloom mushrooms. Grass-fed beef. Micro-greens. All reasonably-priced. 

Without a deep-frier on the premises, the main side dish is potato salad which, in the Arizona desert, is appropriate for all seasons. 

This is no ordinary potato salad. Jeff doesn't give measurements, but he gives ingredients: Bleu cheese and a long list of fresh herbs. Fantastic. 

My heirloom mushroom burger was so delicious I never thought to ask for ketchup. 

Two nights later, I returned for pork shank, a rich, hearty bone-in cut of pork served with polenta, prepared like a corn meal version of mashed potatoes. 

For dessert after the burger, Jeff suggested beer. Surprise. This dessert beer came in a small snifter. Jeff described the beer like a wine snob would describe a 1927 Mouton Rothschild. 

Overtones of caramel. Hints of coffee. Remnants of pear. 

We split one snifter three ways. One person thought it too rich, so that got us down to two.  

While we barely sipped, Jeff told us about the Handlebar's surprisingly brief history. 

Jeff and his wife Alec took over the run down building behind Burger King and turned it into a pub just two years ago. Only building is a remnant of the old Apache Junction.

However, in a sprawled-out metropolis known for its monotonous, chain-dominated, development-saturated, moon colony-like atmosphere, it was good to find a hidden and original treasure. 

We left responsibly early in the evening after a homespun experience under a mesquite tree in a gravel parking lot, happy to find some originality around the corner from the Valley of the Sun's one-thousandth Walgreen's. 


Old Apache Trail

 To the east of the Phoenix megalopolis runs the Old Apache Trail, which starts out harmlessly enough as Highway 87. 

As you wind your way through ravines and red cliffs, the road gets narrower a until a sign announces: pavement ends, gravel next 22 miles. 

The onset of gravel gets rid of the weekend motorcyclists, which swarm around legitimate vehicles like horseflies on the smooth Arizona mountain highways. 

The Apache Trail forms an innocent little squiggle on the map. It is marked as "scenic." 

It should be marked "potentially deadly." 

I was driving my Ford Taurus. It turned over to 100,000 miles last week, but it has yet to earn the affection I heaped on my Ford Ranger. 

I should have rented a mule. 

The Taurus has three separate annoying rattles in its front suspension which I should get fixed but always forget about on the smooth roads which pass near dealerships. 

On the washboards of the Old Apache Trail, the car sounded like it was dragging a string of coffee cans. 

From nice highway to wide gravel road down to a one-lane gravel road in less than a mile. Things were going in the wrong direction. 

Then it got worse. The gravel road started down the side of a canyon. Hairpin curves. A drop of 900 feet in one mile for a 17% grade. On washboard. 

Get rolling downhill on washboard gravel and you can lose control as surely as if you are on ice. 

At least on ice in the Midwest you can slide gently in the ditch, cushioned by snow. On the Old Apache Trail, too much momentum means a tumble down an 800-foot cliff, a Hollywood stunt for which I wouldn't get paid. 

I pulled over at the first turn-out to catch my breath. To calm my nerves, I set the satellite radio to the Zen station, which plays hypnotic music meant for hippies in a dimly lit room burning scented candles. 

When driving in a tense situation, I forget to breathe. The woman on the Zen station comes on every few minutes to tell you to "breathe....just breathe..."

A needed reminder. 

Around the cliffs I crept, not knowing what was fifteen feet ahead. If I met another vehicle, one of us would have to back down. 

At this rate, the 22 miles of gravel would take eight hours. 

Finally, the bottom, an old bridge called the Fish Creek Crossing. 

I found a perch for the Taurus fifteen feet above the bridge, grabbed my camera and got out. 

There are times when you just know you have found one of the most beautiful places on earth. 

When I looked up to the great rose window at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, I knew. 

When I saw the Southern Alps of New Zealand rise 12,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, I knew. 

When I looked over the rim of the Grand Canyon, I knew. 

When I walked into Fenway Park in Boston, I knew. 

And as I looked around at the orange canyon walls which towered above me at Fish Creek Crossing, I knew.

It was mid-day. Not the best for photography. The hot mid-day sun washes out the colors and irons out the deep shadows which make the early morning and late evening so dramatic in the wilds of Arizona. 

But in the depths of a narrow canyon, the sun bounces from thousand-foot wall to thousand foot wall, bathing the whole massive natural cathedral in indirect orange light. 

No stained-glass windows needed. 

At the bottom of the canyon, the cottonwood's leaves glowed gold in the cool shade. 

A single shaft of sunlight hit a distant ledge and lit up a massive saguaro cactus 200 feet up the canyon wall.

I took pictures, but so what. Nothing does such a scene justice. It is best to just soak it in. 

I soaked in as much as I could before hitting the road. Up, up and up the mule trail twisted with only a six inch windrow of clay between my rattling Taurus and the abyss. 

The gravel finally ended at the majestic Roosevelt Dam, constructed of massive blocks of rock beginning in 1904. When completed in 1911, it was the largest dam in the world. 

As the road climbed from the canyon bottom up and over the level of water behind the dam, the Roosevelt Dam Bridge, which is ranked as one of the top ten suspension bridges in the country, burst into full panoramic view. 

Five hours after we left, my Taurus rattled back into its suburban garage, having undergone the toughest 100-mile test of its existence. 

But what a spectacular Sunday drive!


Adventures in Suburbia

 For this year's winter getaway, I am for the first time ever living in a suburban tract home. 

Location in a massive development on the outskirts of Phoenix, the home is an improvement over living in an apartment. 

The house has a yard. It is a small yard, but it is a yard. It is a yard without a blade of grass, but a gravel yard is still a yard, and a private enough yard so you can walk outside without having to gussy up in full garb.  

The house has elbow room. You can go days without going into the guest bedroom, for example. Or the guest bathroom. 

The house has loads of windows. The first thing I did was open all the shades. Light everywhere!

The fear is that people will look in. However, none of the surrounding houses has a single shade open. So, if they don't open theirs, why should I shut mine? 

Only about 60% of the homes show signs of life. Perhaps the owners haven't arrived from the Midwest yet. Perhaps they have arrived, but have expired since. How would one know? 

The streets are cleverly designed so that none of them can be used for through traffic. That means if you get lost, it is like being in a corn maze. With cactus. 

Compounding the directional difficulty, the streets all curve. This is called planned variety. Since all the houses are identical, something had to be nonlinear. 

Curved row after curved row of houses. And you can't cross one curved row to the other curved row with your car unless you drive 2.4 miles. 

Say you choose the wrong curved row looking for Marilyn and Bob's place. You stop and call them on the cell. 

Marilyn walks out their onto their patio and sees your car on the next curved street. You see Marilyn. You have connected! All is well! Supper is ready!

Not so fast. It could might be half-an-hour before you can find your way to Marilyn and Bob's curved street. 

Then you must make sure Marilyn or Bob stands in front of their house to distinguish it from the hundreds of other houses that look precisely the same. 

"Our house has the big rock out front," doesn't cut it. The house numbers have so many digits that it is like finding the right number in the phone book without seeing the names. 

The street names are in Spanish. I have nothing against Spanish, and I wish I knew it. But the Spanish don't like short names. 

My street is called Hacienda de la Habanero le Taco. I get it confused with Hacienda la Casa Placenta de los Betos, or whatever the next curved street is. 

In a nice touch, the developers kept large tracts of desert intact and webbed those tracts with well-groomed trails, some of which lead into the wilderness. 

Wildlife is plentiful. On a sunset walk the other evening, a huge hawk lit upon a saguaro right in between the back yards of two homes on two separate curved streets. 

Both back yards featured loudly barking dogs. Why would the hawk land there, of all places, with safe wilderness only two hundred yards away? 

Dumb question. They were little dogs. Where there are dogs, there too might be kittens. 

Thus, the hungry hawk. 

Walking trails run right along back yard after back yard. All the back yards are enclosed by steel fencing. About one fourth of the houses feature a barking dog within the steel fence. 

No dog is never going to escape that steel fencing. I feel no danger, although I admit to a rush of anxiety when I hear the collar jingle towards me before the barking starts. 

I wonder, what is the purpose of these dogs? 

Then the owners emerge from the house, and my question is answered. 

Having raised their children and dispatched them off to suburban jobs somewhere other than Arizona, retired couples need something to scold and yell at.

"Buffy!" screams either Bud or Sharon Olson from just northeast of Omaha. "Get back here! Now! Bad dog! Get back here! How many times have I told you!"

The vicious schnauzer continues protect the back yard from walkers, oblivious to the angry demands that it suspend its instincts and let the walkers pass by unbarked upon.

Out of it all, both parties within the fence win: The schnauzer gets to protect something and Bud and Sharon get to yell at something. 

And the walker walks on unscathed, knowing that at some point he will emerge onto a curved street which looks like all the other curved streets. 

Having escaped the clutches of the schnauzer, he must now find his own house. 


Boom time!

 Last week the Grand Forks Herald reported that a parcel of farmland near Park River, ND sold for more than $10,000 per acre, a record in the state. 

The same week, Iowa set a record when an 80-acre parcel of farmland sold for $21,900 per acre. 

It's boom time on the prairie. 

As commodity prices rise, farmers are understandably eager to put acres which once were set aside in conservation programs back into production. 

Marginal farmland is being cleared of twenty year's worth of willow and poplar to be readied for crops next spring. 

But what is marginal farmland? 

With vastly improved varieties, the sandiest sand ridge can produce crops like it couldn't twenty years ago when the set-aside programs were at their peak. 

"With the varieties of wheat they have today," a local farmer told me, "I could raise twenty bushels-per-acre on the Wal-mart parking lot." 

Last summer we supposedly suffered through a drought. I am not a farmer, but even I could tell the corn was suffering. The soybeans looked wilted.

A farmer friend said he didn't even go out to check the corn field he was so scared of what he would find.  

After harvest, I ran into the same farmer. He was bouncing around like it was New Year's Eve. Despite the drought, he had harvested a solid crop. 

The wonders of genetics!

Is it any wonder the track hoes are out in force cleaning ditches that haven't been touched in decades? 

Over the past three days, I drove across the Great Plains on my way to Arizona. 

As I passed through farmland on the back roads of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and eastern Colorado, the sights on the prairie were everywhere the same: Freshly dug ditches, track hoes on the move, and a general sense of prosperity I haven't seen on previous trips.

The last such boom was the early 1970s when wheat prices touched $7 per bushel. 

Bulldozers pushed down oak woods and old farmsteads with a vengeance. Wetlands were drained and filled with clay. 

At that time, the county helped farmers drain lakes, potholes and wetlands in order to get more farmland on the tax rolls. 

If you needed to run a ditch across a neighbor's farmland to get rid of the swamp on yours, no problem. The county invoked eminent domain and whoever's land got in the way had to adjust. 

Permits today are somewhat more restrictive, at least when it comes to removing a cattail. 

But somebody's giving somebody permission to clean out all these ditches and make sure the water gets to the river in a bigger hurry than usual next spring. 

The same unknown somebody brought in a track hoe onto the corner of my farm a couple of weeks ago and cleaned out a drainage ditch, tearing down a little grove of mature ash trees in the process. 

They left a nice big mess. 

Nobody asked permission, or even sent a letter of notification. I was gone that day and still don't know who made the mess it or gave permission for the ditch to be cleaned. 

But I am smart enough to know that when it comes to water issues, land ownership pretty much means nothing. In boom times, they'll do what they do, and they'll cross your land to do it. 

When this present boom ends, which it surely will, all this land-clearing mania will look pretty silly. 

The government will jump in and bail out those who over-extended. 

Not only that, they will set up programs to pay farmers to put marginal land back into conservation programs. 

The willows groves will grow back. So will the aspen. 

Somebody will come up with the novel idea to restore wetlands.

In will trot the wildlife biologists with their degrees, badges, butterfly nets and bags of tadpoles. 

Some entity, probably the same one that authorized all the ditching during the boom, will put up little dams everywhere at enormous expense to keep the water from getting to the river so darn fast. 

The only winners in the whole absurd cycle will be those who sell track hoes, which can be used both to dig ditches and to dam them up. 

When commodity prices crash, as they always do, and land prices follow, as they always do, those who overextended will blame everybody but themselves. 

We'll all bail them out. 

And the ongoing march of folly which is American agriculture policy will start another cycle anew. 


World War I, lost in the mist

 November 11 is celebrated as Veteran's Day in the United States today.

The date originally was known as Armistice Day to mark the end of hostilities on the Western Front during World War I. 

Why do we hear so little about World War I? 

Tens of millions died, both civilian and military. The world map was forever altered.

I know many buffs who study the American Civil War and World War II.

But I only know one World War I buff. She collects the propaganda posters of the war, posters which feature unusually beautiful artwork. 

On the first day of battle in World War I, 52,000 British soldiers died, almost as many Americans as died during the entirety of the Vietnam War. 

The unbridled slaughter continued for years. Eventually, many European nations lost 10% of their male population. 

Yet, today we almost never hear of what was once called the Great War. 

Filmmaker Ken Burns has treated both the Civil War and World War II at great length in fantastic documentaries. 

He also took on the entire history of baseball. 

But Burns shows no inclination to take on World War I. 

Out of World War I came the Soviet Union. Eventually, World War I's botched settlement would give rise to the Nazi Party. 

The same settlement, the Treaty of Versailles, created Iraq. It also created Yugoslavia. And Czechoslovakia. 

After the war, Germany was assigned total blame. Not only that, the Germans were to pay for the entire cost of the war, a sum which exceeded the amount of their currency in circulation. 

Reparation payments not only prevented the German economy from recovering from the war, but sent it into a horrific tailspin, a crisis which an angry Adolf Hitler promised to resolve. 

An equally angry German nation allowed Hitler to seize power. World War II and yet another slaughter of millions became inevitable. 

Although some of Germany's World War I debt was wiped clean after World War II, Germany made its last payment of $94 million to World War I reparation bondholders in 2010. 

In other words, World War I had a huge impact on our world today. 

Yet, most of us barely know what it was about. 


Because even historians can't agree what World War I was about. 

The question "What were the origins of World War I?" is probably the most loaded and unanswerable junior-level European history essay question possible.  

I studied World War I history under Dr. Gordon Iseminger at the University of North Dakota about twenty-five years ago. 

Each morning, Dr. Iseminger strode into the lecture room with a stack of six to eight books.

Each book bristled with book marks. During his impassioned lectures, Professor Iseminger read excerpts from the books. 

Dr. Iseminger preached about the horrors of the war, about its origins, about its development, about its results. 

If anybody was going to get me to understand World War I, it was Dr. Iseminger. 

I sat there in complete bewilderment. 

To this day, I can't say I really understand the event. 

Another historian, Winston Churchill, played a part in the war as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was in charge of the mighty British Navy. But after one of his half-baked ideas ended in military disaster, he resigned. 

After the Great War ended, Churchill wrote a six volume history of the event. 

"Winston has written an enormous work about himself," said a critic, "and has called it 'The World Crisis.'"

The clarity of Churchill's Nobel Prize-winning memoir of World War II is nowhere evident in his writing on World War I, where the reader is still left wondering why the whole thing had to happen. 

"Stupid generals using stupid tactics to fight a stupid war," was the early consensus. 

Sixty percent of Americans polled during the 1930s felt that entering World War I had been a mistake by President Wilson, even though we won. 

The British public was so convinced of the folly of World War I that it flat out refused to prepare to fight World War II until Nazi planes attacked London. 

The American public was so convinced of the folly of World War I it was completely opposed to entering World War II until Pearl Harbor. 

So, it is no wonder nobody talks much about World War I. 

It is no wonder our memory of what the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" meant to an earlier generation have dimmed. 

For unlike the clear moral purpose which leads hobbyists to study with relish the Civil War and World War II, World War I remains lost in the mists. 

It shouldn't, for World War I is the more typical war. 

Dealing with darkness

 So far, the November days have been uniformly gray. 

With the time change, darkness closes in abruptly in the evening. 

Those of us who survive on light power feel our metabolism slow to a crawl. 

There were about six sunny days in October. On every one of them I zoomed around like one possessed, ticking off things on my list, cleaning the garage, raking the yard.

But when the sun went under, there went the energy. And the sunny outlook!

Last week, I lit up a few candles to see if they would perk me up in the evening.

Sure enough, having a candle flicker nearby made it possible to read and thoroughly enjoy a good book. 

I have a candle nearby right now, and it makes for a happy scene.

Later in the week, I dug my light box out of storage. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, the light box warms my outlook in the morning. 

Another rule I should follow in the dark months: Avoid getting swept up in the news. 

That's difficult during election season. 

If I don't look out, "keeping up with current affairs" degenerates into "getting dragged down by the absurdities of the world." 

Or, by the tragedies in the world. 

Hurricane Sandy has despoiled the existence of millions out east. 

I called my friends in New Jersey. Although their house is fine, they have been without power for a week. 

They siphoned off gasoline from both of their cars to fuel their generator, which drones on all day and is driving them batty. 

They have plenty of food and they are warm. So they are lucky. 

Even so, the romance of the storm, if there ever was any, has worn off. Dreariness, restlessness and exhaustion have set in. 

One particularly worries for the thousands of very elderly who lacked the ability to stock up enough supplies for the storm. 

One hopes the heartwarming stories of people helping people are universal, and are covering even the lonely.

To a shy Midwesterner, Easterners might seem brusque. 

However, I have spent enough time out east to know that when push comes to shove, the over-crowded Easterners have big hearts for their fellow humans. 

I'll never forget when I locked my keys in my Ford Ranger at a gas station off the Jersey Turnpike. I explained my situation to the attendant through a barred window. 

The young man hollered across the parking lot to some rough-looking thugs. 

"Hey! Help this dude get in his truck!"

Despite my suspicion that they were well-trained in the field of entering locked vehicles, the three young men couldn't figure out how to get in my pickup. 

But they wouldn't give up. 

Eventually, we broke the lock on the back sliding window. By then, they had asked me about what Minnesota is like and why I was in Jersey and so on. 

It was a happy exchange. 

The bottom line to keeping happy, even in dark times, even when you've locked your keys in the car: People. Other people. New people. 

Modern life allows us to hide away from other people. Even if we share living quarters with loved ones, it is possible in our over-sized homes to isolate ourselves. 

If we become isolated from people, our sense of reality can drift. 

"I walk a fine line," said a fellow introvert friend on the phone today. 

I agreed. Too much exposure to people and I get tired out, while too little exposure can lead to whirling thoughts. 

The most healthful form of human contact is when we unite with others in a common task. 

Cleaning up the mess after a storm. Setting up for a party. Hunting. Cooking. Pulling each other out of snowdrifts. 

Sharing survival tasks makes us happy, but such tasks are rare. 

We suffer from our prosperity, for prosperity has removed the requirement that we share tasks to survive. 

If a shared task isn't urgent to survival, like the meaningless annual meeting of an organization that should have shut down years ago, it becomes intolerable to all but the most extroverted. 

In the old days, neighbors shared machinery with neighbors, visited each other constantly, shared child raising chores, farming chores, social chores, the whole shebang. 

The generations before us were materially poor, but they were rich in shared survival tasks. 

It was necessary to be with people to survive.  

We live in easier times. Yet, even if our house is cozy and warm with plenty of candles and maybe a cat, to stay sane during the dark months of winter, we need to get out and see people.

But what a job!


Vote no twice

 The Minnesota ballot this election features two measures which, at first glance, might seem noble to the uninformed conservative voter but which, upon further inspection are neither noble nor conservative. 

On measure requires a valid photo ID showing your present address in order to vote. 

This amendment is popular because of the completely false belief that there was massive voter fraud in the 2008 election. 

There is absolutely no evidence of any organized fraud. None. In fact, Minnesota has proven that elections are pretty darn clean. 

When Al Franken and Norm Coleman nearly tied in 2008, scandal-hungry lawyers combed over every vote. 

All they found were a few dozen ballots cast by felons. No party organized those felons and there is no indication that they supported one candidate over another. 

This amendment wouldn't prevent felons from voting, since most felons have valid photo ID. And voting by felons is already illegal. 

In other words, the photo ID amendment fixes a problem which doesn't exist at an approximate cost of $30-$50 million dollars, to be raised from local property taxes. 

The 200,000 voters in Minnesota without photo IDs are: Students who move frequently, elderly people who no longer have a valid driver's license and minorities living in the inner city who don't have driver's licenses. 

Under this law, my 101-year old Aunt Olive, who hasn't had a driver's license for twenty years, would not be able to vote. 

Now even if 95% of these people go out and get photo IDs, the other 5% might be deterred by the cost and inconvenience. That is the goal: Shave 5% off the vote of poorer people. 

That is why the Pennsylvania governor said, in an unguarded moment, that he was proud of his state's voter ID law because it would assure Mitt Romney's victory in that state. 

True conservatives are for less government spending and less bureaucracy. The Voter ID amendment creates more of both. 

The other measure on the ballot is also unnecessary. There is already a law on Minnesota's books preventing same-sex marriage.

However, some people seem to think that the ban needs to be included in our state constitution. 

If it is adopted, the amendment is guaranteed to be temporary, for in vast majorities, younger people approve of allowing same-sex marriage. 

And again, one might ask, what is the true conservative position? 

After conservatives have slandered gay people for decades for their alleged promiscuity and refusal to take adult responsibility, now a few thousand gay couples in the state want to take a step towards commitment and permanence. 

And conservatives want to prevent this? 

This is a bizarre one. It seems that, after railing against gay people in their churches in the ugliest of terms for years, religious conservatives have become so attached to their skewed view of gay people that they don't want to let it go!

Faced with mounting evidence all around them that gay people are productive members of society, they still cling to the notion that the bile spewed by their radio preachers is the more accurate picture. 

Even when civil gay marriage becomes legal, no church will be forced to acknowledge it. 

Again, you'd think the conservative position would be to keep government from interfering with the private decisions of individuals and the liberty of people to shape their lives as they see fit. 

But suddenly, when it comes time to extend a harmless right to a hopelessly small and unpopular minority, conservatives want the government to make sure that minority knows that it is less! 

The two amendments have one thing in common: The are deceptively simple. And their true purpose is concealed. 

The Voter ID amendment is designed to lower the vote totals of the poor and disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, the so-called marriage amendment was introduced in several states for one reason: To drive up voter turnout amongst the "right" kind of people. 

Staffers at the Minnesota Senate have verified that the Senators who self-righteously promoted the marriage amendment had one goal in mind: Winning the next election. 

Some quietly apologized to their gay staffers, saying "this is politics." 

Is that so bad, you ask? 

Well, if to win elections, politicians are willing to give a good, swift kick in the shins to an already despised and frequently shunned minority, it doesn't speak well of their character. 

No matter who you support in the election, these two amendments are a golden opportunity for Minnesota voters to show that they not only show up to vote in greater numbers than others, but the are also more intelligent and insightful than most. 

Vote smart. Vote no twice. 


McGovern, RIP

Former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern died this week at age 90. 

My first political memory is of the 1972 presidential election season. Democrat George McGovern challenged the Republican incumbent, President Richard Nixon. 

I was in second grade. 

George McGovern, I overheard in my grandparent's kitchen, was a bad man. Probably a communist. On the side of the enemy. A traitor. 

He was all those things because he opposed the Vietnam War and wanted it to end. 

It was obvious from what I heard that all Christians should vote for Nixon. 

Most of them did, obviously. 

McGovern didn't do himself any favors. He ran one of the worst campaigns in recent history, a campaign so bad it called into question his fitness for executive office. 

Not all of his misfortunes were self-inflicted: McGovern's vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced after his history of treatment for depression came to light. 

Richard Nixon, it turns out, self-medicated his mental health problems with loads of booze. 

But President Nixon hid it, which is what we prefer. 

McGovern probably made a mistake when he refused to use his sterling credentials as a World War II hero to fight off attacks on his patriotism during the campaign. 

When the other side screamed that he was a traitor to his country, George McGovern might have pointed to his incredible tenure as a B-24 bomber pilot. 

He could have showed crowds his arms: Even twenty-five years after the war, one was larger than the other due to the strength it took to control the joy stick on the B-24 as it climbed over the Alps. 

But McGovern refused. He didn't think it was right to use his military career for political gain. 

McGovern also didn't effectively manage the Democratic Convention. The proceedings turned chaotic. The candidate delivered his acceptance speech at 2 a.m. while the nation slept. 

And he faced an opponent, Richard Nixon, who was every bit as crooked as his Democratic predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson. 

Both Nixon and Johnson once suffered defeats by margins so razor-thin that they vowed to never lose again no matter how many corners they had to cut. 

Both were driven by their demons to crush their opponents by whatever means possible. 

In fact, Nixon actually chose McGovern as his opponent by covertly eliminating Maine Senator Edmund Muskie from the Democratic primary race. 

Muskie was potentially a tough opponent. He was more moderate than McGovern. And he led Nixon in the polls.

So, Nixon's operatives forged a letter which made it look like Muskie's wife was mentally ill, drank hard and used bad language. 

Another forged letter made it appear that Muskie hated French-Canadians, who were a voting block in the New Hampshire primary. 

Nixon's hatchet-men, posing as Muskie's campaign staffers, cancelled reservations for auditoriums which were to hold Muskie rallies. 

When Muskie's people arrived to prepare, the doors were locked. 

Nixon's men even ordered hundreds of pizzas to be sent to Muskie headquarters, for which Muskie's campaign had to pay or face national disgrace. 

On a snowy February day in New Hampshire, an aide handed Muskie the newspaper which showed the forged letter implying that his wife was a drunk. 

As he stood on a flat-bed truck ready to give a speech, Muskie broke down in tears. He knew Nixon played dirty, but the attack on his wife was too much. 

Breaking down in tears was not a good idea for a presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie was done. McGovern was nominated. 

Richard Nixon got the opponent he wanted, and he crushed him. 

The additional tricks Nixon used against the McGovern campaign, illegal actions which eventually caused Nixon to resign the presidency in disgrace, were unnecessary. 

Nixon would have won anyway. 

As the decades have passed, one could argue that McGovern's views on Vietnam have been vindicated. 

However, if you can manage to overlook Nixon's criminal activities during election season and his ruthless policies against the civilian populations of Southeast Asia, Tricky Dick wasn't all bad as president. 

Nixon showed intelligence and flexibility when he governed.

He founded the Environmental Protection Agency. 

He proposed a national health care system more far-reaching than Obamacare. 

He expanded the food stamp program. 

He created the first affirmative action programs. 

He reached out to China. 

In short, he was more pragmatic than ideological. 

But Nixon's demons are what we remember. 

Now, both Richard Nixon and George McGovern are in their graves. 

One was an effective national politician in the 1960s and 1970s. The other was not. 

More importantly today, however: 

One was a man of honor. 

And the other was most certainly not. 


Digging through the morgue

We forget. In this country in particular, we don't dwell on the past. We prefer to forget.

Last week, I spent some time in the local newspaper office digging through the morgue. 

The "morgue" is what newspaper types call the bound copies of newspapers from the old days. 

Open up one of the big binders and the first thing you notice is the nostalgic smell of musty newsprint. 

I am allergic to musty paper, so I sneeze. But the fun of gathering evidence of the past first-hand always overrides the tickle in my nasal passages. 

Three miles from home stands the abandoned Rindal Creamery. I remember when the co-op still took milk, but barely. 

Today, grass, weeds and volunteer box elder trees grow up around the creamery's brick walls. It is easy to drive past the ruins without noticing. 

But in 1942, according to the Fertile Journal, the Rindal Creamery Co-op Assn. held its fortieth anniversary. Several hundred people attended. 

The church choir sang. The local minister gave a sermon. The head of the co-op gave the main address. And an orchestra played! 

I am sure all who attended wore their Sunday best. 

Different times.

A few issues later, the realities of World War II hit home. 

Each week, the boys taken in the draft were listed on the paper's front page. 

Sugar was rationed. To get canning sugar, you had to drive to a central rationing site. That took gas, which was also rationed. 

Any driving wore out tires, which were rationed as well. 

In the entire county, fewer than a dozen new tires were granted by the rationing board during most weeks. 

Everywhere you turned, goods were scarce. 

If you were awarded the right to buy new tire, or bicycle, or new car, or even a retread tire, your name was listed in the paper for all to see. 

You can bet those volunteer rationing boards had plenty of second-guessers questioning each decision. 

Then came the drive for scrap metal. Dig in the woods and get out all of your junk! 

Neighbors sometimes reported on neighbors who tried to hide an old implement that was no longer getting enough use to justify not melting it down to make tanks. 

All areas of life were open to scrutiny. 

A long article contributed by the local garden club accused boys who stole crabapples of sabotage, of "aiding Hitler" by depriving the boys fighting the war of food. 

The logic went like this: Those who could were to raise their own fruits and vegetables so the canned goods produced in California could be shipped to the boys overseas rather than to grocery stores in the Midwest.

If you did not have a "Victory Garden," or if you wasted food, or if you didn't poison the potato bugs, you were aiding and abetting the enemy!

Clothes were scarce. So were shoes. It was unpatriotic, preached the newspaper, for boys to drag their feet along the street and wear out their boots. 

Wartime recipes which used reduced amounts of butter and sugar appeared each week. "Save the butter for the boys!" was the cry. 

Wartime weddings were sparse affairs. Brides seemed to take pride in keeping it simple. No long lists of bridesmaids. No fancy dresses. 

"The bride wore a simple yellow dress," said one announcement. "The five people in attendance were served a simple dessert."

The Lucky Strike cigarette drive for the troops conducted by elementary school students probably wouldn't happen today. 

Neither would the war-time propaganda movies starring Gary Cooper which showed at the local theater. 

It is also unlikely that citizens today would allow a local draft board made of up of volunteers to select which of the eligible males would be drafted to serve in the war. 

Sometimes the draft board's decision came down to: who is the better farmer, Egbert Nelson or Ingvald Thronvoldson? 

The better farmer stayed home, the allegedly worse farmer went off to war. 

A few years ago at the cafe, I asked local World War II veteran Muret Berhow how he spent the war. 

"Oh, I had it pretty good," he said with a wave of his hand. "I spent most of the war in Washington D.C."


His job? To make waves in the bay with a little boat so the seaplanes could more easily escape the water's surface tension and take off.

What a surprise to find last week in the old 1942 newspaper that Muret's years making waves in D. C. came only after he was injured when his ship was torpedoed overseas early in the war.  

Muret didn't mention that bit of trivia. 

They sure don't make 'em like they used to!

We should remember that more than we do. 



Ceramic cemetery

After seven years in the same house, the longest I have abided in one abode in my adult life, the urge to clean out the corners hit last week. 

If you don't move for a while, things start to accumulate. 

Things like trinkets. Doo-dads. Gadgets. Cords. Books. Boxes. 

And ceramics. 

Ceramics never die. As an enduring symbol of the 1970s, ceramics have outlasted polyester suits. 

What are ceramics, those born since 1980 might ask? 

Today, women make scrapbooks. Back in the 1970s, the crafty excuse for women to get together was to paint pre-molded ceramic statues of anything you could imagine and fire them in a kiln. 

Nothing of any use came of ceramics class. It was nothing but a gabfest. 

But ceramics classes in a few basements in the Upper Midwest did manage to fill all the other basements in the Upper Midwest with row upon row of sculptures that to this day need frequent dusting and de-webbing due to their glossy finish. 

Each Christmas from 1972-1975 I was showered with ceramics from otherwise wonderful neighborhood women. Statuettes of Abraham Lincoln, of eagles, of a big boot. 

Once I got a ceramic treasure chest. A dear nun who tried to teach me piano gave me a ceramic carriage. 

I remember my disappointment when I tore open a box which contained a ceramic dog. 

I would have much preferred a stuffed dog, one I could snuggle with at night. 

Studies show that laboratory rats raised with a cold, hard ceramic dog in their cage are three times as likely to become an axe-murderer than rats raised in a cage with a soft, furry stuffed puppy. 

Two decades later, my psychotherapist was about to give up on me. 

Then he found out about the ceramic dog. 

Things really moved along after I took a sledge-hammer to that dog. I am now well-adjusted, if a little cranky on cloudy days. 

Yet, it never felt right to destroy the other ceramic doo-dads. Neighbor women near and dear to my heart gave them to me over the years. They all have passed on, so it feels irreverent to dispose of their gifts. 

The afghans they crocheted eventually fell apart from use. So did the quilts. But the ceramics live on and on, serving no purpose but to gather cobwebs. 

I now realize that the real purpose of ceramics class was not to come up with Christmas gifts for neighbor kids. 

No, ceramics class was an excuse to get away from the old man one night per week for some good gossip!

With that purpose accomplished decades ago, I decided it was time to let go of the statues  of ducks, boots and elves which gather dust on the hearth and every other flat surface throughout the house. 

Yet, I couldn't just throw them out. The resounding thunk of those long-kept mementoes hitting the bottom of the dumpster might awaken some ghosts. 

Here is where having a woods out back comes in so handy. 

When you put something in the woods, you acknowledge that it has no further place in your daily life. You no longer have to dust it. 

However, when you put an item in the woods, you do not have to admit to yourself or anybody else that you threw it out. 

If you really need it someday, it will be there. 

If you don't rediscover it, in five thousand years some archeologist will. 

The little pothole out back is dried up this fall due to drought. With the water gone, the soft peat at the bottom of the pond is exposed. 

What a perfect home for ceramic elves!

With little ceremony, I one-by-one tossed the statues high and deep towards the empty pond. I heard each hit the wet peat with a slap. None of them broke. 

The doo-dads are safe there now, the elves and boots and the ceramic mug that I could never drink from because the paint was full of lead. 

Also embedded in the swamp is the spotted ceramic frog that used to sit by the sink, mouth agape to hold the scrub sponge. 

What better place for a ceramic frog than a swamp!

Future archeologists will probably assume that we worshipped the frog and the eagle, just as we assume that the junk in the tombs of Egypt has some significance. 

Maybe the Egyptians were just cleaning house. 

Rather than throw away their ceramic doo-dads and show disrespect to the women who made them in ceramics class, they tossed them in the pharaoh's tomb. 

No need to dust them there!

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