St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holding Hands

I belong to the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Writers group. We write a story on an assigned topic each month. The topic "Holding Hands" led to this reminicense.
************* HOLDING HANDS ************
Her name was Denise. She almost got John, Bill and I kicked out of the class we three disparagingly called “Touchy Feely 101 for Teachers.” We were the only guys in the class of 25 prospective teachers. It was required and we suffered greatly as we were prodded to “get in touch with our feelings.”
The previous session had us split into groups of 5, with each member of the group to play a role of a part of a machine. It was described to us that each of us would be part of the machine, making repetitious motions and sounds, interlocked as a group that would look like a flowing graceful sinuous machine from a distance. Sort of like a clock works with gears and pendulum all ticking together, each part critical to the whole, yet each part just a gear or lever of no consequence on its own.
John and Bill took their lead from me, believing the whole class was a lot of crap foisted on us by this woman professor off into women’s touchy feely land. The exercises were down right embarrassing as well as stupid. We guys formed our machine standing stiffly apart from each other, our machine actions being fists poking each other’s shoulders round and round. Denise and Flower didn’t like our machine and wouldn’t participate. They had been permanently assigned to this group with three uptight guys and didn’t like it at all.
Flower was a New York hippy with long hair on her head and legs, who didn’t believe in anti-perspirants or bras. She had unnerved us in earlier group activities as she had claimed that everything that we three had said or done was sexist or a reflection of uptight white male controlling behavior. In those early days of women’s lib it was easiest for a guy to shut up.
The two women tried in vain to get us to loosen up and be like the other all girl groups, forming sinuously, fluid, limb-entertwined machines of grace and beauty with more physical contact than I had had playing football, and without helmets, pads and protection. They looked like wriggling masses of Twister game players to me. I had hated that game too. When I wanted to entwine with one or more strange women, I didn’t care to have an audience, especially if we all were sober! And what would my wife think.
Denise complained to the professor who told us that we must get in the spirit of the exercises or we wouldn’t learn anything; and we would fail the class and never become teachers. I began to dislike Denise even though she did not come across as a male hater like Flower. Denise seemed more worried about getting a good grade and saw us guys and our faulty machine as obstacles to her progress.
Next week brought a lesson in developing trust in others. Long term honesty and trustworthy behavior brought long term trust opined the professor. “There are short cuts that can make trust happen rapidly” she said. “Your next exercise is to spend 30 minutes with another person in the class being led about the Madison campus blind folded; then reversing the roles for another 30 minutes. You must pair up with someone you don’t know or someone you dislike. Before I could pick someone, the prof came over and told Denise and I to partner up as she knew we didn’t get along.
Let me tell you a little about Denise. She was sort of average looking; the type you would call pretty if you liked her; slim, but obviously a woman. She dressed nicely at a time when grunge was in on the campus. Other than having complained about my failure to be a cog in the machine, I had not had other contact with her. Neither of us spoke much in class. I thought that her being black and talking with a southern accent was irrelevant to my dislike of her. Although I had not had much contact with black people in my life, as they were rare even at Madison, and since I harbored the same ill feelings for Flower, a white girl from New York I attributed my dislike to their insistence we guys had to make fools of ourselves to please the teacher rather than any racism.
Denise and I picked Thursday at 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm to be the time to do the exercise. We met at the student union. She brought a black narrow scarf to be the blindfold. I balked at it, saying that we could just close our eyes for 30 minutes; but she didn’t trust me to do it. We flipped a coin to see who was to be the leader first and she won. She tied the blindfold snugly with enough layers so I couldn’t see anything.
She tried giving me instructions as we walked down the sidewalk, across the busy street, over curbs and up steps together, but I stumbled and rambled in wrong directions until in frustration she took my hand. She had a warm, soft, dry hand that felt nice on the cool fall day. She held it like a mother holding her child’s hand. We continued on our walk, Denise giving instructions and warnings and after a few minutes I could follow her guidance almost wordlessly following her hand, tugging to speed up or slow down, raising or lowering to indicate a curb or stairs. I soon felt safe and comfortable in my blindness.
With no need for instructions, she began a conversation by asking me about my deciding to be a teacher. I told her about graduating 4 years earlier; protesting the War and becoming a CO; getting married and then deciding to try teaching when I felt I couldn’t handle the 5 years of graduate school that I had planned to become an astronomer before Viet Nam took over my future. I told her about working in a nursing home, meeting and marrying Margo and sort of drifting into deciding to try teaching. The 30 minutes was up quickly and we switched roles.
We continued to hold hands as I led her through the campus. I tried to lead her as gracefully and wordlessly as she had led me so we could continue our conversation. We were now holding each other’s hands, fingers entwined like old friends.
I asked her about her background. She came from Alabama; the first in her family to get to college; the oldest of many children, she came north to Madison on a scholarship having graduated from a crappy school system where all the whites had left to form private schools during the integration fights of the 60s. She desperately wanted to get through college and go back and teach in her home town. Being a teacher was the highest calling she could think of.
“How old are you?” I asked. “I will be 21 in December” she replied. “I will be 26 on December 10th .” I answered back. “Amazing!” said Denise, “my birthday is December 10th too!”
The time was up quickly and the blindfold came off. We walked back to the Union still holding hands, still talking. It was, we agreed, for each of us our first real contact with a member of each other’s race, a happy one that relieved us, at least this time, from worry about being unconscious racists. The professor smiled at us as we recounted the experiences. Most of the others had the same result. For the rest of the semester our group tasks went better as we cooperated with Denise and I leading the others.
I never ran into Denise after that semester. I left school to practice teach and then get a job. I am sure she is somewhere in Alabama, now a superintendent in a public school system. I like to think that on one or two December 10ths since that day in 1972 she remembered holding hands with an uptight guy who happened to be white.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chicken Pox Christmas by Russ Hanson

"Mr. Sazma says his kids have chicken pox" said Mom at the dinner table as she dished out some hand packed Sterling Ice cream she had picked up at the Cushing Coach. "I suppose it's going around."
"I hope the boys don't get it over Christmas vacation. It would be hard on them having to spend vacation cooped up in the house," replied Dad. We four boys didn't pay any attention to them.
"How can we get chicken pox when we don't go in the chicken coop?" stated Everett authoritatively. It was already the week before Christmas vacation. We were too busy studying our "pieces" for the school program and "being good" to worry about the neighbor kids being sick if they were too dumb to leave the chickens alone at their place.
The Sterling Ice Cream was made in Dresser, WI, and was the best we could buy. It had local farm eggs and cream in abundance and with a little canned strawberry sauce from the basement, made a dessert that a half-century later I still think can't be improved upon. The storekeeper, Sazma, had wrapped the ice cream in newspaper from his attached home, to keep it cold on the trip home.
The last week of school was over with the Friday night program at Wolf Creek School. We had a big spruce Christmas tree that we had decorated with red and green paper chains, cranberries strung with a needle and thread, and cutout snowflakes, stars and tinsel. We painted the school windows with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen and Christmas trees with bright colored tempera paint. We learned how to paint Merry Christmas in reverse on the entrance windows so it would read right from the outside. The program night came and the first graders stumbled through their poems and the older kids with skits and songs. After thunderous applause from the room crowded with adults, a local pianist sat at the piano bench and led the whole crowd in Christmas songs ending in Silent Night. The kids picked up their small paper sack treats; an apple, some hard and soft candy and a handful of peanuts. The adults each got an apple—all supplied by the School Board out of their own pocketbook as a return to the community from their small salaries.
Everett had complained that Friday to his brothers "I itch all over" but didn't say anything to Mom so he wouldn't have to stay home from the program. Well, on Saturday we all itched all over including the youngest, Byron, a first grader. Mom looked at our spots, consulted with Grandma, and gave us the diagnosis "you all have chicken pox."
"It's good they all get it at the same time," commented Grandma, "it's a lot less work to have them all down at once." In those days, measles, mumps and chicken pox were all childhood diseases that had to be gotten over sooner or later. No one ever wasted a doctor's time about these diseases. You just comforted the patient, got out the home remedies and waited a week or two to get over it.
Chicken pox were treated by making dire threats to the sick one what would happen if you scratched the pox. "You will leave big holes in your skin that won't heal if you scratch." We had seen the results that small pox had left on our neighbor Raleigh, so we thought that must be what we would get. Home remedies included "mix vinegar, baking soda, and mineral oil and apply it to help stop the itching", "rub wet oatmeal on the pox" or "wash with a weak boric acid solution" all while making dire predictions of what would happen if you scratched. Another trick was cutting the scratcher's fingernails so short they couldn't scratch. Kids really don't feel very sick with chicken pox, so it is a hard disease to have to be stuck inside for a week or two waiting it out. In those days, you made sure you didn't have visitors or go anywhere, because it was so contagious—and if an adult got it, they could get very sick.
"What are we going to do with the kids stuck in the house for the next two weeks?" asked Mom. Grandma thought we could play games. She always loved playing games with us, but had to be at her own home for Christmas. We had Chinese checkers and regular checkers and an old game of Grandma's called "Bring Home the Bacon." We quickly tired of these.
Mom went to the store and bought a game she had heard of called "Monopoly." A neighbor, Lloyd Westlund, told her "the games last hours and it teaches you arithmetic!"
"If you behave, I will give you one of your Christmas presents early," Mom told the four of us. "We'll be good!" as we clamored for a Christmas present. We knew that our relatives gave us some presents in addition to those coming from Santa, who only gave his out on Christmas night. (We found out Santa Claus didn't exist when one June, we found a bunch of Christmas presents hidden and forgotten in the old piano, labeled "from Santa." Santa wouldn't be hiding presents in our piano we reasoned so it must be Mom, who we knew could have hidden and forgotten them).
The Ben Franklin store in St. Croix Falls had wrapped the game for Mom. We tore off the wrapping and saw the game. Marvin, the oldest, said he had heard of it before. We cleared the big dining room table, unfolded the board and got out the parts.
Marvin, always a stickler for following every rule, carefully read the instructions: "Pick someone to be the banker. Shuffle the Chance and Community Chest cards and place on the board. Pick your own piece to move around the board. Throw the dice and move ahead from Go the amount you throw. If you land on a property, buy it from the bank..."
There were lots of rules, but that didn't bother us. Marvin read more rules as we ran into new conditions. We learned how to buy houses and hotels and to charge rent. Marvin knew percents and quickly taught me, whose favorite subject was arithmetic, to use paper and pencil to calculate everything exactly. After a few learning games, Byron dropped out—it was too hard for him. Mom gave him another Christmas present, a big yellow road grader that steered and had an adjustable blade. She cleared an area on the floor for him to play. "I need some dirt to grade," he complained. Mom took a big 25 cent cylinder box of Quaker Oats and dumped it on the floor for him to grade.
"Yuk!" complained Everett, who liked oatmeal, "it will be all dirty to eat."
"The chickens can have it when he is done," replied Mom, "I have more in the pantry."
It seemed to me that the oatmeal was a little gritty later that week, but Mom assured us the chickens got the stuff Byron graded. Maybe some of it ended up soothing our pox scabs.
Marv, Ev, and I got down to serious Monopoly. We followed all the rules, no matter how hard the math—by Marv's insistence. We learned the strategy of trying to get the right group of houses and stick hotels on them. We understood that Park Place was really for the rich people; railroads were useful to have; sometimes it was better to sit in jail than pay rent, and all of the interesting twists to the game.
Games lasted at least three hours, and if we happened to get evenly matched properties, could last from one day to the next. Sometimes we ran the bank out of money and printed our own. Sometimes the banker was tempted beyond his self-control to help himself from the till. Sometimes, with shifting alliances, one player would offer wildly favorable terms to another to keep him in the game and run the third out of business. Cheating was rare, but often enough that we watched the banker like a hawk to keep him honest. Everett preferred to have lots of money, Marvin lots of property, and I liked a few properties fully loaded with hotels and the rest mortgaged to the hilt.
Christmas came and went and still we played Monopoly all day and into the evening—only stopping when Dad brought out ears of popcorn for us to shell and him to pop. He was fussy; making popcorn was a carefully followed ritual. He shook only freshly shelled popcorn in a dry frying pan over the stove burner turned on high. He watched the kernels plumpen and turn golden brown as they rolled back and forth on the skillet bottom. When the first kernel popped, he stuck on the lid, turned it to medium, and continued to shake the pan vigorously to the final pop, holding the pan off he burner near the end to keep it from burning.
"Only three old maid's in the whole batch!" exclaimed Dad, one of the few things we ever saw him boast about during his life. When he had made a whole dishpan full, he melted lots of Cushing Creamery butter and poured it over the popcorn, salted and stirred it and gave it to us boys, but not before he filled the frying pan, coated thick with melted butter, with popcorn for himself. "The person who pops it gets the extra butter!" he stated relishing it as much as I might like the cleaning the fudge kettle.
As a dairy farmer, Dad thought lots of cream, butter, whole milk, and real ice cream were as important to our physical health as going to church was for our spiritual life. He was blessed with low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and a long life in spite of doctors railing against people consuming dairy fat. He particularly liked cream skimmed from the top of his own cows' raw milk on his cereal.
Finally, with only two days of vacation left, Mom said "You boys are all well again. You can go outside and play." We bundled up for the cold weather, and got out the sleds, ski's, skates and our dog Lucky, and headed for the big hill above the swamp to make up for lost time. Most Christmas vacations were spent almost entirely outside on the hills or skating on Bass Lake. We went down the hill a few times and struggled back up, finding out that we were not up to all that exercise. We headed to the barn to help throw down the hay and slide down the hay piles, pat the cats, climb into the silo and watch Dad chip off the frozen edges before straggling back into the house and setting up the Monopoly game for the rest of the day.
School started soon, and with homework and chores, we didn't have time for games except on some weekend evenings. We still played Monopoly on occasion, but it seems to me that after playing it almost all of the time for two weeks, we sort of wore out our interest in it. Sometimes we played with other school chums, but they never like playing with us. "Those Hanson boy's don't understand it is just a game!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Radio on the farm

Radio on the Farm

We four Hanson boys always pestered Dad and Mom to let us take apart anything that looked interesting. We especially liked mechanical things. Because we were already used to dressing and butchering steers, deer, squirrels, chickens and cleaning fish, we had ample opportunity to study biology close up. However, cases that contained motors, springs, tubes and gears were fascinating and harder to come by. Our parents knew that whatever we were given was destined for the dump after our "repairs", so only passed along things that had no possibility of being fixed or needed in the future (now they would be valuable antiques).

Old wind up alarm clocks, an old battery radio that ran off of the Windcharger on the roof, old appliances, motors and almost anything that needed radical surgery fell into our repair shop. As we got older, our tools changed from hammers and crowbars to screwdrivers and wrenches and amazingly we actually started getting some things to work again, or at least to understand what was wrong with them.

The Sterling dump was a wonderful place to find things to take apart. We tried to make a weekly trip and scavenged for everything mechanical and electronic. As our reputation for an occasional miracle repair grew, our relatives and neighbors passed along things for tinkering.
Uncle Lloyd said he had a crystal radio that he had gotten as a soldier during World War II. He used the clothesline in the barracks for an antenna and his metal cot for a ground. It didn't use batteries or plug into the wall current. It had an earphone. He said "Don't take it apart, just try it out. It worked the last time I tried it in the barracks 20 years ago."

In those days we had two radios: the barn radio entertaining Dad and the cows with WCCO Cedric Adams, Joyce LaMont and Halsey Hall and the house Radio playing Eddy Arnold and Mairzy Doats. The idea of having our own radio was exciting!

Dad helped us hang an antenna wire from my upstairs window to a nearby tree using electric fence insulators and the old wire from the yard light pole. We pounded a rod into the ground and ran another wire, the ground, from that to my window and into my room upstairs.
Lloyd's radio had four connectors: two for the small earphone and one for the antenna and one for the ground. Lloyd had told us the sound would be very faint. On the top of the case was a knob with several metal points to tune it and something he called a cat's whisker crystal. It was an adjustable tiny spring wire that you poked into a galena crystal trying to find a hot spot. All of this was totally new to me, but Lloyd had demonstrated how it worked so I followed his instructions.

I could just barely hear a faint hint of a radio station on the earphone. I wasn't sure if it was real or my imagination. Lloyd said it worked best at night. Late one night I managed to poke the cat's whisker into a hot spot and got clear channel stations from Little Rock, Chicago, along with WCCO; stations fading in and out. Then it quit totally. I thought "maybe it is just a loose wire inside the box." I carefully took the 4 screws that held the black Bakelite top to the small wood box and carefully lifted it off. I knew better than to do anything more than just look with Uncle Lloyd's radio. I saw only a coil of wire wrapped around some cardboard tubing, with some of the wrappings having come loose.. I guessed that might be what was wrong.

I carefully put the top back on and gave it back to Uncle Lloyd on our next visit. I just told him I couldn't get it working, not wanting to admit to looking inside the box for fear he would think I wrecked it. He said, "It worked pretty good. They didn't let us have a radio when I was in the Army, but this little one let me hear the news and helped me get through some long nights. I suppose the crystal is bad."

I was fascinated by the idea of a radio that didn't need any power. I looked in the Sears Christmas catalog and sure enough there was a plastic Crystal Radio Kit for $8.00. That amount was in the range for a Christmas present--so I said that I would forgo all the underwear, socks, and clothes and just wanted this Radio Kit. Mom and Dad were always encouraged when they saw their sons wanted something other than just toys, so sure enough on Christmas morning the kit was under the tree.

It was a blue plastic molded box about the size of two match boxes made to look like a little radio. It had some fine enameled copper wire, something called a diode and a small earphone that poked into your ear.

I followed the instructions. Wrap the wire very tightly and carefully around the coil form sort of like wrapping the fish line on a casting reel only one layer deep and perfectly coiled. Then use a little sandpaper and sand one narrow band along the coil cleaning off the enamel insulation. Then assemble the radio so a little round metal ball slid along the bare wire of the coil to tune the radio. Screw in the diode to one end of the coil and the other to an earphone connector. Connect the antenna and ground and the earphone and then listen carefully as you slide the tuner back and forth slowly.

Miraculously, I heard faint music immediately and as I tuned it I found several different stations! I found WCCO radio out of the Twin cities was the loudest. I got my brothers in and each listened in turn and was amazed too. But they left soon to go back to Marvin's room where he was listening to his brand new plastic 4-tube GE Clock Radio that he had gotten for Christmas. Bill Diehl was playing songs on WDGY from that nice young Ricky Nelson, approved of by the pastor (unlike that wriggly Elvis).

I wanted to learn more about radio. The school library had nothing. Mrs. Irving (Marie) Olsen, my teacher, said that we could write to the Madison to the Free Traveling Library that mailed out books to rural areas not served by libraries. I wrote a letter and asked for books on crystal radios.

A couple of weeks later, a book named "The Boy's First Book of Radio" came in the mail. It told all about Crystal Radios and how to build one yourself and suggested where to get the parts. Everett and I got enthused about the radios and over the next few years worked our way through building radios with tubes into radios with transistors--each time getting more advanced books from Madison. We mail ordered parts from Modern Radio Labs, Allied Radio and Philco. We put up longer antennas -- going from the house to the barn. We set up a telegraph to send Morse Code from my room to his room (poking only a very small hole through the plaster walls). We had to learn electronic circuit diagrams and soldering to build radios, burglar alarms, timers and all sorts of electronic items. We knew we needed better radios.

We had seen some of the old floor model radios from the 30s and 40s that had short wave bands in neighbors living rooms. Everett put an ad in the local paper "Wanted: Old Floor Model radio with short wave band." He got many replies often like "Help me get it out of the attic and it is yours." We collected several and with our extra supply of Sterling Dump Radio Tubes, soon each had a good radio working. Later Marvin and Byron also got into old radios too--so we each have a few too many now!

My favorite was a Zenith table model that came from the Cushing Feed Mill through Uncle Maurice. It had quit working and was 1/2 inch deep with feed dust. A thorough cleaning and a replacement tube and it worked great. Everett liked his Airline 25 tube model that had magic eye tuning and used so much current the whole house dimmed as it started up. We still have have them.

With the short wave bands we could hear radio from across the whole world. We could listen to Radio Netherlands, the BBC, Canada and if we were feeling particularly adventurous, Radio Moscow to get the latest Communist Propaganda. We continued to collect old radios as we got older, only quitting when they got up to the exorbitant price of $10.00 each.

At a garage sale a year ago I ran across "A The Boys First Book of Radio and Electronics" and paid a quarter for the well used copy. It is fun to re-read the book that helped move me to a career in science. I wonder if I can trade two #80 rectifier tubes to Everett for the twenty feet of double cotton covered copper wire and a cats whisker to build the Boys First Radio. The tubes are pristine—haven't been used since retrieved from the dump in 1956.

copyright Russell B. Hanson 2008