Sanburn’s Cabin

For the past sixty-five years I have lived as a Wisconsinite. I’ve grown to love the Badger state—its saucy lingo full of bubblers and hotdishes, its full spectrum of tasty cheeses and sausages, and its gentle yet unmistakably corrugated landscape. 

But through age twelve, I was all Illinois. My family was Illinois before me. Flatlanders, every one of us.

Grandma LaFollette

My mother’s parents, Alvin and Berneice LaFollette, dwelt in a rambling, single-story house. It sat on the south side of the town square in Knoxville, Illinois, facing the old abandoned courthouse across the square. Knoxville was once the county seat of Knox county, but it did not grow enough to keep the distinction. When I was a boy, in the 1950s, it was a town of about two thousand souls.

My grandparents’ house must have been built bit by bit, expanded over the years by adding rooms. The dining room and kitchen were down a step from the living room and bedrooms. You had to go outdoors to get to the indoor bathroom, which was not only behind the house but also down a flight of stairs; it was basically a plumbed storm cellar, with toilet, shower, and laundry tubs. The whole house, except for this unique subterranean bathroom, was clad in weathered brown clapboard siding.

Time passed. Grandpa died. About 1963, Grandma needed to sell the property and take up a more practical and frugal mode of living. Buyers would want the lot only if the tired old house were first removed. Grandma found a man who agreed to tear down the house for free in exchange for the salvage—a good deal, she figured. 

Surprise!

Demolition began. All went well. But when the man took his crowbar to the kitchen, what he found beneath the clapboard siding was not framing studs but the solid walls of an old log cabin—square-hewn timbers, saddle-notched to lock at the corners, no nails needed. Gaps were chinked with prairie clay and hay.

Everything stopped while local historians scratched their heads and searched old records. It turned out that Grandma’s kitchen had once been the first permanent structure built by a white man in Knox County. Pioneer settler John Sanburn built it in 1832 to house his general store. Naturally, it also became the town’s first post office.

All that was well and good, but Grandma still needed the land clean so she could sell it. She donated the cabin to the village on condition that it be moved from her land. They jacked it up, put it on wheels, and eased it across the square. There it sits to this day, beside the old courthouse. 

The parking lot where Grandma’s house once stood.

Grandma sold her land and went to live with three daughters and a son-in-law in Albuquerque. In the old place, where we held family picnics in the big yard under Knox County’s largest elm tree, where we caught lightning bugs after dark, where the town band serenaded us with Sousa from the bandstand in the square on Saturday nights, and where we met the Yule with aunts and uncles and cousins around the roaring kerosene heater in the ramshackle old house—there now stands a jim-dandy asphalt parking lot.

The Past Restored

Sanburn’s cabin today.
Notches.

Meanwhile, the old cabin on the north side of the square has come under the stewardship of the Knox County Historical Sites, Inc., which also maintains the old courthouse, the old jail, and the Knox County Historical Museum. The cabin has been restored to what it must have been like in John Sanburn’s heyday. 

In the store.

Last weekend, having an hour free during the course of a Knox College class reunion, my wife and I met Ron Poyner, current president of the Knox county Historical Sites, Inc., for a quick tour of the cabin.

It was a poignant moment for me, being inside an 1832 general store which I had last visited when it was a modern 1950s-style kitchen featuring great meals served by Grandma LaFollette. Aunt Sue made peanut butter sandwiches for me in that kitchen. Aunt Linda, still a kid herself, sat with me and my sister and our cousins at the “kids’ table” in that kitchen while the grownups ate their Christmas dinner in the dining room. 

Cabin as kitchen, Christmas 1952. Clockwise from lower left: Cousin Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, my sister Cynda, and me.

Surprise, Too

Ron offered to show me also the second floor of the old courthouse. “We’ve restored the courtroom to the way it was in the old days,” said Ron, who is also Knoxville’s chief of police. “It’s where the trial was conducted that resulted in the only legal hanging in Knox county history.” 

I wish I had thought to ask how many illegal hangings there were, but my mind was on other things. I knew the old courthouse had also been the scene of a fierce legal fight over Susan “Aunt Sukey” Richardson, a black woman who had fled a brutal situation of indentured servitude that was tantamount to slavery. Although the legal proceedings came out muddled, Aunt Sukey did stay free and lived out her life in nearby Galesburg and later, Chicago.

The old courtroom where Aunt Sukey’s fate was argued.

Naturally I wanted to see and photograph the old courtroom, which was on the second floor of the stately courthouse. So up the steep, narrow stairway we went. I viewed the courtroom and shot a picture. 

Then, as I turned to go back downstairs, a photo on the wall stopped me in my tracks.

CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Get One Early–Avoid the Rush

Once upon a noontime soggy,
While I dithered, stunned and groggy,
Over many a curious item of social market lore—
As I boggled, nearly dizzy,
Suddenly I wondered, “Is he—
Is he really knocking loudly on my chamber door?
Some old kibbitzer,” I muttered,
“Knocking on my chamber door: 
Milo Bung, and nothing more.”

Here I opened wide the chamber door.

In stepped, with many a flirt and flutter, my old classmate, a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik.

“Milo!” I complained. “What brings you here?”

“Fine way to greet an old friend,” he harrumphed. 

“Well, look, old friend, I’m really busy.”

“You—busy?” He said it like it was an oxymoron.

“Trying to dope out which buttons to push in my email server to set up automatic delivery of my reader magnet through the double opt-in gizmo.” 

His eyes grew wide. “I arrived in the nick of time. You could hurt yourself on stuff like that, without supervision.”

“It’s the price we artists pay.” I sighed. “Was there something you wanted?”

He grinned and nodded. “An autograph. It’s not every day a guy knew a famous author from way back.” 

With a becoming blush of modesty, I pointed out, “Price of Passage won’t be published until August 23. We’re not even taking pre-orders yet.” 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You know,” I said, “so I can sign your copy.”

“Oh,” Milo said, “don’t bother yourself about that.” He rummaged in his ratty old Sorbonne hoodie and pulled out a wrinkled cocktail napkin. “Just put your Hancock right here.”

I gave him the fish eye. “What about the book?”

“I’ll tape this to the inside cover,” he said. “Gotta strike while the iron is hot. If I wait till August 23 and stand in line at your launch party, I’ll get an inferior specimen.”

“How’s that?”

“Writer’s cramp,” he explained. “Just sign here.” He thrust the napkin and a black Sharpie into my hands.

In a moment of weakness, I complied. 

“Thanks,” Milo said, and skedaddled.

#

Now I can get back to banging my head on my laptop. One must suffer for art.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Neighbors to the Rescue

I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me. 

Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”

At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.

Robert Frost, 1913. Unknown photographer. Public Domain.

This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.

We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame. 

An Intervention

I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe. 

My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go. 

A small part of my bonanza.

Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.

When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.

“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”

“Well—”

I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”

Fooboo the dog inspects split logs.

We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.

We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.

Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.

Why Is This Important?

Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it. 

There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight. 

Tom Thompson, Man With Axe, 1915. Public domain.

But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree. 

In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side. 

They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

What About Honey Locust?

Having received a generous donation of firewood from our friend Jack, we were well on our way to having enough to heat our isolated sunroom for the winter. But we still needed more.

People on the corner one street over had a huge tree taken down. I approached the tree-felling contractor about the wood. 

He looked askance, rubbed his chin. “Thing is, we sell it. Be happy to sell you some nice, quartered firewood.”

“Mmph. Thanks anyway. Mumble-mumble.” I didn’t go away angry; I just went away. 

*

“Honey, how about that big dead oak down the block and around the corner? They’ve got machinery in the yard. Looks like they’re planning to cut that tree down before it falls on somebody and kills them.”

I ambled down the street and around the corner, drawn by the whine of a chainsaw. A lone arborist attacked the homicidal oak and stacked its branches along the curb. I examined the cut ends. All rotten and insect-riddled inside. I didn’t even mumble, just walked away.

*

One day in late November, I moped at my laptop, Googling “Firewood for Sale,” when heavy machine sounds pierced my reverie. I looked out the front window. There, across the street, in front of Nick and Shelly’s house, swarmed a crew of lumberjacks. 

A Promising Development

Stop the presses!

I moseyed across the street and talked to the boss logger. Yes, Nick and Shelly had decided to cull a big honey locust from their backyard. The arborists were already hauling the results to the front curb, shredding the smaller branches in a big machine and stacking the big limbs to be hauled away. No, Nick and Shelly didn’t want the wood.

The foreman, rather than haul the big limbs away, was happy to dump them on my yard instead. “That’s great firewood, in case you didn’t know,” he said. “High heat density.”

Logs in our front yard

I Googled it up and sure enough: Honey locust—or any kind of locust—is about the best firewood you can get. Mucho calor, low smoke output, easy scutting, easy splitting. Jackpot.

Using a log-grappling loader, they brought me lots of logs, six to eight feet long and hundreds of pounds each. I started cutting them to fireplace length with my little chainsaw, but by the end of the day, the loggers’ enthusiasm had left my efforts far behind. 

I waved a grateful farewell to the lumberjacks and considered the fruits of their labor: A pile of logs so numerous and heavy my yard should have caved in.

Oops

I had my wish: Enough good firewood to last the winter. Way more than enough. 

I invited my next-door neighbors, Ben and Dick, to share the wealth. Ben had to leave for a few days of Naval Reserve service, but Dick responded with alacrity. He came over the next day and helped me by moving and positioning the huge logs for optimum cutting. 

Logs in our backyard

That’s no small contribution. When you work with a chainsaw, half your time, attention, and energy is spent making sure the logs you cut fall the right way. If the log is balanced at the wrong point, it can either sink and pinch the cutting chain or fall out of control and roll in an unfortunate direction. Dick’s brawn, applied to positioning the logs before each cut, helped me cut them in a rapid and safe manner.

I don’t work for more than an hour or two with either an axe or a chainsaw. Why? Because when you’re tired is when you make stupid mistakes.

A stupid mistake when working at my laptop might dim my literary star. A stupid mistake with a chainsaw is something else again.

I called a halt and begged Dick to take some of his share home as soon as he could. We were in a race against time. If the logs stayed on my front lawn through the onset of winter, they could be frozen there until April. Dick brought his wheelbarrow over and took a lot of logs to his backyard. 

More logs in our backyard

The next day I finished cutting the big logs. Ben got back from Naval duty and hauled some of the logs away to his house. I trundled the rest through our long tandem garage and out the back end to where we keep the firewood.

Now, all that remained was to split them.

Next Time: To Hydraulic, or not to Hydraulic?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

To Make a Fire (Jack London, Eat Your Heart Out)

It’s lumberjack time again. 

We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.

The sunroom

The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.

Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.

You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.

We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.

This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right. 

The Hunt Begins

“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”

“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.

“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”

Jack to the Rescue

Jack’s wood burning in my stove

Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.

By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by  a snowy landscape.

Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.

So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.

What shall we do?

Next Time: What About Honey Locust?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Mau-mauing the Garage Police

No one was more nonplussed than Your New Favorite Writer when Milo Bung, after his narrow brush with mortality in the Marines, came home and married Muriel Blankenship (Class of ’62). 

“Muriel Blankenship!” I expostulated at the time. “Why HER, of all people?” I prophesied that Milo would rue the day he married Muriel Blankenship. Maybe that’s why I was not named Best Man. As consolation they did, in the end, permit me to ush at the wedding.

Now, nigh onto sixty years later, Milo seems about to admit that I WAS RIGHT! 

It’s all about hardware. 

The Hardware Challenge

“You know I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer or home repairman,” Milo said as we stood in his garage. “But over the years a man accumulates fasteners, lubricants, hand tools, power tools, blades, bits, and all sorts of oddities.” Milo swept his arm inclusively over a small workbench in a back corner of the garage, behind Muriel’s gardening tools.

When a man, through no fault of his own, amasses such a treasure hoard of metal and plastic doodads, he naturally takes a proprietary interest in his collection. He becomes a curator.

“Take metal fasteners, for example,” Milo said. “I’ve got here nails, screws, nuts and bolts, for starters. Each of these has subdivisions. For instance, there are common nails, roofing nails, finishing nails, galvanized nails, and so on. Two-penny, four-penny, six-penny, eight-penny, ten-penny, et cetera, et cetera. Round-head, flat-head, pan-head, oval-head screws; slotted, Philips, square drive and star drive; wood screws and sheet metal screws; steel, brass, chrome—you get the idea. I’ve got stove bolts and carriage bolts, square nuts and hex nuts. Don’t forget wing nuts. Plain washers and lock washers. And specialized fasteners like toggle bolts, hooks and eyes, turnbuckles. Not to mention turn buttons for storm windows.” He paused to take a breath.

“Turn buttons for storm windows?” I asked.

“I told you not to mention them,” he said. “Anyway, you can see these things all come in various sizes and finishes. And what about little old things like cold chisels, offset screwdrivers, and old-fashioned seat reamers for washer-type faucets?”

“Nobody uses those anymore, do they?”

He fixed my eye with a gimlet stare. “Do they not?  I really wouldn’t know. But, you need a  plumbing snake? I’ve got one.”

“Your point being?” I inquired.

“My point being, Muriel wants me to re-organize all this stuff. Which is secret code for, throw it out.”

Re-organizing

“Throw it out?” I gasped. “When you’ve spent a lifetime collecting it? Those hundreds of trips to the hardware store, where you come home with things you wind up using only a part of, or not needing at all? And then you need to keep them, in case you ever don’t need them again?”

Milo nodded. “Exactly,” he said.

“Throw out those little useful parts out of gizmos you dismantled and threw away—but you kept those unique little parts, because you never know when you will need them?” I was in high dudgeon.

“That’s right.”

“Little electric motors from disused exhaust fans—” 

“Curtain rod brackets for curtain rods of a style that’s no longer made—” 

“Yes! And what about—”

“I know,” Milo said. He picked up an I-kid-you-not metal Hills Brothers coffee can and rattled it, with a satisfying jingle from inside. “Every kind of miscellaneous and odd-sized screw, bolt, pin, and toggle known to man. A mix you can just swirl your hand around in and maybe come up with the exact thing you need to re-attach the downspout where you snipped it loose to put in the rain barrel.”

My head swam. “And, let me get this straight. Your wife, the esteemed Muriel Blankenship Bung—”

“May her name ever be whispered with reverence—” 

“Muriel wants you to throw these things out?”

Milo sighed. “Or reduce them by at least half, and then put the rest in some logical order that makes sense to her. . . .”

I could see where he was going with this. “Or to some other random observer who—” 

“Did not have a hand in acquiring, collecting, and arranging all these items in the first place.” 

The Many Faces of Evil

O the horror. The revered Muriel, bent on a heedless path of destruction. Never mind that she has given Milo the best six decades of her life and three fine children who are outstanding citizens. Forget that she has saved Milo’s bacon any number of times and flawlessly guided him through complex social situations with never the slightest faux pas. She is about to become a prime villainess—a veritable Cat Woman of the near West Side—by suggesting that the amorphous pile of metal parts occupying the rear corner of the garage, which Milo has spent six decades amassing, be reorganized “before it gets out of hand.”

Gentle Reader, we ask you: When does Muriel think it was ever IN hand? 

The hardware situation was already spinning out of control when young newlywed Milo came home from the hardware store proudly bearing those brackets to hang the curtain rods on, and a blister pack of little brads to poke them in with. 

There were bound to be parts left over—extras that anyone would be a fool to throw away. This crisis was fore-ordained.

Now, when he can no longer figure out how to tune his TV set, and when starting up a rental car has become a dark mystery, that pile of seemingly random junk in the garage is one of the last arenas where Milo still knows what’s what. 

And Muriel Blankenship Bung, Class of ’62, wants to take it apart, throw the best half away, and put the rest back together upside-down and backwards.

“Stand up for yourself!” I told him. “Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of helpful organizational hints.”

“Well,” said Milo. “I don’t know. If I don’t clear out this junk, the kids’ll just have to do it, a few years from now.”

Lo, how the mighty are fallen.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Fangle Me Upside the Head, Part Two

Mastery in progress.

Yes, you have surmised correctly, Dear Reader. Your New Favorite Writer is almost a day late on his regular post to this blog site. The lame excuse is: My new smart phone came.

I have spent the past twenty-four hours alternately scratching my head and poking the darned thing’s face with my finger.

You will recall that I really didn’t want to get involved with this. But we’re in it now, up to our boot tops.

I took my friend Rob’s advice and switched carriers. So now my monthly rate has only increased to fourteen dollars. That’s all right. 

I bought a low-end smart phone outright for $119.95.

Just getting it set up and working was a bit of a trial. I honestly don’t think I could have done it by myself, without my smart-enabled wife’s extra smart help.

Excuse me, please, Gentle Reader. I’ve got to go figure out how to send a text.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Fangle Me Upside the Head

Sometimes I feel like an army of one in the Global War on How Things Are Now.

Consumer Cellular—that Heaven-sent company for old, grouchy, reluctant adopters—has sent me a brusque email. They say that something called 3G is going away; hence, they can no longer support the phone I keep in my car. 

Therefore, I must upgrade. It’s, like, mandatory.

A Smart Phone Denier

If you have been paying attention, Fair Reader, you’ll already know about my failure to be enthralled by smart phones. But in case you are a newcomer here, I’ll just mention that my only cell phone is a $13-a-month clamshell device. I keep it charged in my car in case of the just-barely-possible event of having car trouble in a remote location.

That device, and the service package that keeps it going, have now been dumped on history’s rubbish heap. The slightest available upgrade—to 4G, whatever that is—will cost me $25 per month, almost double what I now pay. Our free market being what it is, that convenient new figure of $25 derives from nothing more complex or baffling than the company’s need to extract twice as much cash from its senior citizen customers. 

In addition to the service plan, one must also have a new phone. The 4G version of my old flip phone costs less than sixty dollars, and they will let me pay that off at two bucks a month for two years. So my penalty for living in 2021 will be only $27 minus the $13 I was already paying. So, an extra $14 per month. Chicken feed. Then I could roll on as before, unvexed by progress. 

I probably should do just that.

But, Why Not?

You know full well, Dear Reader, how easily the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. You see, that same two bucks a month would cover an entry-level “smart” phone—a sleek little beauty with a shiny glass face and the ability to do all those things people are always doing with their smart phones. 

So, what’s to think about? Why would I not make the obvious move—the “smart” move? 

Once upon a time, Your New Favorite Writer—in a desperate, ill-starred bid to enter the twenty-first century—acquired an Apple iPhone 4. I shared my life with it for a couple of years, but we never became romantically involved. No matter how I tried, I could not develop an abject dependence on, or even a liking for, the darned thing.

I do enjoy chatting with my friends and relatives; that doesn’t mean I feel a need to talk or text with them every few minutes. Likewise, I feel no need to document my doings with photos. I can check email on my laptop; when I get home will be soon enough. 

Diners enjoy a meal with smart phones. Photo by Infrogmation, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

As for driving directions: If I’m going someplace I’ve never gone, I look it up ahead of time. My old granny always told me: If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go.

Tallying up all all these phantom benefits, I then considered the pocket factor. In my pockets I carry a wallet, keys, comb, sun-glasses case, and, often, a roll-up hat to keep the sun off my head. I spent two years trying to cram an Apple iPhone 4 in with all that stuff. Never did find a place where it could fit.

So I chucked the smart phone and opted instead for a simple flip phone to reside in my car.

Living in the Past

Having failed to embrace the modern world, I tried instead to make a virtue of nonconformity. I have aspired to be the last person in North America to get a smart phone. One can—without becoming a Luddite, I trust—take a certain kind of calm satisfaction from hewing to the good old ways.

Yet now, this idyll is threatened. Not by the convenience or utility of smart phones, that’s for sure. Not even by irresistible coercion from Consumer Cellular; after all, they have been careful to keep a clamshell model available, newly enabled for 4G. 

What if?

No, Gentle Reader, it is only the sinking feeling that some new, unforeseen wrinkle in the social fabric may suddenly render smart phones truly indispensable. Then I’d be out of luck, wouldn’t I? I would be the only person in North America yet to begin the smart phone learning curve. Maybe I should start now, before it’s too late. At least, you know, get my learner’s permit. 

Does that make sense?

In a dark corner of my mind there is a ragged rebellion raging against this craven capitulation. There has been no need for the convenience and wonderfulness of a smart phone until now. What could change? 

All this may seem like a small matter, but in my brain the choice looms like an existential crisis. To smart phone, or not to smart phone? That is the question. 

Am I the only one with this dilemma? 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers,

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

A Meditation

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

Sunday, August 22

Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal. 

Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.

As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.

The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.

It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers. 

What is God for, if not to support me?

Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot. 

My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade. 

But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.

God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition. 

But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)