Growing up my Uncle Gene and Aunt Lenore would always host a picnic on the Fourth of July. There would be a softball game at the park followed by a pot luck dinner. After dinner would come the games. Races for the kids, grouped by ages. My brother Michael had an intense rivalry with Mary Beth Vennewitz. Shoe kicking, grouped by men, women and children. My kicks usually went straight up and down with no distance. Watermelon seed spitting. They'd put an old shower curtain down for us to spit at. Pete McKenna usually won. Although I know that at least a couple times my seed went past the shower curtain and wasn't counted, so I should have won. And through the day my brother Kevin and cousin Matt and I would be lighting off snakes and caps.
At the end of the party we'd stay and help clean up then head out for fireworks. We went to several different spots for fireworks over the years. Two of the shows after the end of the Twin's game at Met Stadium were my best memories. Fireworks that didn't go off when they should have and fireworks that went off when they shouldn't have.
One year as we were watching we saw something drifting down from the sky. It was a small parachute with some fireworks that hadn't ignited. Kevin grabbed it. We lit them off later and they burned in color.
Another year we were on the roof of the convention center in Bloomington (this building later became the Carlton Celebrity Room) over by the stadium. The fireworks show started. One rocket went up then came back down. Suddenly there was a fantastic display of fireworks going off right on the ground. "Wow," we said, "that's a pretty good start. How's the Grand Finale going to top that?" Then the fire engines came. The whole show had been set off on the ground.
Several years ago I started hosting a Fourth of July picnic for my family. We have games, potluck and go to a fireworks show. I still don't win the shoe kick. I've also lost the knack of spitting watermelon seeds for distance. But, rather than having someone else cheated out of the longest spit I've made them put the contest in my driveway where all the seeds will be seen.
So if while you're out celebrating the birth of our freedom you see a bunch of people standing at the end of a driveway spitting seeds don't think it's just a bunch of weirdo's. It's just my family making memories for the next generation.
Have a great Fourth of July everybody!
My tale is a tale of doom. It was a little first grader who doomed my plan. Or so I thought before I learned what doom really felt like.
Let me explain my plan to you. In my writing class at the Loft before Valentine’s Day as part of an exercise I had written a poem.
Here, take my heart of stone,
let me be your rock.
Here, take my heart of glass,
but don’t break it.
Here, take my heart of cotton candy,
I’m sweet on you.
Here, take my artichoke heart,
it’s good for you.
Here, take my heart of gas,
let’s refuel ourselves.
Forgive me for not giving you my heart of water,
you don’t need any tears.
Here, take my heart to heart
and let me know what I need to know.
Here, take my heart of the matter,
I love you.
It was a first draft and while I liked some lines as a whole I wasn’t very pleased with it. Still, I thought maybe with a few changes it would make a good Valentine’s Day card for my wife. I planned that on Friday morning, Valentine’s Day, while I was out on the other side of the Twin Cities I would stop at a certain store. I’ve shopped there before and my wife always liked the cards I get her from there. My plan was in place. Get the card, rewrite the poem into the card and give it to her at dinner.
My wife, Debbie, was teaching first grade at the Minnesota Waldorf School. A unique approach that Waldorf Schools have with their teachers is that the teacher moves grades with the class. Debbie had just finished taking a class from first through eighth grade and was starting the cycle anew with first grade this year. Over the summer she began a battle breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment with good results. After Christmas, she was back to working full time.
That came to a halt at the beginning of February when she went to see the eye doctor who discovered she had a detached retina. To fix this they had to do surgery. They put a permanent band around the eyeball. Then they went into her eyeball with tools so small they don’t need to make an incision and fixed the retina. Finally, they put a gas bubble inside her eye to hold the retina in place. For the next day Debbie had to look down so the bubble would float to the back of her eye where the retina is. Being able to see clearly out of one eye and fuzzily through a bubble in the other eye was disconcerting. So, Debbie was taking time off work to recover.
In the meantime, the first graders had been doing a block of lessons based on circus acts. This would culminate in a performance for the school and parents on Friday afternoon. The day before the performance a teacher heard some first graders talking. One of them said, “Wouldn’t it be great if Mrs. Kane could see us do our circus?” Debbie, aka Mrs. Kane, heard about the comment. Of course, she then had to make the effort to go. And this is what doomed me.
My wife was still unable to drive and enlisted our daughter to get her to the school for the performance. Unfortunately, that day our daughter was with me in the morning on another end of town. I could get her back in time, but would be unable to stop at the store to pick up a card as I had planned.
Now a first grader had unknowingly thwarted me. Was I to be doomed to looking for a Valentine’s Day card in the remnants of Target’s card section, prowling through the picked over cards at Walgreens? Not to mention that I now had to get to work and between getting home and getting dinner, I would have time for only one stop to get a card. How could I escape this doom? Then I realized, the Co-op has a good selection of cards. I could stop there, buy food for dinner and look for a card. If they didn’t have any Valentine’s Day cards I could always get a good blank card. My plan was saved.
When I got to the Co-op I discovered the card selection was much bigger in my memory than in real life. They didn’t have a section of Valentine’s Day cards. And what’s more the only blank cards that would work were ones we had already bought and used in the past, so Debbie had already seen them. I was doomed to a substandard blank card and there was no time to go anywhere else. There was nothing I could do. I picked the card that was the least bad for my purposes and did the rest of my shopping.
The Co-op has three cash registers. That day all three lanes were full. There must be a Murphy’s Law for checkout lanes. Something along the lines of: As soon as you pick a lane the other open lanes will fill with people and someone in your lane will cause a problem that the person on the register will be unable to solve by themselves. That day was not an exception to that rule. I stood in line waiting and surreptitiously eyeing the people in the other lanes who had gotten in line after me, but had edged closer to checking out than me. Tiring of that I started reading the checkout magazine covers. That was brief because, of course, the co-op doesn’t carry the trashy tabloids that we all read while we wait in the checkout lines. Meanwhile the problem shopper still hadn’t resolved anything, so my gaze wandered around the store. Inevitably I was drawn back to the Card Racks of Doom when what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a red card with perhaps a heart on it. Merry Christmas! Maybe this card could work.
Still in the cycle of doom I went back to the racks and looked at the card expecting something weird that would in no way fit with what I had written. Instead I found a card that could not have been better.
The front of the card was a picture all in red of flowers forming a heart shaped frame. In the frame are two birds facing each other. One bird has a branch in its beak as if to give it to the other bird. Below the picture there was a verse by Pablo Neruda. The inside of the card featured a smaller version of the bird from the outside holding the branch in its beak. The inside caption read, “My heart is yours”. If I started looking a year in advance if I could not have found a card with a caption that would fit my theme of “Here take my heart” better than that. My plan was saved. I bought the card and wrote the revised version of the poem inside the card.
Here, take my heart of stone,
let me be your rock.
Here, take my heart of glass,
but don’t break it.
Here, take my artichoke heart,
it’s good for you.
Here, take my heart of the matter,
which is that I love you always.
When you’ve taken my heart
don’t think me heartless because
it’s full of the love of you.
So, here, take my sweetheart
and be mine.
I gave her the card at dinner. Because of her eye surgery I had to read the card aloud to her. After I explained the circumstances of how it came to be written as an exercise in my class she smiled and said, “You can practice on me anytime”.
Unfortunately, she was wrong. That’s when I found out what doom really feels like. Eight days after Valentine’s day I brought Debbie into the hospital emergency room. The cancer was aggressively attacking the lining of her brain. While there were some glimmers of hope they turned out to be just grasping at straws. It became clear that we should focus on keeping Debbie as comfortable as possible in her remaining time. Debbie entered hospice care and came home to be surrounded by love and family.
The card ended up being Debbie’s last valentine. I found myself stunned at how quickly anytime turned into out of time.
Two pictures, seven years apart. Beginnings and endings. The first picture was taken on August 12, 1974 when I was 14. The second picture was taken on June 15, 1981; I was almost 21. The pictures bookmark the time we had our family van. I can put an exact time frame on it because of its astounding appearance and its dramatic disappearance. The van was utterly unlike any of the other cars we had during those years. It was shiny silver and red with no rust and a comfortable interior. Unlike our other cars which usually had lost their shine and were a whisper away from being a clunker.
I can date its appearance because it was a few days after Nixon resigned as President. I was up on the North Shore of Lake Superior with Uncle Gene, Aunt Lenore and my cousin, Matt, who was close to my age. At one point, we had heard the President would be resigning the tomorrow. On the next day as we were driving through the woods, Matt suddenly leaned forward in the back seat, reached up and honked the car horn. “Nixon’s gone!” he shouted. "Yes!" I shouted as grateful that Matt hadn't caused Uncle Gene to drive into a ditch as I was for the political moment.
A few days later my family was coming up to stay and my aunt and uncle would leave the next morning. Matt and I decided to take a hike that afternoon from the resort where we stayed; our vague plan was to walk to the river and hike up it. When we were walking on the side of the road that morphed into, "let’s see if we can get down to Lake Superior from here." Once we were on the lakeshore the plan changed into, "let’s see if we can hike all the way to the river on the rocks along the shore."
On the journey we discovered a small waterfall, caves, and a natural amphitheater complete with a big rock podium. Eventually we hit a rock wall we couldn't climb and had to give up the plan of making it to the river. We made our way back to the road just short of the river.
Matt and I decided we still had time to go up the river. We hiked up stopping at each of the waterfalls and then continuing. Finally, we made it to the bend in the river where we usually stopped. A small set of rapids allowed us to sit with our feet in a natural Jacuzzi.
We realized that it was getting a bit late and we should be back before my family arrived. We made a mad dash down the river back to the highway. Matt and I were impressed with how quickly we made it back down the river and how much faster it goes if you don’t stop to look at any of the sights.
However, the dash took its toll. We were both trudging along the highway back to the resort. I remember my feet feeling like they would feel when we would walk back to our car after a day of walking all over the State Fair. I just wanted to sit down. We weren’t very far along when a van pulled off the side of the road ahead of us.
It was a bright shiny newer looking van. Wishfully I said, “maybe my parents bought a new car and they're going to give us a ride.” Matt said, “dream on,” echoing what I was thinking. Then it happened. The passenger side door opened and my oldest sister Kerry’s head popped out. “Hurry up!” Amazed we ran for the van.
Over the next seven years there were many changes. Gerald Ford become President. He was followed by Jimmy Carter who had picked Walter Mondale, a Minnesotan, as his Vice President. Next came Ronald Reagan who pledged to cut taxes and spending. The non-profit my father ran became a casualty of the spending cuts. Matt and I showed the rest of the family our hike along the shore. Since then it has always been referred to as The Hike Along the Rocks” (yes, in capital letters.) It has been a family favorite for many years. My family grew with the marriage of my oldest sister and the birth of two of her children. I went from middle school through high school and then to college. From a teenager to my early twenties. From being painfully shy to going to an out of state college where I knew nobody. Through it all the van was there as the family vehicle, steady and dependable, always starting with the turn of a key.
On June 14, 1981 the van disappeared. That summer I was at home preparing to spend the fall quarter of college in Europe. We had a full house. I am the fourth out of five children and four of us were living at home. Kerry had moved back home with her husband and two young children. I was sharing a bedroom with my younger brother, Michael. My sister, Katie, and my parents also lived there while my brother, Kevin, was living elsewhere for the summer.
Kerry and her husband John decided to take their kids to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Michael and I went with them. This had been the lake our parents would take us to when we were little. Back then we would swim, have a picnic, and go to the band shell for a concert and a treat from the concession stand. Kerry, her husband John, their almost 3-year-old son Brendan, their 4-month-old daughter Bernadette, my brother Michael and I all took the van and drove to the lake. We parked close the rose gardens and walked down to the lake. The day was hot, humid and overcast. The kids went wading in the water and played around. We sat on a blanket enjoying the day and the lake. Eventually it became time for us to go.
At this point the van suddenly decided not to start. After several attempts John left to hike to the band shell and call for help. As he left we stayed in the van and kept the kids occupied. John arrived back. He had called home and only my sister Katie was home. She would come and pick us up to get everybody home and we could worry about the van later.
Katie soon arrived in one of the cars that was one of our normal cars. A dull brown 1973 Chrysler New Yorker that was a pre-oil crisis gas guzzling tank. As soon as Katie pulled into the empty parking spot in front of us we all hopped out and went to the car. Strangely we all felt a need to hurry.
I was the first one to get in the car, as I slid into the seat behind Katie I looked at the lake. Coming across the lake was a wall of water looking like heavy rain. “Look at that,” I said. Katie looked and groaned, “Oh no, I didn’t close the windows at home.” Neither one of us knew that behind the wall was a tornado bearing down on us.
As everyone piled into the car the storm hit. The rain became heavier and heavier and the winds picked up. Eventually the only thing we could see out the windows was water blowing sideways. Every so often, a stick would blow up against the window, hold for a fraction of a second and fly away again - eerily reminiscent of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. That tank of a car with five adults and two children in it was bouncing up, down and around; shaking and sliding in the wind.
My ears popped and I think that was when some part of my mind realized it was a tornado. I cracked my window open to equalize the pressure, shouted for everyone else to do the same and put my head down.* The storm continued. The car kept bouncing around. After a while it subsided and we looked up. Michael, in the front seat, turned to look at us in the back and gasped, “The van is gone!” I turned around and looked. In the parking space behind us where the van was parked, I saw only an empty parking spot. Vans and cars do not suddenly disappear like a magic trick. My mind didn't comprehend it on first glance. My reaction was the same as Michael's, "it's gone!" The van had been blown into the ditch. When it was pulled out the next day we could see that the whole front was caved in. Anybody sitting the front seat could have been killed.
Kerry and John were in a panic to get the kids home. We moved some downed trees out of the way and drove across a lawn to get out of the area to drive home. On the way home, I sat in the back seat on the passenger side. Kerry was in front of me holding her daughter on her shoulder. Bernadette was staring at me with her eyes wide. I reached out with my finger and she wrapped her fingers around it; grasping it tightly all the way home.
That night we watched the coverage of the tornado on all the local TV stations. Most of the coverage focused on the damage to shopping areas in Edina and HarMar Mall in Roseville. Then on Channel 11 they covered Lake Harriet. They interviewed two bystanders. The talked about the tornado and then said, “There’s a van in the ditch over there.” And then they showed it; our van was on TV upside down in the ditch.
I have two pictures to remind me of the van’s coming and going. Matt took the first picture of me on “The Hike”. It used to embarrass me to look that picture of myself. Blue tennis shoes, plaid pants, an orange striped shirt, a maroon sweatshirt tied around my neck and my long hair. Maybe, it’s the passage of time, maybe it’s seeing other awkward kids turn into reasonable adults that it doesn’t have the same effect anymore.
The second picture was taken of me next to the van after it had been pulled out of the ditch. The original of the picture was lost, so all I have is a photocopy. I compare that picture to the one taken of me earlier and see someone who has grown in more than just stature. There is a quiet confidence in my pose as I lean against the van.
As the van dramatically appeared and disappeared the world was changing as well. Undramatically, the child that I was slowly disappeared and the man I was becoming slowly began to appear.
*A note about tornado safety. In the time this story takes place, the theory was that tornados would cause much of their damage because of their intense low pressure would make sealed buildings blow out their windows. So, we were told in the event of a tornado, windows should be slightly opened to equalize the pressure. However, it has since been determined that having windows open with the wind blowing through can make the roof of a building act like an airplane wing and lift off.
Welcome to my blog. And welcome to me as well since this is my first blog post.
I was considering deactivating my wife’s Caring Bridge site when a comment appeared asking if I could keep people updated on what’s happened to us since I’ve stopped posting. I decided to switch to a blog format instead of Caring Bridge.
I’ll be posting a mixture of memories, musings and updates. I do have some exciting things planned for later this year that I’ll be letting you know about. I’m hoping to put something up weekly. I’m also hoping to keep to that schedule for more than a few weeks.
My goal for my first weekly post is Tuesday June 14, since that is the anniversary of something that happened 35 years ago.
Tim Kane's memories, musings and updates.