Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Great North Sea

The north shore of Minnesota has long held a deep fascination for me. As long as I can remember there was an inexplicable allure with its vast ocean and deep woods that seemed to beckon my wandering imagination. It fed into my youthful fantasy of traveling around the world on a tramp steamer. Anyone remember that pop song ‘Brandi’? Later on, it provided the basis for two screenplays and numerous poems among other artistic ventures.

In my wandering youth, that old harbor town Duluth and Lake Superior were distant destination points for Susan and me in my less than dependable VW. There were wine picnics on Hawk Ridge while listening to the ‘Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald’ and youthful musings about travel and life and what the future might hold for the two of us.

Interest in northern Minnesota was further fueled by ownership of an octagon vacation rental on Spirit Mountain called the ‘Mountain Villas.’ There were weekend family sojourns exploring the coastline for rocks and gulls and threatening waves. It once meant training with Melanie for the Twin Cities marathon – 18 miles one Saturday morning.

Recently we revisited the great Northland once again. Two welcoming invitations to the land of the loon, quiet lakes and huge eagles sailing overhead.

I could see that Duluth is finally coming into its own now long after the mines closed back in the early 80s. There are new buildings going up in downtown. A more progressive mayor and city council are encouraging growth. New businesses seem to be spouting up every day. It’s been years since I’ve ventured up there yet the sights and sounds of that coastal city continue to draw me back.

Canal Park is busy as ever. Buskers are the newest attraction on the lake walk. Buskers are street performers who entertain visitors each day and evening. In addition to all kinds of music, dance classes are also held along the boardwalk. Its great entertainment and symbolic of the freedom of expression that is so predominant in that ocean city.

Our first invitation came from an old high school classmate who has retired on a small lake ten miles outside of Duluth. He and his wife are now enjoying the quintessential northern Minnesota experience. It’s a Minnesota thing. 

Our second visit was to Lake Vermillion, even closer to the Canadian border, with its pristine lakes, deep woods and abundant wildlife.

What ever happened to the little cabin up north? They’ve become modern day castles in the woods. Even as old turn-of-the-century cabins made way for much larger structures the old title of ‘cabin’ has strangely stuck. Perhaps it’s a lingering handle of times past or simply a less subtle way to describe the family compound up north.                      

At first I thought the owners were being a bit euphemistic in describing their second or third homes in the woods. Perhaps those owners were being coy or unassuming or just hanging on to their ‘Minnesota Nice’ moniker. Turns out neither is the case. The lexicon of outstate Minnesota when it comes large and small homes on the lake is to call them all ‘cabins;’ plain and simple. 

While not quite the Cote d’Azur - Minnesota style, Lake Vermillion is never-the-less quickly gaining a reputation as a playground of the rich and famous. If our visit up north was any indication it’s a veritable sandlot for boy toys. 

Most of the homes we sailed by had their own collection of man toys. There were power boats, cruisers, simple and elaborate fishing boats, crawlers, pontoon boats, sailboats, canoes, kayaks and all sorts of floating devices stacked along the shoreline. 

During the summer months the garages hold the motorcycles, bicycles, ATVs, prowlers, snowmobiles, ice-fishing equipment and every yard game known to mankind.

For Melanie’s kids it was a wonderful weekend full of exciting adventures they would never have experienced in their own backyard. 

Can you spot the eagle?

The allure is still there for me. But it’s not the desire for a mansion up north or a decked out cruiser on the lake. Instead it’s allowing one’s mind to embrace the vastness of the ocean, the pounding of the waves on an overcast day and the depth of the forest always nearby.

It’s all those elements and more that caused a young man to think great dreams of ‘what if’ while still embracing the realities of his day. Now years later it’s still a draw on his imagination even if that tramp steamer left harbor a long time ago.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Secrets of My Wedding Day

Nowadays some weddings take the tactical skills of a field marshal and the resources of an investment banker to pull off. There are ‘theme’ weddings, ‘destination’ weddings and an odd assortment of mysterious events clumped together under the banner of ‘weddings.’

Many wedding traditions are being left aisle-side. These days it seems that weddings are all about personalization…making each one unique and different. Dad no longer has to walk you down the aisle. You can pick your Mom instead. Or a friend, your child, stepparents, etc.

You don’t have to be the first ones on the dance floor for that ‘first dance’ and wedding cakes can take the form of cupcakes, cookies, or donuts. You don’t have to have a garter toss or even launching your bouquet any more. A white dress isn’t sacrosanct and blush, blue, and even red might work for some brides.

It wasn’t always that way.

When my son, Brian, got married in Florida there was a lovely church service followed by the tradition dinner at a country club. It was unique in that there were separate food islands. It was memorable for its great music and a relaxing time for all.

When my daughter, Melanie, got married here in Minnesota it also took a traditional approach.  She got married in the University of St. Thomas chapel since she was in law school at the time.  There was a reception at a country club nearby, great food, fun dancing and a relaxed atmosphere for all.

When I got married back in the early seventies it was a far less complicated kind of affair. There were no such things as theme weddings and no destination weddings unless the pair was eloping. There were few elaborate settings except maybe for the moneyed crowd in the western suburbs.  

Engagement Party

Ours was a much simpler but just as meaningful occasion. Sharon’s parents had neither the resources nor the finances to help out. So Sharon planned the event entirely by herself. No surprise there since even as far back as grade school she was the one arranging and rearranging  the classroom. The teacher only thought she was the one in charge.

An old priest talked to us beforehand to test our collective knowledge of the Catholic faith. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and just listen. I spoke up when asked but otherwise let Sharon do the talking. It was easier that way since twelve years of Catholic education had begun to erode my own concepts of Christianity. Not faith or spirituality just the precepts of organized religion. Even back then, I was morphing into a cafeteria Catholic.

We had three classes/meetings with the parish priest. The last one involved a white-knuckle drive from the Cities to Wabasha in a blinding white-out. Everyone was so impressed that we kept our appointment. Sharon’s parents thought we were nuts.

Working with a seamstress in town Sharon designed and made her own wedding dress. While dresses today can cost upward of a thousand dollars or beyond, Sharon’s cost her/us one hundred dollars. 

She arranged for use of the American Legion in town for our reception; no charge since her dad was a member. The meal cost four dollars each.

It was a small town wedding replete with the obligatory priest invited to the reception afterwards, no music, no booze (my father-in-law took his buddies next door to the Legion Club for a shot or two), Church ladies who prepared the meal, high school kids who served us and wedding gifts stacked on a table in the corner. Simple and traditional.

The only crisis that day was finding blood on my tuxedo shirt the morning of. Seems I hadn’t checked the tux shirt carefully when I picked it up the day before. Try finding white shoe polish on a Saturday morning when most of downtown is closed. Thankfully, the ever-resourceful nuns at the Notre Dame convent came to the rescue.

Recently pictures of my wedding attire have produced gales of laughter from my kids. I’m sure my grandchildren are sure to follow. I wore a powder blue tux and had my Buddy Holly glasses. My groomsmen were Mickey, Gary, and Jim (each with their own story to tell).


One passed away in Texas some years later. Another disappeared shortly after I got married. The last old friend faded out of my life entirely when we moved out of state.

When I look at those old photos, it brings back a lot of memories. Of times past and traditions long since relegated to the dust-bins of another era. But one with its fond memories and lingering smiles flickering across my mind.

Yeah, it was all good back then even if I was like a deer-in-the-headlights the entire day. A new era in my life had just begun and I wasn’t the wiser for it.

I am now.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Letters from Tina, Part Two

After that initial letter from Tina in September of 1968, I got three more letters the following year. Each came with a different return address.

There was a great transition going on in my own life. I had settled into a daily routine of two jobs, my writing, my film work and the hippie scene on the West Bank. I was spending a lot of time with Susan. It was the near tail end of My Lost Years and I was absorbing those influences that continue to guide me to this day.

Tina’s life seemed to be always in transition. Tina’s experiences, traumatic and otherwise, in Eastern Europe and Israel seemed to doggedly pursue her stateside. While I was edging closer to finding a focus and direction, Tina seemed to be still floundering.

July 3rd, 1969

Dear Dennis,

I finally decided to write – although, actually I decided to a long time ago but it’s taken me about five months to do it.

It’s really hot here – gets up to 110 (113 yesterday) almost every day. I was born here but every summer figures like these strike me as highly ridiculous. Most of my friends have been busted but I stay pretty clean so I’m not too worried.

Summer school is a drag but so is an extra semester in school. By going this summer I should be able to finish next May. I could have finished this January had I decided to take a B.A. in art, but instead I’m aiming for a B.F.A. in art which is infinitely more useful.

Another well-known drag is money. I have at present two part time jobs and have applied for a third. The best is my paper route from about 4 – 6 in the morning – what am I going to do at that hour except sleep, right. So I might as well make some money instead. The job I’ve applied for is with a newspaper as a ‘layout girl’ (which may sound suggestive but is at least better than being a cocktail waitress at the Body Shop or a topless dancer, or a cap hop. Yep done all of those jobs.

I’m trying to find a home for my four cats and me. Wish me luck.


December 13th, 1969

Dear Dennis,

Sorry – really sorry about the delay – it was very good to hear from you. You sound like things are clicking for you. I’d love to see your film.

I’ve been working in the audio-visual department of the university and really would dig what you’re doing in film.

I’ll have my B.F.A. in another year and a half. Reason for the delay is that I dropped out again to get back on my feet permanently. At the end of the year I hope to have enough money to pay off my debts and get a motorcycle (BMW 250cc or larger like a 600). $400.00 for two semester tuition and a couple (like 3) hundred dollars for a trip to Europe this summer. DREAM ON!

When I get out of school, I want to go to NYC and work in a film library until I have both the money and solid inclination to go to graduate school. And I don’t aim low either – I want to go to Pratt – which is the best art school in the country. Tune in next week for the newly revised schedule for Tina’s future.

Time is an amazing thing – goes so fast you just want to sit back and watch. I used to joke about going to college on the five year plan – but not anymore. Next year I’ll be 23 and the six-year plan will be a reality.

Dennis, please write – I promise to answer much sooner.


January 10th, 1970

Dear Dennis,

This has been my week for letters – one from you and one from Kiki – a good friend of mine from Sweden.

Congratulations! Things are really coming around for you. And to think I knew you when – no kidding, I really am impressed.

As for me – well – after busting my ass (pardon the expression) at various dull jobs, I have gotten hip to easier ways to make money. I model for art classes once in a while for doing nothing – except once in a while catching a cold. Nights I work as a topless waitress and dancer (good tips). I hate the dancing but waitressing gives me a chance to talk to and observe people. It’s really a goof. It gives me a chance to understand why I make so much money for doing little other than taking off my shirt.

During lulls I read art history, Sidney Hook, etc. – so I think they understand I’m not a dumb slut or a nympho. Makes a bad movie plot doesn’t it – poor college girl putting herself through school, sinks to the very depths of depravity – but her soul is not tarnished.

I still can’t understand why nudity pays so well. As a woman I almost feel taken advantage of – I mean, I wouldn’t make much of a feminist doing this. But the money is good and I can’t afford ideals right now.

I don’t think I’ll make it to Europe this summer after all. Money is too tight and three months is too short. I couldn’t trust myself to come back.

I have to finish school. So – as it stands now – I want to find a job in NYC or in Philadelphia this summer. Maybe Boston. I have friends in all three places and I would like to get to the east coast. Also would like to do something I like (not dancing topless) and get decent wages for it. May make enough money for tuition next year.

Write to this address: ___________ I may be moving again. You see how I make up for not going to Europe? I move to new apartments every month. Very exciting.


That was the last letter I got from Tina. I wrote her again but she never responded. A year and a half later I was married and my life changed dramatically. Tina became just another casualty of past acquaintances and lost friendships that littered my other life.

There’s a small plastic box under my desk where I’ve stuffed old photos and a few letters from my past. The box has traveled with me from Minnesota to Tennessee to Maryland and back.

Tina’s letters were among the relics there. Reading her letters again brought back a plethora of memories of that time in Europe when we were young, immature, carefree, adventurous and lost. Good times and bad along with more than a few smile-makers. 

A while back, I came across Tina on Facebook. There were lots of tattoos and a son now in his mid-to-late twenties. No reference to a husband. Tina is still living in that same town. It sounds like she never moved away after all.

I had a fleeting moment of impulsive desire to contact her…but what for? That part of our lives has long since passed on. We lived out our lives as we were destined to and now we only have those exaggerated stories to tell our children and grandchildren.

Except Tina’s stories weren’t wild or exaggerated or unbelievable. She told it as she lived it and I was fortunate enough to be a small part of her late night salons in some long forgotten Danish town back in the turbulent sixties.

I’m a better man for it.