Category Archives: Stories

Forgive Me, Harry

Today’s post comes to us from our own Minnesota Steve.

Harry Truman and I had a short conversation in October of 1963. Truman was then 79, retired and living in Independence, Missouri. He was flown to Grinnell College to make a few appearances. Truman showed up at the class I was taking on American Constitutional History. He spoke briefly, then asked if any of us had questions.

I did. Although I used to suffer panic attacks when asking a girl for a date, I felt oddly calm as I queried the former president. “The bomb we dropped on Hiroshima demonstrated the awesome lethality of atomic weapons. I wonder why the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Couldn’t we, instead, have just obliterated an uninhabited atoll? Wouldn’t that have made the point we were trying to make?”

I wasn’t trying to be a smartass, but Truman thought I was. He shouted a bewildering collection of disconnected phrases. I heard “saved half a million American lives,” but the rest wasn’t clear. Truman was pissed off, and he didn’t hide that. Mercifully–for both of us–the bell rang to signal the end of the class. Truman exited the classroom still roaring at me.

I’ve occasionally told the story of that meeting, offering it as an example of how communication can fail. I was not proud of having caused Truman distress. But neither was I ashamed of my question. I meant well. It wasn’t my fault that the man from Missouri misunderstood me.

And yet I now do feel I was at fault. My question was sure to strike him as impudent, for I totally failed to recognize how often he had been criticized for using atomic weaponry. I failed to consider context.

The decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was made in the context of the most difficult war this country had ever experienced. For several desperate years, the outcome of that war was in doubt. Even when it was clear the United States would prevail, informed observers calculated that defeating Japan would incur terrible loss of American and Japanese lives. Experts predicted that the invasion of the Japanese homeland would be one of the bloodiest events in world history.

The decision to create the bomb had been made in fear and desperation. Truman’s deployment of the bomb was based in part on the hope that using a devastating new weapon might save lives by showing Japan that continued fighting was futile. Plus, I wonder if he ever grasped the shocking destructiveness of the new weapon.

The world was entirely different when I stood to ask my question of the retired president. By 1962, World War II was a distant memory, a war which the US had won. It was common knowledge in the 1960s that the Soviet Union and the United States would destroy each other and much of the civilized world if Cold War tensions triggered the deployment of atomic bombs. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, just a year before Truman visited my class, the world narrowly avoided a nuclear holocaust.

Truman and I experienced a clash of contexts. He was used to people damning him for using the bomb. Of course, he regarded my question as another insulting attack. How could he not? I was working from an ethical context. That was only possible because I had the luxury of viewing Truman’s decision as an ethical issue that only arose after the great conflict had been resolved. When I spoke up, the fear of losing the war was gone, replaced by fear of the bomb itself.

I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, Harry. You were a good man and a good president. I should have said so the one time we spoke. Please forgive me.

When have you regretted a failure of communications?

Is it fair to judge earlier leaders who made decisions that look wrong in light of modern realities and evolved values?

The Order of Things

Last week when I was in Madison, my friend and I spent a couple of hours yakking in her bedroom. At one point she had to take a phone call so I was left to let my mind wander.  That was when I noticed that all her books are sorted first by fiction/non-fiction and then alphabetically by author and THEN alphabetically by title.

Except for putting titles by the same author together (mostly), my books are not categorized at all. My fiction and non-fiction are wantonly cavorting together and nothing is alphabetized at all.  I feel so inadequate.

Do you have your books organized? Tell me how?

Headwaters

It was this day in 1832 that the true source of the Mississippi river was “discovered” by Henry R. Schoolcraft. An explorer, ethnologist, geographer and geologist, Schoolcraft was born in New York in 1793.  At the age of 25, he left home to go exploring in the west.

In 1820, he joined Lewis Cass’ expedition to chart boundary issues between US and Canada and to try to determine the headwaters of the Mississippi. Upon arriving at Upper Red Cedar Lake, they could no longer navigate by boat, so re-named the lake to Cass Lake and proclaimed it the beginning of the Mississippi.  But the natives who were part of the expedition told Schoolcraft that earlier in the year when the water was higher, you could keep going by canoe.  Two years later, Schoolcraft did just this and was able to get to what was then known as Elk Lake, the true headwaters of the Mississippi.  As was the custom of the time, Schoolcraft promptly re-named it, making up Lake Itasca from the Latin veritas (truth) and caput (head)

Soon after, he was assigned as the first Indian agent in the area, based in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, where he met and married Jane Johnston. Jane was the oldest child of a Scottish fur trader and his Ojibwa wife.  Jane’s Ojibwa name was “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky” and a writer in her own right, she taught Schoolcraft her language and culture.  He went on to research and document much of Native American life and history, including a six-volume survey of Native American tribes that has since been indexed and updated.  He even spent two stints at Fort Snelling, once as the commander of the fort.

There are quite a few things named after Schoolcraft, from townships in Michigan and Minnesota as well as parks, schools, roads, lakes, islands and even the ship SS Henry R Schoolcraft (launched in 1943). He passed away in 1864 at the age of 71.  Of his many accomplishments, he is best known for his discovery to the headwaters of the Mississippi.

Tell us about the lake that is named after you!

A Decade on the Trail

This is Part 1 of a two part trip down memory lane from Barbara in River Town.

We’ve been blogging here for (are you ready?) 10 years. For anyone new to the Trail, this group started when we were still listening to a beloved (Minnesota Public Radio) Morning Show that aired from 6 – 9 a.m. in the 80s, 90s and aughts (2000s). It was an eclectic music extravaganza peppered with cleaver (see Glossary above) ads, zany characters and radio plays put together by Dale Connelly (a master of parody and verse) and Jim Ed Pool (aka Tom Keith, the super sound effects guy for Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion). When Jim Ed retired at end of 2008, Dale stayed on, and the program morphed into an online streaming station called Radio Heartland https://www.thecurrent.org/heartland/ . Dale also created a blog in early 2009 called the Trial Balloon, in which he’d write an introductory piece about anything under the sun, talk about it on the radio, and ask a question at the end to get an online conversation going.

Dale, our Alpha Baboon, hung in there posting 6 days a week for most of the next 5 years. By the time he decided it was time for a sabbatical, he had written 1,166 of the 1,397 posts (231 of them being guest posts provided by the Baboon Congress when he was away). Here is his June 3, 2015 entry:   https://trailbaboon.com/2015/06/03/five-year-plan/  at the end of that phase.

The Baboons rose to the challenge, and kept the blog going with a wide-ranging collection of guest posts for the next 18 months or so, with Dale chiming in from time to time with a post. In early 2017, Dale “cut the umbilical cord”, and we got our own url: www.trailbaboon.com/ , with Verily Sherrilee and Renee in North Dakota taking the reins of the blog, on alternating months. (This statement doesn’t begin to cover the work and commitment involved – I don’t even know how to describe it – and how grateful we are that they’ve taken this on.) Other baboons provide guest posts that we send to them by email (though not as often as we should).

At some point early on, we started also gathering in the space-and-time realm… I believe the first book club meeting was in June of 2010. (Go to above left under Blogroll: Blevens’ Book Club – there are even minutes to the first meetings!) And we started doing “field trips” – anyone know what year the Russian Art Museum trip was?

Over the years various baboons have come and gone, and occasionally come back – life happens, and some months or years work better for blogging than others. A core group of us are still here, several of whom have been posting and commenting almost from the beginning. Old-timers check in occasionally, and we love it when they do. We’ve found we just enjoy connecting most mornings (and sometimes late in the evening) in this mysterious place in cyberspace, to exchange thoughts, experiences, recipes, songs, book/movie recommendations, health info, travel or garden tips, musings on the English language…

What’s the strangest group you’ve ever hung out with? (…besides this one)

Dichotomy

Today’s post comes to us from Ben.
Photo credit: berkemeyer

I was working in the sports center preparing for commencement. This particular room of the sports center, largest of them all, is the “Fieldhouse”. It’s basically four basketball courts with a track around the outside and retractable nets separating the courts. You’ve all seen something similar.

To my left is, what looks to be, an intramural, co-ed basketball game. They don’t seem to be keeping score and they’re all having a good time and laughing and teasing each other. There are a couple girls and while there are some older guys, some guys are younger than other guys. I hear them talk about “shirts” and “skins” and I also heard them say something to the effect of “If Jane stays a shirt than Joe can go skins”. I couldn’t see them so I don’t know.

Mind you, I know nothing about sports. But I could tell they were having a good time.

I was driving around in a genie lift, 40’ in the air and hoping 1) I wasn’t distracting them, and 2) they wouldn’t hit me with a basketball. OK, there was a screen separating their area from the area I was working in but still. Wouldn’t it be awesome to hit the guy in the genie?

Off to my right (with no separating net) a group of young men, most likely students. As they started to play, the difference between these two games was interesting. Of course, the language was much rougher in the first place. Disputed calls, harder playing, more “trash talking” as my wife would say. There had to be teams but I didn’t hear any talk about that.

And I found the dichotomy of the two games very interesting. They didn’t hit me with a basketball either.

Next week the entire fieldhouse will be blocked off (in terms of scheduling) for commencement. But that doesn’t mean if there’s an open corner some group won’t start a basketball game.

Talk about dichotomy in your life.

Panic on Roman’s Point

This weekend’s post comes to us from Port Huron Steve.

I used to own a cabin on Roman’s Point, which is a peninsula sticking into Lake Superior from its Wisconsin shoreline. There are about twenty cabins on the point. While a few were owned by Wisconsin residents, most belonged to people who live in the Twin Cities or Milwaukee and came to the shore of Superior to relax. The cabin folks were mostly professionals: teachers, writers, social workers and so forth. The people who used those cabins on the point formed a loose community. Everyone got along.

 

The cabin owners on Roman’s Point were a mellow group. They were highly educated and keen on protecting the natural environment. They were nature lovers. Indeed, they paid a lot of money for the privilege of enjoying one of the loveliest natural areas in the US. The people with cabins on the point were relaxed about security issues. The point was a friendly place where nobody expected crime.

We were amused, then, when somebody reported an odd theft. A young woman returned from a walk, kicking off her running shoes as she entered her family’s cabin. When she went out again, one running shoe was missing. That seemed strange. Who would steal a running shoe?

Not long afterward, another woman lost a sneaker from the back step of her cabin. People began to talk about this. Days later, another shoe went missing. And then another. What the heck was going on?

Now people were scared. Four shoes had disappeared. Something weird was going on. The shoes had no value, so the thief couldn’t be selling them. And “he” only took one shoe each time. Was lovely Roman’s Point haunted by a one-legged criminal?

Somebody finally said out loud what we had all been thinking: the only imaginable reason for stealing women’s shoes was some obscure sexual fetish. People began talking about the “Roman’s Point Pervert.” Cabin owners began locking their doors at night. For the gentle souls of Roman’s Point, this was our Boo Radley moment. Fear was in the air.

While Roman’s Point is “air conditioned” naturally by chilly lake breezes, now and then the weather can be hot and sticky. On one of those rare sultry nights, a few young folks chose to sleep in pup tents behind their parents’ cabin. Although they had sleeping bags, it was so hot they slept on top of the bags as if they were mattresses.

Just at dawn one of the girls woke up with a strange feeling. She gradually realized something was happening to her feet. She sat up. There, at the open end of her pup tent, was a red fox that was licking her bare feet. When the girl sat up, the fox was startled. It snatched one of her shoes and disappeared in the leafy underbrush.

Hours later, the Roman’s Point cabin owners mustered up a search team. After tramping around a bit, they discovered the fox’s cache of shoes in a little hollow surrounded by brush. They returned all the shoes to their owners.

Have you ever worried about something that turned out to be silly?

The Cruelest Month

In an email this week, Renee said to me “April is the cruelest month”. I disagree (because, of course February is the cruelest month) but it made me think about assigning human characteristics to the months.  Or days (Monday’s child is full of grace….).  Or anything non-human.

I tend to appreciate this – I supposed because it’s a version of metaphor and I love metaphor. Here is one of my favorite passages in which the non-living becomes living (from Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I)”

“Town” was the local Saturday Mecca. A barren old maid of a place, aged and weathered by all the prevailing winds and shunned by prosperity. Years ago the Town with her rich dot of timber and her beautiful harbor was voted Miss Pacific Northwest of 1892 and became betrothed to a large railroad. Her happy founders immediately got busy and whipped up a trousseau of three-and four-story brick buildings, a huge and elaborate red stone courthouse, and sites and plans for enough industries to start her on a brilliant career.

Meanwhile all her inhabitants were industriously tatting themselves up large, befurbelowed Victorian houses in honor of the approaching wedding. Unfortunately almost on the eve of the ceremony the Town in one of her frequent fits of temper lashed her harbor to a froth, tossed a passing freighter up onto her main thorofare and planted seeds of doubt in the mind of her fiancé. Further investigation revealed that, in addition to her treacherous temper, she was raked by winds day and night, year in and year out, and had little available water. In the ensuing panic of 1893, her railroad lover dropped her like a hot potato and within a year or so was paying serious court to several more promising coast towns.

Poor little Town never recovered from the blow. She pulled down her blinds, pulled up her welcome mat and gave herself over to sorrow. Her main street became a dreary thing of empty buildings, pocked by falling bricks and tenanted only by rats and the wind. Her downtown street ends, instead of flourishing waterfront industries, gave birth to exquisite little swamps which changed from chartreuse to crimson to hazy purple with the seasons. Her hills, shorn of their youthful timber in preparation for a thriving residential district, lost their bloom and grew a covering of short crunchy grass which was always dry and always yellow—lemon in spring, golden in summer and fall. She wore her massive courthouse like an enormous brooch on a delicate bosom and the faded and peeling wedding houses grew clumsy and heavy with shrubbery and disappointment.

I also love commercials that depict non-human objects as having personalities. I really liked the Jimmy Dean sun commercials:

Did you ever name your stuffed animals as a child?