Category Archives: Stories

The Mystery of the Boxes in the Field House

Today’s post comes to us from Steve.

Few of us encounter mysteries, I think. Life is usually dull. But now and then something seems wrong. Something doesn’t make sense.

As a hunter and fisherman, I always had a secret dread of being the person who would discover a corpse. Murderers often discard bodies in remote areas, I’ve read, and I spent much of my life blundering about in remote places. In the back of my head I always worried I would be tramping around looking for a grouse when I would find someone’s decaying arm sticking out of the ground from a shallow grave. For example, a murder victim was once hidden in Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, and I used to hunt there. 

My sister once became curious about family history. By snooping around in old boxes she turned up old court records revealing the existence of a legal half-brother that our parents had never mentioned. It seemed a shocking family scandal.

The truth turned out to be much less exciting. My father was accused of fathering a child by a young woman who became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1930s. The charge was false, our parents explained calmly. At the time there were no scientific ways to prove or disprove paternity in what lawyers called “bastard cases.” My dad’s lawyer told him to plead guilty and to pay the unwed mother, who wanted $200 to cover maternity bills. The story was funny rather than shocking, and it involved a cow sculpted from butter. Some friends of this web site know the whole story, for I wrote about it in my unpublished book about my family.

I have led a mostly boring life, and yet there once was a mystery that excited my imagination.

In my home town of Ames, Iowa, there was a curious round brick building near the high school football field and track arena. The “Field House” began life as a shelter for Chautauqua attendees in 1928. The Chautauqua movement was a fascinating development that flourished in early decades of the 20th century. The building was later built up to form an odd round brick structure that hosted athletic events. By the time I was a kid in Ames the Field House was boarded up and unused.

One day in 1960 some friends and I happened to look in the windows of the old field house. It was filled with an astonishing number of cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. We had never seen so many boxes in one place. Each one was identical, and each bore the word “Crest.” What was in those boxes? Why would anyone stockpile many thousand boxes in an abandoned building? Was this some secret government program?

Before long, we understood the mystery of the Crest boxes. For decades Procter and Gamble had been experimenting with toothpaste formulas. In the 1950s P & G learned that adding stannous fluoride to their paste would radically reduce cavities among people who faithfully brushed with Crest.

But consumers were slow to pick up on this. In the absence of truth in advertising legislation, people hawked miracle products to cure everything from cancer to arthritis to “wind in the belly.” Our family doctor once confessed that he went to medical school on the profits of some “snake oil” cure-all that his grandfather sold in little bottles. If such little bottles were filled with flavored alcohol, they usually sold well. In my own childhood the marketplace promoted such dubious products as Geritol (a cure for “tired blood”) and Carter’s Little Liver Pills.

Crest toothpaste, which actually reduced dental disease by 40 percent, only claimed ten percent of the toothpaste market in the 1950s. Then the American Dental Association conducted studies that confirmed the effectiveness of fluoride. The ADA had never endorsed a product before. In 1960 the ADA officially named Crest as the only toothpaste that reduced cavities. Knowing that this announcement would hit the market like a bombshell, P & G went into feverish production and filled warehouses with boxes of Crest in the months before the announcement was released. The old field house in Ames was one of many such stockpiles. Crest dominated the toothpaste market for decades until the practice of adding fluoride to drinking water reduced the need for fluoridated toothpaste.

Have you ever discovered a mystery?




Thursday evening we attended a (free!) concert of the Artaria String Quartet, a nationally acclaimed group that does teaching/coaching of adults and youth in addition to performing. As reported in the Winona Daily New:   “The quartet partnered with Strings in Motion, the Winona Public Schools’ orchestra booster club, to conduct sessions with the students in October, January and March.”

Our concert featured Winona High School students grouped in two string quartets and one Cello Choir. The latter half of the concert presented two movements of a Dvorak quartet played by WHS Faculty, and ended with the last two movements of that piece played by Artaria. We were spellbound by the end of the concert.

Artaria’s mission statement: “Artaria centers on string quartet performance and education. It is committed to presenting inspiring live performances, to mentoring string players of all ages, and to illuminating the world’s great repertoire of chamber music to a broad audience.” Also from Artaria’s website:  “The ASQ is one-third of the way through an “Arts Learning” grant sponsored by the Minnesota State Arts Board. Free public concerts and educational events are taking place in Winona, Caledonia, Rushford, and Lanesboro throughout the season.”

Artaria is based in St. Paul, and their 2016-17 Concert Series shows a lot of activity in the Twin Cities. We feel lucky to live in a state whose State Arts Board has made concerts like this possible.

When do you remember attending a FREE concert or other event?

Bryce’s Germs, No Returns

Last week, one of my high school classmates died. Bryce was the second to die in as many weeks, quite a lot for a class of about 110 people. We are, after all, only in our late 50’s . Bryce died in a local nursing home. I have no idea of the cause of death, or the circumstances of his life since we graduated.

Bryce was a gentle, simple soul. He was categorized as “slow”. He wasn’t as slow as the children in the special education classes and he was in the regular classroom full time. I don’t think he could read, though, and academic work wasn’t easy for him.

Bryce was a farm boy who quite evidently got up early to do chores.  We knew this because he never changed clothes or boots before he got on the bus, and the manure still clung to his boots and the barnyard smell followed him all day.

Our elementary school was old, and there were very steep stairwells inside that led from the outside doors up to the second and third floors of the building. Every  time we were out of doors and had to go inside, we all had to line up on the steps. There was always a great amount of jostling, with people bumping into and brushing against each other. Woe betide those who had to stand next to Bryce or any of the other children considered unlovely or objectionable in some way and got touched by them. The only way we found to cope with it was to pass along the experience to the acceptable ones around us, wiping our hands on them and saying “______’s germs, no returns”. Those germs would be passed along until the poor person last in line would get stuck with them. You never wanted to get stuck with the germs.

I am sure that Bryce and the others knew that their germs were being passed along and that they were considered unacceptable by the rest of us. We didn’t exactly whisper. Despite this, I never once saw Bryce upset or retaliate. I never thought much about it until we were in junior high school. I don’t know what the occasion was, but for some reason I found myself in a conversation with Bryce and he thanked me for being so nice to him all the years we had been in school together. I was flabbergasted and deeply ashamed of myself, as I knew I hadn’t been kind to him at all. I was just less mean, I guess.

I thought of that conversation this week as I read his death notice.  I am still ashamed of myself. I hope he died easily and I am glad he is at rest. I wish I had been kinder.

How has kindness played out in your life?

Mud Season

Everybody I know seems happy that we’ve had a mild winter and that we appear to be having an early thaw. Not me.  I am not happy.  No snow and warming temperatures at this time of year mean just one thing; muddy paws.  It will be at least a month before grass will grow in my backyard — four weeks of mud, muddy paw prints, muddy paw prints all over the floor, muddy paw prints on my bedspread, even muddy paw prints on my shoes if I don’t get out of the way fast enough.  Aarrggghhhh!

What does an early thaw mean to you?

Let’s Pretend

A couple of years I bought I bought a new, three-story doll house for my play therapy room. My old one was posh and well-appointed, but it had no stairs that led from one floor to the next. This was a real problem for many of the children I see in therapy, as they couldn’t figure out how to get the dolls from one floor to the next, and it got in the way of their play. They couldn’t suspend reality and pretend that there were stairs, or just have the dolls jump up and down. I notice that children who pretend do much better in life and in play therapy than those who can’t or who have limited pretend skills.

The new doll house has two sets of stairs, and the dolls can run up and down at will, and so do, and therapeutic play can go on impeded.  I haven’t read any recent research about the capacity of modern children to pretend in their play. I hope my clients represent a special group not representative of our children as a group.

My nine month old kitten has better pretend skills than may of my young clients. I know Luna doesn’t pretend using words. I suppose she pretends in images or actions, but I know she pretends. She hides from, and then pounces on, unsuspecting foil balls. She knows that the balls only move if she bats them or she carries them to us to throw. She walks away from them when she is finished playing, and doesn’t act as though they will move if she turns her back. It is as if she assigns some temporary identity to them when she hides and pounces, and then thinks about them differently when she walks away and goes on to new activities.  You can see her on top of a cabinet in our living room. She loves to jump up there and pounce on the Tomten figures and attack the Finnish straw goats. They are all in a closet now until she slows down and loses interest in them. I wish I knew what she was thinking about them.

How do you pretend? How do you think your animals pretend?




Michigan or Bust!

Today’s post comes to us from Steve.

I have always had a strong sense of place. Born in Iowa, I grew up regarding Minnesota as my natural home. I left Iowa in 1960, and for 54 years I was proud to call myself a Minnesotan. Then in 2014 I sold my pink bungalow and moved to Portland, Oregon, driving 1,745 miles in two ferocious days. The main reason for changing my life so dramatically was a desire to be closer to my daughter and grandson. On Trail Baboon “Saint Paul Steve” became “Happy Valley Steve.” I settled into an apartment near the top of a small mountain. In view of my age, I was sure I’d never set foot outside of Oregon. Indeed, because of my physical limitations, I have not often set foot outside my apartment in three years.

Guess what? In June I will travel 2,400 miles to set up a new home in Michigan. “Happy Valley Steve” will become “Port Huron Steve,” or something like that. I’ll get a Michigan driving license and slap Michigan plates on my old Subaru.

Why make such a dramatic move when I only got to Oregon three summers ago? My son-in-law has accepted a job in Port Huron, the town he grew up in and where his mother and brother still reside. He, my daughter and my grandson returned to his childhood home for Christmas a few weeks ago. That home, built in the 19th century, is parked right on the edge of the Saint Clair River. The photos with this article were taken of that on their visit. My son-in-law came back to Portland convinced he really belonged in the Midwest, and that he should do something to make a return to Port Huron possible.

And me? How is it that I’m moving back to the Midwest? I’m like a gimpy old dog that my family rescued from a canine shelter. Having adopted me, they cannot abandon me now. I should start rooting for Michigan athletic teams, for they routinely kick the butts of Minnesota teams. In any fight between a gopher and a wolverine, my money is on the wolverine! But my heart still hopes the gopher will prevail. Hey, you Gophers, Ski-U-Mah! Whatever the hell that means.

I hope the upcoming move will be less wrenching than the one I’ve done. It would be even nicer if I feel more at home in Port Huron than I have in Portland. Oregon is astonishingly beautiful, at least in places, and Portland is a fascinating city. It is only slightly less quirky than “Portlandia” suggests. I expected to feel at home with Portland’s progressive politics, but each day I spend here offers fresh proof that I am a Minnesotan and always will be. I have found Portland to be like a gorgeous girlfriend who chain smokes and makes a toxic mess of her personal finances. She’s irresistible, yet it is hard to believe things will end well for her. And whenever I drive through Portland a little voice whispers, “This isn’t home, is it? We don’t belong here.”

My daughter knew it would not be easy to tell my grandson, Liam, about the move. Ever since he was a toddler, Liam (now seven) has struggled with “transitions.” Now he faces losing all his friends and leaving his wonderful Montessori school to start up life again in a strange land where nobody knows him. Liam raised some concerns, which his mother attempted to address. Then Liam said, “But Grampy, Mom . . . what about him? I can’t leave Grampy behind!” My daughter said, “Oh, no Liam! We’d never leave Grampy. When we move, he comes with us.” Liam reflected and finally smiled. “Well, then I guess we’re good. We can do this.”

When have you taken a leap of faith and moved?