Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

Grandpa and Pup...or pilot and plane.

Grandpa and Pup…or pilot and plane.

When I was four, my father was nearly decapitated by a flying dog.

Pup was an Eskimo Spitz and as far as I know that was the only time he ever flew. Seconds before take-off, he was crouched on the driveway next to me, his bloody chin inches from mine. Then he was airborne, launched by Grandpa over his shoulder, on a collision course with my unsuspecting father’s head. Dad threw up his arms, awkwardly catching the 30-pound furry missile and setting him on the ground. After which Pup ran to his doghouse and hid.

It wasn’t the dog’s fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, really, just a natural reaction by Grandpa to what he saw. Crying child + bloody dog = animal attack.

Except that’s not what it was. I’d fallen on the gravel and cut my lip open, the kind of wound that bleeds like a son-of-a-bitch, and I was crying because it hurt and Pup was bloody because he was licking my face to comfort me. I knew that, he knew that. The only ones not up to speed were the adults. When the truth finally came out, Pup was coaxed from his doghouse and I spent the rest of the day looking at my fat lip in the mirror.
Pup didn’t attack me. He would never attack me because family pets don’t do that.

Apparently, some of them do. Just over a week ago on our end of town, three pit bulls mauled another dog that was in his own yard. All four were family pets; the three attackers belonged to one family, the victim to another. According to the reports, the little boy whose family owns the pit bulls saw it happen but couldn’t stop it. The owner of the other dog heard the commotion and did.

What followed was an impressive outpouring of support for Badger, the wounded dog, and an interesting discussion over who was at fault: the pit bulls which attacked him or the owners who didn’t train them not to. Pit bulls are a violent, dangerous breed and should be banned, said one camp. It’s the responsibility of the owners to train their dogs correctly, regardless of their breed, said the other.

It’s ironic that this incident happened just weeks after South Dakota passed a law prohibiting local governments from enacting ordinances discriminating against specific breeds and just over a month after some friends of ours officially adopted Ray, one of the abused pit bulls from Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, after the dog underwent extensive training and therapy.

What happened to Badger was horrific enough but what happened next may be even worse. Because nothing happened. The pitbulls who attacked him were still running around the neighborhood a week later and if Facebook posts and police scanner reports are to be believed, this past weekend one of them bit a child.

My two dogs are not the best trained animals in the world but we’ve taken what steps we can to ensure that they don’t harm others. That’s our responsibility as pet owners as surely as it’s our commitment to our dogs to protect them from other animals and people who might do them harm. It doesn’t matter what breed they are; when you bring that animal home, you become responsible for them. Period. And if you can’t handle that, you don’t deserve one.

That should last me the week...

That should last me the week…

Fifty percent of my household didn’t read a single book last year.

That was my husband. Early in our relationship, he eyed the overflowing bookshelves in my apartment and said, “I don’t read.”

“You’re illiterate? I can teach you,” I offered.

“I know HOW to read. I just don’t read books.”

I don’t know how this marriage has survived so long.

I was raised by readers. My sister’s a reader as are all of my closest friends. I’ve carted favorite books thousands of miles, been late countless times because I couldn’t put a good book down, and if given the choice between buying a dinette set or a comfortable chair and a reading lamp, I will eat dinner over the kitchen sink…then go sit in my chair and read. People who don’t read puzzle me.

A recent Pew Center Research Poll shows that 23 percent of adults didn’t read a single book in 2013. That’s up from 16 percent in 1990 and 8 percent in 1978. And according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 47% of Americans say they read a book for pleasure in 2012.

Books give us knowledge, insight, inspiration, ideas, truths, lies, instructions, humor, emotional release, a chance to dream, an opportunity to escape, a place to go even if it’s just in our heads. Why WOULDN’T you read one?

RIF (Reading is Fundamental) was still a fairly new literacy program in the early 1970’s when I was learning how to read but its message was already solid: knowing how to read was the key to unlocking a world of doors and it wasn’t just a useful skill, it could also be FUN. I believed that as a kid; now as a bigger kid, I still believe it.

Maria Keller does, too. Maria’s a 13-year-old from Minneapolis, MN who founded her own non-profit organization to promote literacy. When she was 8, she started collecting used books and since then, with the help of thousands of people around the country, her organization Read Indeed has given 1 million books to schools, hospitals and community centers in 30 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. What can you say? The kid likes to read.

Anyone can spread the joy of reading. I recently received some literary love from my 9-year-old nephew who said, “Hey, I got you something” and handed me this:

Kid-approved reading material

Kid-approved reading material

It came from his school book fair; I also got a complimentary Minions’ poster and pencil eraser. Did you know that “Bello” is a popular greeting among Minions and that “Poopaye” is how they say goodbye? True that. I read it in a book.

Read any good books lately? Find me on Goodreads and we can compare notes.

The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. – Dr. Seuss

Brushing up on my creative skills

Brushing up on my creative skills

My youngest nephew had a baby quilt with one square turned wrong side out. I know this because I made it for him.  Not that way intentionally, of course.  When I handed the stack of cross-stitched squares to my husband who was assembling the quilt (he sews better than I do), one square was facing stitches up.  When it was time to add that square, he just grabbed it and started sewing. Neither of us noticed the error until he held the finished quilt up and there it was near the bottom. I was horrified.

No one will even notice it, said my husband, who is not a good judge of what people notice because he doesn’t notice a lot of things. I will, every time I see it, I said. He refused to dismantle the quilt and fix it and while I knew I could rip it apart in a heartbeat, I couldn’t sew it back together in any presentable fashion.

When we gave the quilt as it was to my sister-in-law, I pointed out the backward square and apologized profusely. She just laughed and said that meant no one else would ever have one like it.

I create a lot of things – artwork, stories, crafts – and I give most of them away to friends and family because that makes me happy. And while I used to agonize over every detail, building and rebuilding the same project over and over until it was absolutely perfect, now if I find a little creative quirk in the finished piece, I leave it.  Because creativity isn’t about perfection, it’s about uniqueness. What makes the things YOU create unique to you?

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. – Erich Fromm

Santa Weren’t No Sissy

Posted: December 24, 2013 in Uncategorized

Originally posted on Hot off the Wire:

St. Nick, filled with holiday spirit...and a 40-watt light bulb

In the 1970’s in southern Minnesota, Santa lived in a little red house downtown. The place was small and fairly sparse, but with enough electricity to run the Christmas lights and a space heater. Even so, Santa sometimes wore coveralls when the Midwestern winters got too cold. Rumor had it that old Saint Nick used the biffy at Wallace’s Department Store and ate his meals at Jake’s Pizza, and maybe even indulged in some holiday spirits at the Blazer Bar on an occasional evening. When he wasn’t making toys or feeding reindeer or something.

In the days before shopping malls, Santa was a one-man show. He told you where to line up, called you in when it was your turn, kept track of your wish list, and handed you a candy cane before he hustled you out the door. And if you wanted your picture taken on Santa’s lap…

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Today, It Takes All Kinds of Kinds

Why not every day, huh?

Image  —  Posted: November 13, 2013 in Holidays, Life, Photography, Pop Culture
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Dead Morty opened their only sold-out show with a cover of the Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat”. Interesting choice for a trio whose only female member was a drummer who could neither sing nor drum, although she enthusiastically did both for the entire set. The keyboard player was one-handed; he was stubborn, not disabled, and had to be coerced to perform. The guitar player was a veteran rocker who head banged with the neck-cracking precision of a Pez dispenser. The crowd roared as Dead Morty rocked the stage for nearly three minutes at the end of which the drummer thrust her sticks skyward and screamed, “We love you, Seattle!”

Experience Music Project (EMP) made me a rock god. It can make you one, too.

Swept up from the minute you walk in.

Swept up from the minute you walk in.

EMP is three floors of pure pop culture awesomeness with a two-story tornado of stringed instruments, the massive Sky Church with its 70-foot tall ceiling, and galleries featuring everything from Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar to Data’s uniform from Star Trek to special effects props from classic horror movies.

I like museums where you can touch things. This summer a museum guard chastised me for touching the glass over a painting. This fall a museum volunteer pointed me toward a room full of instruments and said “Play!”

EMP’s third floor is home to the Sound Lab and On Stage. The museum’s organizers understood that the best way to experience music is to actually make it. The Sound Lab introduces you to the physical creation of music through interactive displays with electric guitars, keyboards, and mixing consoles. On Stage takes it a step further and invites you to not only create music but to do it under hot spotlights in front of a cheering crowd. The only way it gets more real is if you join an actual band.

Sky Church, where you can worship everything music and movies.

Sky Church, where you can worship everything music and movies.

We wandered over to On Stage with curiosity, not intent. Neal, who has shoulder-length grey hair and started his own rock band after the age of 50, opened the door. “Come check it out,” he invited.

My husband, smiling, shook his head. “We could at least look,” I said.

The door shut behind us. The room was soundproofed and had a stage, spotlights, curtain, instruments, amps and simulated screaming fans. It was a concert waiting to happen, waiting for us to make it happen. Neal gave us the spiel: pick a band name, pick a song, pick an instrument, perform. Be as crazy as you want; nobody can see or hear you.

My husband was not ready to make an ass of himself. I was already sidling over to the drum set while Neal was still convincing Jay that it would be quick, painless and potentially fun. He even offered to sit in and play guitar with us. By then, I had dropped my coat on the floor in the corner and was sitting with my foot on the bass pedal and the drumsticks in my hands.

“What’s your band name?” Neal asked, as he fired up the equipment.

“Dead Morty.” Jay shook his head at me again. Morty is the custom mini-bike he built. It doesn’t run right now. Hence, Dead Morty.

“Right on, I like it,” said Neal. He ran down the short list of songs we could choose from. “We Got The Beat” was the newest addition and also the shortest. Jay acquiesced that two minutes forty seconds probably wouldn’t kill him. Then the lights came up, the music played, and we friggin’ rocked it.

Dead Morty: Live at EMP

Dead Morty: Live at EMP

Neal declined to mention that a video of your On Stage performance plays on two large flatscreens as you exit the room. A family of four was laughing at our footage before they stepped inside for their own three minutes of fame. I consider them groupies.

Our place in rock history was immortalized in a poster of Dead Morty live at EMP and two concert tickets from our one and only sold-out show. Those were crazy times, on stage, living the life. Yeah, I’m thinking reunion tour.

If you had the chance to play rock god, would you take it?