Tuesday, August 17, 2004


1. Which is more likely: (a) The Pope will renounce his religion and enter a Buddhist monastery; OR (b) the bear will stop using the entire forest as his personal latrine?

2. Which is more likely: (a) During the Republican National Convention, George Bush will announce that Osama bin Laden has been captured or killed; OR (b) The Pope will formally declare George Bush to be the Anti-Christ and will order the clergy not to serve Communion to any Catholic who votes for him?

3. Which is more likely: (a) George Bush will wake up the morning he is to be nominated for another term, will ask "Christ, what am I doing?" and will decline to run again, ala Lyndon Johnson: "If nominated I shall not run; if elected I shall not serve..."? OR (b) John Kerry will win the November presidential election but George Bush will declare martial law and use the army to prevent the change of administrations as scheduled in January.

Please fully explain the reasons for your choices. If you can.


AUGUST 9, 2004

It rained at 3:00 a.m., not heavily. The wolves were calling again, about 4:45 a.m. It is a grey morning, though the sun is trying to break through.

The wind is against us today. We have five or six miles to paddle to our first portage, which will take us out of Quetico Lake. Quetico Lake is about ten miles long, total. We came into the far end of it yesterday afternoon. We paddle the rest of it today, portage into Beaverhouse Lake, and find a campsite within twenty minutes or so of our take-out point. We would have paddled farther yesterday with the wind at our back but we were all wet and tired and ready for some rest.

We have all day to get where we're going but we hope that it won't take all day. We hope that it won't be hard paddling.

The water, the rock, the sky, the irony. We left camp in a spit of rain, paddled against the wind. It rained the morning through, rained nearly the whole way to our final portage. We were wet and cold and made the decision we'd pack up and head part way towards home today instead of early tomorrow morning. A wet, miserable night, just to say we did it? Smart heroes don't do such things, and we didn't either.

Once we'd made the decision, the sun tried to come out, of course. The air got hot.

As we neared that last portage, from Quetico Lake back into Beaverhouse, two eagles stood silent vigil in a dead tree along our way. The smaller, the male, was top left, our left; the larger female, bottom right. They stayed silent, but their mere presence was Quetico's salute good-bye to the weary travelers.

There's the remnant steel of an old car along the portage route. What remains is mostly the rust of part of the body and a fender. I can imagine the telling of this story: the old fellow talking in quite a thick accent, saying, "Yah, ve g'ot her this f'ar b'ot she voulden go in der deep vater. So dat's ver we lef der." Yah, dat's ver dey lef der.

In Beaverhouse Lake, as we were angling towards our take-out, we saw a Beaver seaplane take off from the Ranger Station. We saw a storm building in the direction of our take-out. We paddled like hell and sweated.

When the hard rain hit, we had the canoes and all our gear up to the cars and had just started loading, tying down. We got wetter in the ten minutes it took us to get everything battened down than I had gotten at any point on the trip. Getting rained on hard, that's God's way of saying good-bye, I guess. It was a cold rain and the air turned cold. But then we were heading for home.

All told, we'd traversed some forty-eight miles, paddling and portaging. It had been a good trip. The most precious of it for me, I think, occurred about ten minutes before we came off the water. By then we'd turned and were headed straight for our take-out. Philip and Susan were leading the way, Mary and I were nearly side by side with Anne and Ellie, and Andrew riding shot-gun. I heard Andrew and looked over. The wind was blowing his words away. What I think I heard him say was: "O, Great God of Canada, thank you." Then he doffed his Cubs cap and tipped it to the spirit in the sky. Nobody told him to do it. It was the perfect prayer, spontaneous and deeply-felt.

Andrew, I'm with you: "O, Great God of Canada," I pray, "thank you."



Excel (Peterson Industries) was founded by Vaughn Peterson. It makes "fifth-wheel" mobile homes. Nearly everyone in town says I have to tour the place - they point to the company with some pride. I won't get to meet Vaughn Peterson - he's in his 80s and has just recently had heart surgery. Dave Rorabaugh, Excel's western sales representative, will give me a tour of the plant, and I'll get a chance to talk to Bryan Tillett, president of the company.

When I arrive at the plant, I'm struck by how unassuming it appears. It doesn't look like much more than several sheds humped together along Highway 36. That's a typical middle western ploy, I'm finding - unassuming on the outside, chock full of life and excellence within.

While I'm waiting for Dave Rorabaugh to free up, the receptionist sets me up in the customer lounge with a videotape of the 2003 "Excel Family Reunion." Every three years, as many of Excel's customers as can make it come back to Smith Center for an Excel Jamboree. All those campers get parked up around the high school for the week-long shindig. "We put out food for them," the receptionist tells me of the company's hospitality, and the community's. "The whole town gets behind us."

Then the tape is rolling. People are videotaped registering for a space at the Jamboree. "Where are you from?" asks the fellow with the camera. The answers: Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Wyoming, Texas.

"Sounds like it's going to be a good time," one fellow says, "not too hot, not too cold."

"Is this your first time here?" the fellow with the camera asks a couple.

"No, this is the fourth time for us."

"They said you can come early," another fellow tells the camera. "I think anybody who comes on time is late."

Dave Rorabaugh is the western region sales representative for Excel and he also does organic farming on the side, just a mile from the geographic center over near Lebanon. Dave gives me a tour of the plant.

Excel builds "a cold weather trailer," Dave says. When you look at an Excel trailer, it doesn't look like a house, but it's built like a house - of wood. Studs, insulation, the roof with 16-inch centers.

"We build most everything ourselves," Dave says. "We're a long ways from everybody else in the industry. And it provides more employment here to do as much as we can ourselves." Other than the school district and the hospital, Excel is the largest employer in town.

I see the jig for the roof, with its 16-inch centers. Dave shows me swanstone - "like Corydon, a solid surface counter-top."

"The color goes all the way through," Dave says. "If it gets scratched, you can sand the scratch smooth and you've got the same color."

The entire counter gets assembled, it gets labeled for the particular trailer it will go into, then when the trailer comes down the line, the counter is set into it before the sidewalls get put on. "We try to put as much as we can in before we put the walls up," Dave explains.

The face framing for the counter is pre-drilled and screwed together. The higher-priced units gets a solid oak face; the face for the mid-priced units has a lumber core with a paper wrap to simulate oak. "We don't use particle board," Dave says. "It can't be screwed together. We use paper because it won't bubble and peel off. Paper doesn't delaminate."

We pass the fabrication area for fiberglass and water-lines and come to stand at the two computer-operated routers that can cut out "any design, any kind of corner" and put holes anywhere they're needed. "This is a good use of the computer," Dave says. "Using the computer instead of jigs - zip, zip, zip, it's done."

To be continued....


(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Ludene the Dancing Machine and waitress at Paul's Cafe was making plans to go dancing in Goodland Sunday night," Ivan said. "One of Ludene's favorite group's was playing in Goodland that night. Ludene told me the name of the group. It was either Out Back, Boon Docks, or Back House, one of the rustic names. It didn't sound like they played much Guy Lombardo music."

"Bruce and Bobbi Miles went to Liberal, Kansas, a week ago, to an Economic Development Seminar," Ivan reported. "They were going to get up and leave early in the morning. But they didn't. Instead, they decided to fly down in Bruce's 1946 Luscombe airplane with a souped up motor. That's what they did. They got home safely just before a 40 mile per hour wind hit."

"Stan Hooper entertained a guest that he had met over the internet," Ivan said. "Stan and the gentleman had been interneting back and forth for several years. He and two of his grandkids showed up last Saturday. They are from New York City. Stan showed them around the town and took them out to the harvest field. They were amazed at the things that went on in the country. The two boys are orthodox Jews and they had a hard time finding any kosher food here in Smith Center."

Ivan said: "Bill Greene, the Smith Center high school football coach who developed an offense that went through the opposing team like 'a dose of salts through the hired girl,' sent me his new e-mail address. Said he didn't want to miss the Echo."

"In case some of you who live in the modern era where football players wear nose guards, mouthpieces, and plastic helmets don't know it," Ivan wrote, "Linton Lull was one of Smith Center's best football players on one of Smith Center's better teams. Not only that, Linton was one of the top track people in the state in 1940. If you say anything to him he will deny that he was any good. But he played wingback on the football team, forward on a basketball team that just missed going to State - Hays beat them 36-30 in the semi-finals of the regional - and ran a strong 53 second quarter of a mile over dirt or cinder tracks. He also played trombone and when he was a freshman he sat in a trombone section that could terrorize a freshman trombone player."

"Sheila Stewart has been nurturing and giving tender lovin' care to an apricot tree for five years," Ivan said. "This, the fifth year, finally paid dividends. Not a very big dividend, but a dividend nonetheless. This year Sheila picked her first fruit off her pet tree. The tree yielded two (2) apricots. One of them was rotten. But Sheila said the good one was delicious. What has happened to Sheila's tree every year is that it has been nipped by a late frost. To remedy that, what you want to do is in the winter when it snows pile up snow all around the base of the tree. I mean a lot of snow. Then pile straw on top of the snow. What happens is - in the spring of the year when the ground warms up and the tree roots think it is time to send up some sap, this snow and straw keep the ground around the base of the tree cold and the tree roots, they don't do much thinkin', they just think it is still winter and the tree will stay dormant, thus avoiding a late spring freeze. Echo don't guarantee this will happen, but I've given er a lot of thought and that's the conclusion I've come to."

"The ever vigilant Dick Stroup was out jogging one day last week," Ivan said. "He came to the highway - he looked to his right - he looked to his left - he looked up - but he forgot to look down. He started across the highway and caught his toe on a piece of asphalt that was sticking up. Dick fa' down an go boom. Skinned his knee. But since his wife wasn't home to kiss it and make it all better, he climbed up and ran another five miles. They tell me that jogging is just like riding a horse - if you get thrown, you get right back up and crawl back on it."

"If they ever find bones on the moon," Ivan said, "you can figure the cow didn't make it."

"Let's see," he said, "what's that one about the ship that was loaded with yo-yo's. It got caught in a storm and sank 35 times."

"I'm convinced," Ivan said, "firmly convinced that people would get better quicker if they could wear their regular Fruit of the Looms when they are in the hospital."

"The reason the Echo is short this week is because I went to the hospital last Tuesday morning," Ivan said. "Had a temp. Been trying to get well ever since. Had a bladder infection and it got in my blood. Hope you understand. See you next week."

"They gave me some stuff at the hospital," he said, "a whole gallon of it - salt and X-ray dye. Cleaned me out. In fact, I know I hadn't eaten that much in several months. Think it got rid of some left-over Thanksgiving turkey."

"I see where the Democrats are cozying up to the plumbers union," Ivan said. "They haven't even been elected yet and already they are wanting to put two new johns in the White House."

"You spend four days in a hospital and you realize just how rotten daytime TV is," Ivan said. "I actually heard more intelligent conversation in the first half hour I was in Paul's Cafe than I did in four days of daytime TV."

"What is it that they say about retirement?" Ivan asked. "When you retire, you spend half your time trying to remember someone's name and the other half looking for a restroom. Restroom - what I've lost in velocity I have gained in longevity."

"Moine and Nita Fulmer delivered an Excel trailer to New Hampshire recently," Ivan said. "Since they didn't have one to pull back, they decided to spend a couple of days longer getting back. So they hit some two lane highways in Vermont and Connecticut. Moine said one thing he noticed, it didn't make any diffrence where you stopped along the highway, you were always within walking distance of a house. That's just like here. You are always within walking distance of a house. Sometimes, though, you might have to walk four or five miles or more."

"Oh," Ivan said, "all the numbers on the roads out in the country remind me of the old story - farmer calls the fire department and says his barn is one fire. Fire department says 'how do we get there?' Farmer says 'don't you still have those little red trucks?'"

"I'll be so glad when October gets here," Ivan said. "That is the only month of the year when we have decent weather. I mean, you can count on it - Mother Nature tries to apologize for all the lousy weather she has given us all year and she saves up her best for October."


AUGUST 17, 1998

A dark morning. It looks as if the street is wet, as if a very slow, very gentle cloud briefly kissed the ground. It will not stop with a single kiss, one thinks. The weekend was fairly mild and this morning is cool. This is - I say - not the August I remember. Where are the dog days? We had them in July, I suppose you're going to say. Bah! We need a hundred degree day here, just to say we've had it. We need people to suffer of heat. This is the middle west.

Ah, the musky smell of rain. The gentle sound it makes, like a woman brushing her hair. A rain slow enough to leach the dust from the air. It is morning.

Tippa tippa tippa goes the rain on the roof of the pick-up - enough that I need the wipers as I leave the drive way.

Out in the country the rain is falling at a serious rate. Even so, a sourness hangs where the canning factory sprays its waste water. A flatbed semi slaps a spray of moisture against my windshield. It is dark in all directions.

It is the kind of day that makes me think of grade school. How I felt being cooped up with the nuns and a roomful of kids who bathe only on Saturday night. The kind of day a good rain would be appreciated, the whole system needing to be cleansed, the clouds at the end running away with nothing more to say. The smell of white paste in the gallon jar. The way you want to get out of the school after a rain like that. The way you want to touch a girl on the inner part of her arm, out in the school yard. The musk of wetness on the playground. The way I felt then, smooth-skinned, aching, longing for more.

And now this, it seems, is what it comes to - a wet day, and work.

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