Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tree houses are for everyone ~ April 28, 1994

by David Heiller


Tree house. Those two words can fill a kid with bliss and a dad with fond memories. My son and I built a tree house on Saturday and Sunday. We chose the box elder by the outhouse. It is easy to climb, and has four trunks that come out of the ground like giant weeds.
First we rounded up scraps of lumber. Rule number one about tree houses is that you can’t buy materials. You have to scrounge them.
The inspiration for Noah's tree house dreams
We nailed three two-inch boards to the tree for the floor support, eight feet off the ground. I showed Noah how to use a square for cutting straight ends. I showed him how to read a level for a level floor. I was glad to show him this. No one ever showed me when I was his age.
Then we nailed the floor boards onto them. We had to notch some of the boards so that three of the tree trunks could come through. The end result was a platform that seemed part of the tree, like it belonged there.
While we worked, I told Noah about the tree houses we had when I was young. They weren’t really houses, rather just a couple of boards nailed onto two branches.
They were in the elm tree beside our house. One was about eight feet off the ground. That’s the one I liked. The other was level with the bedroom window on third floor of our house. That’s the one my brother liked. He would climb up there, and then grab a branch overhead and swing out over the ground, then dare me to do it. I think I did once, and that was enough.
You couldn’t beat elm trees for climbing and making tree houses. That tree is gone now, thanks to Dutch elm disease.
Kids and trees go together.
Malika and Noah in our maple tree.
Saturday night, Noah showed me some tree house drawings from a Calvin and Hobbes book. That’s how he wanted his to look. So the next day we made walls like Calvin’s. He tied a rope above the walls so he could climb in just like Calvin does. Noah didn’t want a door in his tree house. I’m glad he didn’t. That’s getting too fancy for my tree house tastes.
My daughter, Malika, objected to this. She couldn’t get in using the rope. I think that was Noah’s idea all along. But Cindy and I made him put a, ladder up for her.
He has to share his house, and not only with his sister. When we were done, Cindy announced that she couldn’t wait to use the house. It will be a great place to read, she said, and she was serious.
Noah felt proud of his house when it was done. He sat up there after supper. He felt eight feet tall, in more ways than one. It was a beautiful spring evening, with frogs peeping and tree swallows making nests. And only 29 more days of school left! he said.
Life couldn’t be any better.
I looked at the house with pride too. It was no great feat of carpentry, but Noah couldn’t have made it without me, and I wouldn’t have made it without him. That made me feel good.
Maybe I’ll do some reading up there too.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Old Man River has his way ~ April 26, 2001


David Heiller

Cindy and I stood on the observation platform of Lock and Dam Number 10 last Wednesday, April 18.
Locks and dams on the upper Mississippi.
The Mississippi River was high. It was almost flowing over the top of the lock. A lock is like a long cement chute with a gate on either end. The locks are used to move boats past the dams. In normal weather they tower over the boats, except for towboats. But the river had swallowed up the locks.
We talked about the houses we had just seen upstream in Guttenburg, Iowa. Dozens of them were flooded. The road ran between them had been replaced by the main channel of the river. It was a strange sight.
I struck up a conversation with another guy on the platform. “Did you see those houses under water up there?” I asked.
“Yeah, we live in one of them,” he answered. He and his family had one of the few houses that wasn’t yet flooded on the island. He had come to town in a boat, going very slowly and carefully. You would not want a floating tree to catch you in that water. I thought it was kind of funny that after he came to town, he went to the dam to look at the river. Didn’t he see enough of it from his kitchen window? But the river in flood holds that kind of fascination for some people. I include myself in that category, although I like to think that I would not live on a low-lying island along the Mississippi.
Guttenburg, Iowa flooding.
The man’s wife said it was the third time since 1993 that their neighborhood had been flooded. The only other time before that was in 1965. That tells me that we must be doing something to help Old Man River with his spring tantrums.
Look at Brownsville, my wife, Cindy, said. In 1965, the water came up and over the banks of the river. It spread over many acres of bottoms and beach, all the way to the railroad tracks. They called it a 100-year-flood. Yeah, right.
But now there is a housing development at that spot, as well as huge sand dunes left by water Army Corps of Engineers dredging. The water can’t rest in Brownsville anymore, so it hustles downstream and finds another spot to flood, like Guttenburg.
I don’t have much sympathy for people that build in flood-prone areas. But then again, they aren’t looking for sympathy. The people that live there take floods in stride.
With David.
Cindy and I spent four days last week along the Mississippi. It was a vacation for us, although it sure wasn’t for the people who live there. We didn’t time the trip to coincide with the second worst flood ever. That was a grim and awesome bonus. The grim part was obvious. The fascination came with the magnitude of the flood.
On Friday evening my mom and I walked down to the first spillway of the Reno Bottoms, seven miles south of Brownsville. Normally there is no water over the spillway. It runs through a big culvert. But we watched as four feet of water rushed over it. One spot where many people fish was eight feet under.
“Think of the treasures that will wash up back there,” I told Mom. I could see the tip of a canoe protruding from a tangle of water and wood. Suffice it to say that Mom did not share my enthusiasm.
I told her I would be back in a couple weeks to find that canoe, and maybe some more goodies. It will take more than a couple weeks for the river to return to normal, she replied. She’s probably right. Then we can wait for the next 100-year flood, which will probably happen sooner than that.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The glow of spring is finally here ~ April 5, 2006


David Heiller

The turkeys arrived on March 29 at our house.
That was the morning the valley turned into an amphitheater of gobble-gobble. Their calls bounced off the trees and hills like a bunch of Romans watching Daniel fend off the lions.
It was a glorious roar, although lacking the distinctive voice of T. Rex.
T. Rex is short for Turkey Rex. He is a big bird, although I haven’t seen him. But I have heard him. He must have a special spot in front of a cave filled with just the right qualities. Either that or he picked up a megaphone from Uncle Donny’s old junk pile.
Immediately following the big event.
When T. Rex gobblesit’s more like a roar, I guessit shoots up the valley and explodes through the air. You can almost see the coffee in your cup get those little ripples like in Jurassic Park.
The turkeys made me realize with a smile of relief that spring is actually here. It’s been a bleak winter for some reason, and it seemed like the grass and goldfinches would never start to turn. But both things happened last week too.
Those four bluebirds on the highline wire down the road didn’t hurt either. Or the garlic plants that I had pushed into the ground last fall. There they were on Saturday, green shoots the size of your little finger, stretching into the rain.
Mom reported seeing little red rhubarb plants at her house too. She calls them “nubbins,” which is kind of a fun word that has a lot of spring in it.
Alex and his dad, Jim.
Alex and Laura made the arrival of spring complete on Saturday. Alex, my nephew, had been scheming or two months to propose to Laura, which is about a year later than the rest of us were hoping. (Yes, we are nosey relatives.) He is a patient man, and luckily, Laura is a patient woman. 
Alex and I walked into the woods on Saturday morning to scout out a spot for his big plan. We found a decent place, down the hillside, away from the road, with the valley slipping toward the river.
He went back a second time with his brother, John, to confirm the choice and lay in a few supplies: a bottle of champagne, two classes, and a blanket on which to kneel.
The third time was the charm, with the right person, and it seemed like the birds chirped just a little louder while we sat in the house, me, Cindy, John, Kathy, Jim, trying not to smile too broadly at the thought of Alex’s grand proposal and Laura’s equally graceful acceptance. That’s what happened.
A celebration of spring and love at Little Miami that evening.
It’s hard to explain what it means when you say that people “glow.” It’s a cliché, and I’ve used the phrase many times. But I saw it in person last Saturday when Alex and Laura returned to the house. That was it. They were glowing. Their feet might have been on the floor, but I’m not sure of it. Laura showed everyone her beautiful ring. Alex smiled with pride and joy. I guess we all did. There were lots of hugs and handshakes and tears. 
The glow will stay for a while too. It is hanging on through the gutsy wind and rain this Monday morning. It will last through the rise and fall of Lake Ponchetrain, which now stands in front of our garage. The ball is in motion, the earth is spinning again. T. Rex is calling. Spring and love are in the air.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

A great trip, with a great ending ~ April 18, 2002

David Heiller


The best part of the trip came at the end, when “Dave” and I paddled down the Kettle River last Saturday morning.
(In case you don’t read Dear Abby, when a name is in quotations, it’s not their real name, although I’ve often wondered if people don’t put the person’s real name in the quotes, just to be funny.)
“Dave” took care of the logistics, as usual. “We’ll put the two canoes in your truck, and then drive my van to the bridge at 46,” he told me when I pulled into his driveway at 9:30. The idea was to then drive my truck to a spot up-stream, park the truck, paddle downstream about eight miles to County Road 46, then get in his van with his canoe and go back for the truck. I would pick up my canoe on the way home.
And that’s what happened, mostly.
The Kettle River had never looked finer to me than that morning. Cold, deep, and in a hurry. A river in flood is like a magnet to me.
We slipped the canoes over huge slabs of shore ice and into the water. It quickly whisked us downstream.
David and "Dave"
There were rapids almost non-stop. These aren’t dangerous rapids like you’ll find 25 miles to the south at Banning State Park. You probably wouldn’t drown if you capsized in these. But there is still a cheap thrill in bouncing over the waves and dodging rocks.
I learned the rock-dodging part the hard way. Not more than five minutes after we started, my 17-foot Aluma-craft and I were perched on top of a huge boulder. Normally that rock would be a foot above water, but on this day it was three inches under the surface.
Dave gave me a look of sympathy as he slid past. He is an excellent canoeist. I crawled to the front of the canoe and rocked the canoe back into the current.
We didn’t talk much. The roar of the rapids prevented that. Dave pointed out two otters in the water ahead of us. I couldn’t see them. My eyes are temporarily bad as I await a laser surgery. But I heard one come up and quickly go back under, about a foot from the front of my canoe.
Dave saw deer too, which he diligently pointed out to me and I diligently didn’t see. But in a way that didn’t matter. What mattered was being on the river, in the sun, moving, exploring, and feeling alive.
The trip had another challenge besides the rocks. A strong south wind was blowing up the valley, and if you didn’t slice it just right, it would grab the nose of the canoe and shove you toward shore. I’m saying “you,” but it was really “me.” It never happened to “Dave.” Did I mention what a good paddler he is? “We’re going this way,” he said once with good-natured sarcasm as the wind forced me to shore.
Another time the wind turned me completely around, so I drifted downstream backwards, and looked where I had been. Hey, that’s a good thing to do sometimes.
After we passed under the Highway 27 bridge, the shore looked familiar. Just six weeks earlier Dave and I had skied down this stretch. It was a good feeling, seeing some landmarks, and knowing that we were getting close to home.
That last stretch was wider and deeper, with fewer rapids. It wasn’t as exciting. But it held one remarkable scene of beauty, where a water-falls slid off a high, quartz-filled ledge. It was the kind of beauty that you don’t see every day, or every year. It made me sit up and gawk and smile.
We reached the bridge on County Road 46, where Dave’s van was parked. Several hours had passed. We were tired and ready to get on with our days.
That’s when Dave swore and said, “I forgot my keys.”
He had left them in the glove compartment of my truck!
We laughedwhat else can you dothen Dave said “I guess I’ll have to walk and get a spare key.” His house was about three miles away. “Do you want to come with?”
“No, I think I’ll take a nap,” I replied. And that’s just what I did. It was a great end to a great canoe trip. For me at least.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The river showed us wonder and power ~ April 10, 1997


David Heiller

Ice piled up against the Kettle River Bridge on County Road 46 a week ago, and when it let go, it was a sight to behold.
A crowd of people gathered for the event on Thursday evening, April 3. My wife, Cindy, and son, Noah, and I were lucky to be among them.
Ice is fascinating.
I had seen the people on my way home from work at 5:30. They were standing on the bridge, pointing at the river, which I thought was pretty unusual. Being a reporter, I wanted to stop and see what was going on. But I didn’t. None of my business, I thought.
Then at supper, Noah told me that the river was filled with ice, and it was really something. He had seen it from his school bus window. He’s always noticing things from the bus, like dead animals and lost lumber. Things he knows I’d like to investigate.
“That’s what the people were looking at,” I said. So we cleaned off the table and went back to the bridge and joined them.
About a dozen people were there. The bridge pilings had stopped some big sheets of ice, and all the ice up river, as far as you could see to the north, had backed up against it. You could have walked across the river on the ice, if you felt suicidal. On the south side of the bridge the water was clear and flowing.
We talked with some of the folks there, all the while watching the ice, looking for movement.
Then it happened. A bit of ice broke free on the west side. A tree started swaying 100 yards away, as ice jostled by. Then Frank Larson put down his binoculars and pointed upstream.
Janie Johnson took this picture of the Kettle River breaking up on
February 23, 2017. I am so appreciative of her sharing it with me!
A river of ice was moving downstream like a huge snake, alive and unstoppable. “She’s going now, several people said at the same time.
Ice battled ice, grinding and crushing at a hundred different places, pushed on by the swift current of the river. The big sheets of ice at the bridge lost their grip and broke and slid through the pilings, and the river of ice was on the move.
For the next 20 minutes, ice floated under the river. No, float isn’t the right word. Float is too gentle. That ice was about as gentle as a bull. A jillion pieces, some huge, some tiny, bank to bank, all charged downstream.
The motionless ice field that looked so benign a few minutes ago was now a tremendous and deadly force. It was like a giant lava flow of ice, carrying trees and branches and rocks.
It clobbered the bridge with heavy thuds. The bridge shook. One woman bolted toward the end of the bridge, thinking the bridge wasn’t safe.
We stood there gasping with stupid grins on our faces. A car drove by and someone tried to wave it down to stop and look at the river. The two ladies in the car looked at us like we were crazy and drove on. They don’t know what they missed.
Looking at the ice moving underneath me, I felt for all the world like the river was motionless and the bridge and I were moving upstream. You couldn’t help but feel dizzy and a little seasick.
Norman Larson said he had seen an ice dam break like this a couple times before, and Frank Larson had seen it once. They’ve lived near the river their entire lives. It was a rare natural phenomenon to witness.
I felt lucky to see that ice dam go out last week. It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never look at ice on the Kettle River the same way. It reminded me of the wonder and raw power of Mother Nature.
People in western Minnesota have seen that power all too closely in recent days. Whole towns have had to be evacuated due to flooding. A blizzard, record floods, and record cold all hit at the same time last weekend, and this after α winter of record snow. We have nothing to complain about here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Welcoming back the prodigal sun ~ April 27, 1994

by David Heiller


When you wait for something for a long time, the wait is usually worth it. That was the case last Saturday: like a starving person who stumbles onto a church potluck dinner. We’ve had the longest wait for spring that people can remember, and when spring finally hit on April 22, it hit hard and good.
Mother Nature had teased us with pseudo-spring early this year. The original snow pack melted in 60-degree weather in mid-March. But then we had 13 inches of snow on March 27, and two below zero weather on April 3, and snow on April eight, 12, 16, 18 (six inches) and 21. My wife grimly recorded this on the kitchen calendar.
So people were looking at Saturday’s sky like a prodigal sun, ready to forgive and rejoice and kill the fatted calf, or at least hold a potluck dinner.
I sensed it right away, when I saw the sun shining into the bedroom at 6:30. I was out in the woods by 7, pulling taps from the maple trees. Last year, which many people considered a late spring, we boiled our last sap on April eight. This year it was April 22.
From then on, it was non-stop spring chores: digging parsnips, putting plastic on the greenhouse, rearranging the garage, getting a load of pea rock from Stanley Bonk, fixing the hose in the basement, raking gravel off the lawn where the snow plow had deposited it like a glacier.
At first all these chores made me tense. There was so much to do. Where should I start? But as I went from task to task, it dawned on me that it didn’t really matter what I did. It all had to get done, and it all would get done sooner or later. The sun was shining. Why not just work and enjoy it? So I did.
Swing by your knees on the ladder?
Why not Spring finally sprung!
I guess it was work. My back tells me that. But I couldn’t have been more happy and relaxed.
And when I heard the frogs peeping for the first time, I knew it was officially spring. (Cindy happily writes the date we hear the frogs on our calendar. Last year was April 12; 1987 was April 8; 1991 was April 4.)
The kids sensed spring too. Normally on Saturday morning, they watch cartoons for a couple hours. But Malika, age nine, and her friend, Kristen, were out of the house by 9 a.m., and they didn’t go back in all day, except to change clothes.
First they were “old fashioned” women, dressed in long skirts and aprons and each carrying a little old fashioned baby. I tried to get them to help me with some old fashioned chores, like shoveling pea rock into the greenhouse, but they preferred to have a picnic lunch under the apple tree instead.
Then they changed into modern dresses. Then it was swimming suits. They sunbathed on towels and stuck their feet in the stock tank. It was a joy just watching them play.
Spring: it’s been a long wait, but boy are we glad you’ve finally made it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

‘I’ve got some bad news, Dave’ ~ April 3, 1997


David Heiller

I’ve got a friend from back home. I’ll call him Carl here. I’ve known him since eighth grade, when we shook hands over the line of scrimmage at football practice.
We became best friends in high school, and we kept that friendship through college, through the Peace Corps, and through my married life these past 17 years. He was best man at my wedding.
Carl struggled through one long relationship that didn’t work out. Then he met a woman that seemed right. They were happy together. They got married seven years ago, adopted a child, and bought two farms.
When Cindy and I would go to Brownsville to visit my mother, we would try to see them. They seemed like a happy family. You never know from a distance.
I called my friend last week to see if we could get together over Easter. We were going to Brownsville to see my mother.
The first words my friend spoke when he answered the phone stopped me short. “I’ve got some bad news, Dave. Mary and I are getting a divorce.”
For the next 20 minutes he told me what had happened. Infidelity. Mistrust. Differences of opinion on childrearing. Unforgiveness. Hardness of heart. Those are the broad terms that define what happened.
Carl narrowed down the problems when Cindy and I saw him in Brownsville on Saturday. We walked up a hill south of town, cut through hay fields, admired the broad river valley. Spotted a big tom turkey.
I needed to have the ground under my feet to hear Carl’s story. I needed to be moving, to hell me sort out the twists and turns that led to the end of Carl and Mary’s married life together.
It’s too complicated and inappropriate to sort out in this column. But I can say that all the dreams they shared have come apart. They had to sell both their farms. In the next couple months will come the worst part, the battle over custody of their son.
I feel profoundly sad for my friend. He is starting over, at age 43, both financially and emotionally.
Cindy and I have talked about Carl and Mary a lot. All our talk isn’t going to heal their lives. But it does help us see things in our own marriage that we could do better, and things that we have done right. We’ve steered through some of the sharp curves that threw our friends off the married way.
We are counting our blessings. It sounds crass but Carl’s divorce is making our relationship stronger. That’s the only silver lining I see.
It has reminded me of several things: The importance of working out small problems before they become bigger. The importance of being able to express yourself, the importance of listening, the importance of compromise and forgiveness.
These are lofty goals. They don’t work for everyone. But they work for us, if we work on them.
Divorce is everywhere. Two of my seven siblings have experienced it, and more are on the horizon.
No matter what slant you put on it, divorce is a sad occasion. The potential for a happy life together is lost, and the time together has essentially been wasted, except for the lessons learned, and they are hard lessons indeed.