Rural Life in the UP of Michigan Some stories about life on 160 rural acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

September 25, 2019

Tonight’s Walk

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:46 pm

As is my habit, I went for a walk after supper tonight. Even though the days are getting noticeably shorter, I decided to splurge and hike back to the maple syrup operation. Once I made that commitment, I realized it couldn’t be a long walk, because I’d failed to bring along my headlamp.

It is still warm enough in late September for me to go on walks without shoes. All too soon, shoes and boots will be required, but for now, I exchange the little cold for the much appreciated sensation of feeling the earth beneath my feet.

As I was walking, I started doing the math, and decided I must have made this hike at least 500 times since I started on the maple project 10 years ago. One constant for the vast majority of these walks has been the company of our dog Franco. He was just a puppy when he started hiking out with me. Tonight Franco didn’t join me.

Late Monday afternoon, after a full day helping me mow the lawn and chasing the wheelbarrow around the yard, Franco faltered and had to lay down to catch his breath. I sat with him in the sunshine for an hour or so. He tried to get up after that, but only made it about 10 steps before he fell over on his side. We brought his crate outside, lifted him in, and dragged it inside the house, where we put it in his special corner. He and I sat there for another hour or so while he fought for his breath, until, at last, he gave up the battle and lay still.

Watching my loyal friend reach his end with his typical dignity provided me with a life lesson I’m still digesting. I tell myself he had a very good life. He was with us from the day we brought him home from Wisconsin at about 8 weeks old, until this past Monday. He could run, swim, and get drinks out of the pond, but his favorite of all was chasing his ball/stick. He almost always had something in his mouth which he’d drop near me, then back up and watch expectantly. Up until the end, he would play this game for about as long as I held out.

Life goes on, this too shall pass, time heals all wounds; all these things wind around one’s mind when an important mooring line parts. They sound trite, but are nonetheless true. For now, I know I am wiser to have cared so deeply for another creature and sat by his side when he left. I plan to take many more walks and think about all these things.

August 21, 2019

What I Miss From Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 9:19 pm

One consequence of working at Michigan Tech and living 20 miles away in Elo, has been, I didn’t get to know many of my neighbors. Our social circle was pretty centered in the MTU community. That began to change when I retired, and has steadily improved as I’ve become more involved in the local community through the fire department.

My neighbor on Lake Avenue is a good example. We now regularly share a breakfast table in downtown Tapiola on Monday mornings. As we’ve gotten to know each other, some good stories have emerged. He was blessed with the gift of music from an early age, and was also blessed with parents that nurtured his capabilities. He was one of the few children that didn’t need to be coerced into practicing the piano… he played because he loved it.

He has been fortunate to be able to follow his avocation through his work and for his own pleasure throughout his long life. But like so many of us, the tsunami of technology washed over and around him, and many of the modern tools available to musicians and composers were beyond his technical capabilities.

If I say so, one thing I was pretty good at throughout my career as an IT professional at MTU, was my ability to understand the computing needs of a wide range of people, and bridge the gap for them so they could become more productive with the help of computing technology. My greatest satisfaction was to get folks up to speed and self sufficient with computers. I can credit myself with many converts to the computer realm over my decades at Michigan Tech.

My neighbor had a large traditional upright piano in his house that he wasn’t using. He came up with the idea of donating the big heavy piano to the high school music program, and replacing it with a smaller used electronic keyboard. As luck would have it, this keyboard was pretty old, but new enough to have MIDI in and out. I decided to dust off my old skill set, and see if I could do some gap-bridging again. I ordered the necessary cable and some MIDI recording software, hooked everything together, and… it didn’t work. After explaining how easy and wonderful this new technology would be, I had to admit I was stumped. I came back several times, tried everything I could think of, and still nothing. As a last ditch effort, I ordered a new cable. Success!

The next challenge was to learn the recording software well enough to teach my pupil, and get him to the point that he could use the tools to compose a piece. I figured if he could get one under his belt, he’d be hooked, and my work would be mostly done. Well, today the stars aligned, and we put a piece together. It had 4 acoustic channels chosen by my friend, and even a singing part. And it came out great! As the pieces started coming together, I felt a lump growing in my throat. Just as the computer has helped me do the writing that I enjoy, my friend may now be able to commit his musical ideas onto a MIDI file so the rest of us can enjoy them too.

What else do I miss about work? Frankly, not very much 🙂

August 9, 2019

A Straight Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 10:27 pm

Earlier this summer, Alice and I made a trip to the Grand Canyon. This trip was timed to be after maple syrup and before the gardens. We were barely able to shoehorn it in this year, but we did it. The purpose of this trip, like the one in 2018, was to say goodbye. The 2018 trip was to say goodbye to my Dad, who passed away in early April 2018. Mom died in November of 2018, so this was her trip.

This year Alice came along, and we followed a routine for the days we were there. After an early breakfast in our hotel in Tusyan, we drove in to the park and spent the morning hiking and sightseeing. Then there was lunch at the Maswik Lodge Cafeteria, and back to the hotel for a rest. Then we’d ride the Tusyan bus back to the park for several more hours of visiting, some supper again at the Maswik, then we’d catch the bus back to the hotel.

On two of our mornings, we headed up to a part of the park called Desert View, that I’d seldom visited before. On one of my hikes with Brother Gerry, we had the Desert View Watchtower in view up on the rim for much of our hike along the river. But I hadn’t really visited the area much until this trip.

The watchtower was designed by Mary Colter, who had built many iconic structures in the Grand Canyon and other national parks. As part of our visit, we learned a little about this remarkable woman and her beautiful work; all done during a time when architecture was traditionally a man’s profession.

soaking in the art with a straight back

The watchtower is a 3 story structure with stairways leading up to each floor. My favorite floor was the first floor, and I was lucky enough to often have the place to myself. The other tourists would walk up to the first floor, shown in the above picture, look around a bit, and then immediately climb up to the next two floors. Once done, they’d often climb down and back out into the sunshine. This left me a lot of time to sit on the bench and soak in the artwork.

I have to admit that I’ve often thought that Native American traditional artwork looked kind of childish. There was no real perspective or shading to denote depth. But during my hours sitting and contemplating the work, I came to a much different conclusion. Let’s say I wanted to celebrate the marriage of a beloved daughter to a fine capable man. Or that I wanted to permanently chronicle a bumper crop of corn and squash that would feed my family with some to spare. I am an ancient Native American without access to brushes, paints, canvas, or other tools that we now take for granted. My responsibility was to find pigments in the materials close at hand, find a suitable wall to accept my work, and then allow my heart to sing on that rock wall. What would I come up with?

The answer is I would not have come up with anything as wonderful as what I saw at Desert View. Granted these were not ancient paintings, but were executed by Native American artists in the 1930s. They were based on traditional Hopi works.

As I sat quietly and allowed my mind to settle down, the work came alive for me. The wonder of the stars, the comfort of a good harvest, and numerous symbols whose meanings were not clear to me, but contributed to the stories living and breathing on this circular space.

I don’t know if I’ll be fortunate enough to return to the Grand Canyon National Park, but if I do, Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower will be near the top of my list for another visit.

August 4, 2019

pop pop pop

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:49 pm

My father-in-law often used the Finnish word “hanki” (pronounced hung-gi) to describe a crust on the snow that is solid enough to walk on. Since I don’t know of a comparable word in English, it is the word I use for that purpose.

This maple syrup season, we had a great hanki. Maple trees need below freezing nights and above freezing days for their sap to run. This season we had a lot of snow, and it got very cold at night; cold enough so whatever the sun melted during the day froze solidly enough at night that I could often dispense with the snowshoes.

I use army surplus aluminum alloy snowshoes that are tough as iron, but are a bit of a pain to put on and take off. So if my judgement says the crust is sufficient to hold my weight, I cheerfully head out with my muck boots ™ and buckets to gather the sap. And this worked very well for most of the season.

On one particular gather near the end of the season, I wasn’t paying attention and stepped on the snow where I shouldn’t have. My left foot went through the hanki and my knee said “ouch!”

My left knee has been a problem child for some decades now. About 20 years ago, I tore the medial meniscus and had to have about 1/3 of the meniscus removed. The knee has been a little fragile since then, and about 10 years ago it began to hurt enough that I started wearing a knee brace on it during the day. As long as I use my head, I can do most anything I want to do without any pain.

After the crash through the hanki, my knee started popping with every step. It didn’t hurt, but I was concerned enough about it to tell my doctor about it during my annual physical. He told me that if it didn’t hurt it was probably just a slight misalignment issue, and that the joint was popping back into place each step. “Will it get better,” I asked? “Probably not,” he said.

The other day I was working on firewood for the maple syrup operation, and my knee twisted while I still had weight on it. The noise it made was not the normal “pop,” but instead “POP!” “Oh darn,” I said. I took a few steps, and I’ll be darned if the popping sound had gone away. It reminded me of the old movie trick where someone gets hit on the head and develops amnesia, and the only thing that gets their memory back is another hit on the head. I find it ironic that not only was I working in the woods with the therapeutic pop happened, but I was working on maple syrup wood. The knee saga had gone full circle.

I do have to say the popping sound has not gone completely away, but is seems much diminished to me. Maybe if I’d give is a good wack with a sledgehammer, it would quit popping altogether.

July 29, 2019

An Eggy Batch

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 9:11 pm

Each summer we use half our garden space for gardening, and sow the other half in buckwheat. This grain grows quickly with luxuriant foliage and has a tiny root system, which makes it a very good green manure. Once the buckwheat has blossomed, I rototill it under, wait a while, and till it again a few times until it is ready for the next sowing of seeds. I usually get a couple of crops per summer, and sometimes 3. The next season, we garden the previous year’s buckwheat side, and buckwheat the previous year’s garden side. We’ve been doing this for years with good results.

Between green manure crops this year, I took the opportunity to empty the compost drum. It is always a good moment, because we’ve been feeding the drum with kitchen scraps, pulled weeds, and other organic stuff for some months, all in anticipation of having a batch of rich black compost to feed the garden. When I dumped the first wheelbarrow load out, I noticed a lot of white specks in it. I’d not seen the like of it before. Then I remembered the egg shells.

A neighboring farm in Pelkie has been providing local eggs to our community for a long time. This Mennonite family worked hard and had thousands of birds until some bad luck hit them. The barn where their laying hens were located caught fire and was a total loss. So our local Tapiola community got together and put on a fundraiser pancake breakfast for them. Alice and I learned about this fundraiser at a July 4th parade meeting a few days before the event. We asked if they needed help, and they said they did, so we showed up at 6:00 am with our sleeves rolled up.

The event was well attended and we were glad we came. We were busy the whole time mixing pancake batter, baking sausage, and moving food from the kitchen to the serving area. We raised a nice chunk of money to be put toward a new barn, and went through a lot of eggs in the process. Pictured here is the woman that made the scrambled eggs for us. We kept all the egg shells on a paper bag. At the end of the event, Alice and I were given the egg shells, so I dumped them in the compost drum when we got home, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

It turns out that not every egg got broken. After about 6 weeks of tumbling around inside the compost drum, one egg was discovered intact. It was discovered by me as I was spreading the compost in the garden prior to rototilling. I gathered up handfuls of compost from the wheelbarrow and tossed them out onto the garden. When one handful hit the ground, I heard a pretty loud POP, and smelled a smell that no one should ever have to smell. I thought about it later on, and figured I had been lucky. As I was grabbing that handful, I could have ruptured the intact egg when it was close to my body, and the contents could have sprayed all over me. I might have had to take a tomato juice bath just like the dog when he gets skunked.

As it was I was kind of ripe when I came in from that project. What with the compost, some peat moss I also spread, and various other tidbits. Ted-the-farmer looked and smelled the part. As I explained to my ever patient spouse, it could have been worse.

July 23, 2019

It’s a Beautiful Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:52 pm

My friend suggested I stop by the store in Tapiola and look at a recent delivery.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he told me.

And he was right. Not only was it lovely as it came off the truck, but it was even nicer burred in the ground and hooked up to the building. It was our new septic tank.

1,500 gallons with manholes, all in a row like ducks marching toward the lake. This will be the core of the septic system in our new firehall. Our volunteer fire department has been saving for this dream for decades now, and this summer we are making significant progress. If things continue to more forward, we should be inside by the time winter rolls around.

While a septic tank might not be everyone’s idea of beauty, it surely is to some. Which makes me think about art museums and the eclectic mixture of items on display. Alice and I have visited Chicago many times, and every chance we get, we try to visit the Chicago Art Institute. It has a little of everything, although now that I think about it, I don’t recall seeing any septic tanks. I must have a word with the curator 🙂

Objects of art in museums take many forms, from paintings to hang on walls, to vessels that hold liquids, to furniture for sitting on or storing things. We enjoy surrounding ourselves with beautiful things, some of which have a purpose, and some that are just pretty.

The most beautiful thing to someone who’s house is on fire is a firetruck coming in the driveway. Someone who is sick probably likes the look of an ambulance outside her window with lights flashing. One person’s beauty is another person’s every day item. And who is to say which is right? The important thing, in my opinion, is to seek out and enjoy beauty wherever you find it.

July 17, 2019

I Guess I’m a Farmer

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 10:38 pm

One advantage to living in this rural part of the UP of Michigan is my acquaintance with farmers. Folks that make their living off the land are a special breed, and I’m privileged to be friends with some of them.

In my professional life, I was able to control many of the variables that could affect my success. My farmer friends also have that luxury to a certain extent, but the weather, that unpredictable ally/enemy, is mostly beyond control. There are strategies available to prepare for the weather, but when the weather rolls over, about all a farmer can do is hope for the best, and roll up his sleeves in the aftermath. A special breed of folks is attracted to this profession, and a still more special breed manages to stick it out.

This maple syrup season tested my mettle. When I made my first trip to the sugar bush to look things over, I saw that one of my 4 firewood sheds had been destroyed by the snowload. The other 3 had survived because they were full of wood. The empty one just couldn’t take the strain, so down it came. Even though the maple sap was running, there was still a lot of snow in the woods. I hang the buckets on my trees in two positions, 2′ and 3′ above the ground. I alternate between these two positions as I move around the trees year-by-year to keep the trees healthy. The 2′ positions often meant the top of the bucket was below the snow line. This made hanging and gathering the buckets challenging.

Good sap weather is below freezing nights and above freezing days. From the day I tapped until I pulled my buckets about 5 weeks later, I had good sap weather every day except 2. On those two days, the daytime weather stayed below freezing, so I was able to stay inside and bottle syrup. I normally get several more days like this during the season, but this year the sap just ran and ran. So I gathered and boiled, day in and day out. I thought I had plenty of firewood, but as the days went by, the firewood evaporated from my piles.

Many of my sap days were above average production. From my 70 taps, a good day would be 25 gallons of sap. It takes me about an hour to gather, but my little evaporator can only boil about 5 gallons of sap per hour. So 25 gallons means 5 hours of boiling. There is no tubing or other labor savers in my little operation. Buckets collect the steady drip drip drip of sap, and repurposed stainless steel milk pails (5 gallon capacity each) are used to move the sap from the buckets to my collecting barrel. With all the snow I was on showshoes much of the time, but sometimes if the weather was cold enough, I could walk on the snow crust without too many mishaps.

Above average days would sometimes throw the whole system into a panic. I had several days with 50+ gallons of sap. My storage barrel is only 55 gallons, and I like to empty the barrel of the previous day’s gather, and rinse it out, before I start gathering the next day. Some days I couldn’t do this because the buckets were close to overflowing. When there was no room for more sap and the buckets were getting full, I had to roll up my sleeves and spend more hours tending the evaporator.

Then there was the ice. On very cold nights, if sap is left in the buckets overnight, I can get several inches of ice on top of the buckets. The deal I’ve made with the trees (yes I talk to my trees) is if you give it to me, I’ll boil it. Many syrup producers throw out their ice believing that the ice contains less sugar, and therefor is a bonus, since the liquid sap that is left is sweeter and requires less boiling. Towards the end of the season, the barrel was mostly full, the trees were really producing, and I had to make a hard choice. The top 25% of the barrel contained ice, and I really needed that space, so I grabbed my hand sieve and strained the ice as best as I could, tossed it on the ground, and continued through the storage barrel until there was nothing but clear sap left. Sorry trees.

For 5 weeks this continued, day in and day out. I did my best to keep up, but was steadily losing ground. My philosophy of not storing sap more than 24 hours went out the window. It was coming so fast I didn’t have the luxury of completely emptying the barrel every day. Sometimes 3 days went by before I found the bottom of the barrel, and then wham! One more gather and the thing was full again. The syrup was coming out of the woods in 1 gallon glass jars and being stored in the refrigerator until I could get it bottled. I was running on the ragged edge of a knife blade, and still the run continued.

When the sap started turning yellow after a few warm nights, I pulled my taps and called it a season. After the last quart jar was filled and sealed, I counted up the year’s take. Seventeen gallons! My previous high was 13 gallons, but this record will surely stand unless I upgrade my equipment.

Since the season ended in mid April, I’ve sat down and attempted to write about it several times. My butt was so thoroughly kicked by the 2019 maple syrup season, that I couldn’t seem to collect my thoughts enough to put a coherent story together. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write again. My respect for my farmer friends went up several notches this year. My season only lasts for 5 weeks, but these guys go year round. It their luck holds out, they can make some money. If not, they just roll up their sleeves and put in the extra effort to salvage what is salvageable. My hat is off to them.

March 10, 2019


Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 8:49 pm

Remember in the old days when you wanted to use a word you don’t use very often, but it was just the right word? You could marry a good speller, as I had the good fortune to do, or, you were doomed to try to look it up in a book… a book called a dictionary. This is not a small book either. Ours, the one we still have but hasn’t seen the light of day for some years now, came with our Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a large format book in 3 volumes. And words like “pneumatic” were especially problematic. You knew how to say it, but how is it spelled? You look all through the “NEW”s, and nothing shows itself. You often wound up choosing a different word because of that P stuck at the beginning.

Now we can just start typing, and by golly, a decent stab at it usually gives you the correctly spelled word. Writing should be writing, and weight lifting should be weight lifting. You shouldn’t have to haul out a heavy book when you are trying to write, at least I don’t think so.

Lately GMAIL ™ has been helping me with more than spelling. I start typing a sentence, and it cheerfully suggests a completion of the sentence for me. If I hit the TAB key, if fills the rest in, and often even puts the right punctuation at the end. I often find myself liking much of what it suggests, and when I consider the effort to type out exactly what I had thought about, vs the suggestion that is almost the same, I will choose to let GMAIL ™ do the writing for me. GMAIL’s ™ suggestions are often more cheerful that what I had had in mind, which makes me wonder whether it is trying to make the world a more civil place. I hope it succeeds.

Back to the topic of pneumatic tires. I have a lot of them. Besides the ones on my cars and trucks, there are bikes, a riding lawnmower, rototiller, wheelbarrow, etc. Tires filled with air make my life easier. While it isn’t quite as obvious with cars, a low wheelbarrow tire can be a real downer. They stand tall and proud until you get a load in them, and then you have to push twice as hard. Wheelbarrow manufactures do everything they can to obscure the low tire until it is too late. The thing is loaded, and the tire is pneumatically low. It needs some air.

I’m fortunate to have a good air compressor in my garage/shop. When I pop on the right attachment, I can put up to 110 psi into just about any tire I own. It is effortless and very satisfying. There is just one problem though. Not all tires take the same air pressure. My plow truck takes 75 psi, while the car takes 32 psi. My bike takes around 70, and the riding lawnmower does take air, but I have absolutely no idea how much.

Now I’m sure the engineers that design tires are very smart people. I know this in part because when they construct the molds that tires are made in, for the writing on the tire to be legible, they have to make the numbers and letters backwards in the mold. Not just anybody can do that, and I’ll bet these engineers have degrees from institutions of higher learning.

However, the people that decide what gets printed on the tires must have been hired off the street at below minimum wage. They often have the manufacturer of the tire in big bold legible letters. With a wheelbarrow full of sand and a half flat tire, you can walk right up to that tire and know in a minute that it is a BF Goodrich or a Firestone. Information I would suggest is completely useless in the current situation. In a slightly smaller font, but almost as prominently displayed is the size of the tire, in a code that only tire salespeople understand. It reads something like P235/75R15. This string of useless gobbledygook can also often be read in the standing position.

But to determine how many psi of air to put into the tire, one has to read the tiniest most inaccessible print on the whole bloody tire. You have to get down on your side, put some spit on your finger, and rub it along where you think the magic number is located. The spit makes the raised lettering stand out and able to be read more easily. You know when you’re getting close when you see words to the effect of, “not intended for highway use.”

“Great,” I think to myself. “I was just about to wheel this barrow of sand over to the highway and start passing cars with it.” In the tiniest font, often upside down and on the other side of the tire you started looking first, because of course you wouldn’t print the max psi on both sides, there it is, the number you’ve been looking for. “Inflate to 20 psi. DANGER, do not over-inflate!”

“Yes, I know I shouldn’t over-inflate! That is why I’ve been lying in a mud puddle for the last half hour looking for that tiny number!”

Not that I would ever qualify for the lofty position of pneumatic tire engineer, but if I did, I would insist that the manufacturer of the tire, the tire size, and all the rest of the nonsensical gibberish on the side of the tire be relegated to a one point font, and in big white letters would be the words, “Inflate to 20 psi max.”

February 17, 2019

Buying a Refrigerator

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 10:13 pm

On my infrequent flights, I often am glued to my window as we are landing. Down there are row after row of houses. I think I could fairly confidently say that each one has at least one refrigerator in it. I never gave that concept much thought until Alice and I were sitting in the boarding area for our flight to Miami at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

One of our fellow passengers was engaged in a lengthy loud verbal battle over a refrigerator. This woman summers in Chicago, but winters, to the best of my recollection, near mile 66 in the Florida Keys. This woman, like many of us, uses a smart phone to communicate. Unlike many of us, she speaks in a very loud voice on her phone, and often puts the phone on speaker.

There is little in the way of entertainment available when you are waiting for a flight, which is perhaps why this woman chose her method of communication. Maybe she was hired by the airline to keep us all occupied while we waited for our flight to board.

This woman really needed a refrigerator, had ordered one, and had arranged to have it delivered later in the day after she arrived from Chicago. The store that she bought it from attempted to deliver the fridge that morning, when she was, of course, still in Chicago. She read them a loud riot act for some time for daring to mistake the delivery time. This went on for some time. I would characterize her behavior as bridge-burning, in that if she ever tried to buy something from that store again, they would likely call the police on her.

Once that call was completed, we thought we might be able to return to whatever it was we had been doing, but we were wrong. She was determined to order another refrigerator. I felt as though I was in the midst of an Agatha Christie novel plot, where thread after thread was explored, until the right one finally exerted itself. We (I say we because by now, this was a group effort) called numerous places looking for a fridge, and for some reason, none of them worked out. We thought we had it once, but the people doing the delivery only offered to drop it off in the driveway. Rats. A couple of places had clerks that seemed not to speak English. Several did not deliver at all. We were rooting for her to strike gold, but every path she took led to a dead end.

Which made me think about all those houses I see from the airliner window. Did every refrigerator in the houses visible from the air come at such a high price in terms of loud phone persistence? If so we are probably talking more hours of effort expended in ordering and getting the thing delivered than were necessary to build it in the first place.

I was sitting next to her as we were getting ready to board, and we struck up a conversation. That was when I learned she summered in Chicago. I told her we lived north of Chicago about 400 miles, and gave her some idea of the cold and snow we encounter.

“Is it really that bad?” she asked me.

“I don’t remember saying it was bad,” I told her. “We like the seasons and the challenges they bring.”

She looked at me skeptically.

“And,” I thought to myself, “we have a perfectly functioning refrigerator waiting for us when we get home.”

February 16, 2019


Filed under: Uncategorized — admin0 @ 11:00 pm

My third best surprise of all time had to do with my beard. When Steve was born and came home from the hospital, it was just after we’d had a well drilled and had hooked up the toilet. An inside bathroom! Although it wasn’t exactly a room yet. It was a toilet sitting in the middle of a place that would one day have walls and become a bathroom when we had the money and time to get it finished. In those days, I told Alice that as soon as I had a sink to shave in, I’d shave off my beard.

Progress on the bathroom was pretty good, and in a couple of years, the walls were up, bathtub installed, and a bathroom sink in place. The day I hooked up the sink plumbing and made sure it was all working was the day I remembered my pledge. So, after Alice fell asleep that night, I snuck out to my workshop with my electric razor and shaved off my beard. Then I snuck back in bed. When Alice woke up the next morning, she was next to a strange man! Steve had never seen me without a beard, and was skeptical about his Dad for some time after that.

My second best surprise ever was for my Dad’s 80th birthday. He was never big on celebrations or presents for himself or for others for holidays. My cousin Dan Soldan approached me with an idea to have a surprise birthday party for Dad at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant. Dan had a friend at the casino that would arrange for the room, and we worked together to invite as many of Dad’s friends and relatives we could think of. Alice and I were visiting in Dimondale on the big day, and I casually asked him if he’d like just the two of us to take a drive up to the Soaring Eagle on his birthday. He jumped at the chance.

Dad and I would often take the drive up to Mt. Pleasant. He would play the slots while I walked around or sat with him (I don’t gamble). So up we went, and as he was gambling, I checked in at the restaurant to see how things were progressing. I made a deal with the maître d’ that when we came in and said “dinner for 2”, that he would lead us to the conference room at the back where everyone was waiting. When the time came, I asked Dad if he’d like some dinner. “My treat,” I think I told him. “Sure,” he told me, so off we went. When the waiter led us into the back room, 40 people shouted “SURPRISE!” It is lucky Dad had a good heart! He was really really surprised.

But my best surprise of all time, and a very high bar indeed for future surprises, came about this year on Alice’s birthday. The two of us are finding it increasingly difficult to get gifts for each other, because we really don’t consume that much, and when we do need something, we tend to just buy it. Alice’s birthday is especially hard, because it is on January 26, which is right on the heels of Christmas, and I’ve usually used up all my good gift ideas. We do find it hard to surprise each other.

This year I suggested to Alice that we take a cruise for our winter getaway. It turned out there was one we were interested in that left the day after her birthday. So we decided to leave home on her birthday, fly to Miami and stay at a hotel, so we’d be ready to take a taxi to the cruise ship port the next day.

We’ve done 4 cruises together in the past. For several of them, we’ve invited Steve and John to come along, but for various reasons, we were never able to get our schedules to mesh. I approached Steve and asked him if he’d be able to come along this time, but to keep it a secret from Alice. He said he’d look into it. He and John had a lot of things going on, and it was touch and go as to whether they’d be able to make it. While this was happening in the background, Alice piped up and said, “Why don’t we ask Steve and John to come with us on the cruise?”

“Good idea!” I said with as much feigned enthusiasm as I could muster. One of the next times they talked on the phone, Alice asked Steve if he thought they could come. Steve, already primed by his Dad, expressed skepticism they’d be able to make it. A week or so later Steve texted me to say they were definitely a go for the cruise. So I arranged for their passage on the ship, booked their flights, and also booked a room for them in the hotel we were staying at the night of Alice’s birthday. But when Alice next asked him on the phone if they’d be able to make it, he said, sadly, “No I’m sorry we can’t come.”

“I understand,” answered his gullible Mom.

Flying this time of year is always a challenge, because winter storms can close down our airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:05 AM, meaning the roads might not be plowed, so the 30 mile trip to the airport could be hazardous. Added to all that, the longest government shutdown in history had just ended. It was beginning to affect some flights across the country. But we made it to the airport on time, and with minimal difficulties, made the trip to Miami, where we caught an Uber to the hotel.

I was in text contact with Steve, and knew they’d arrived at the hotel ahead of us. When we checked in at the hotel, I was afraid the desk clerk would blurt out that there was already a Soldan staying here! But he was cool and I later learned that Steve had coached him that a surprise was in the offing.

Around dinner time, I suggested we head down to the hotel dining room for a birthday dinner. The plan was for us to find a table, and once we were settled in, to text Steve and tell him it was time to come down. Steve had the idea that he would call her on his cell phone and wish her happy birthday. Once they got into position, he would say, “look to your left,” and he and John would be standing there.

I was nervous as a cat, but did have the foresight to have my camera on my lap, and to have it ready to capture what came next:

And that, my friends, is the story of the best surprise I’ve ever pulled off in my life.

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