The endowments and the foundations won't, but you can help support my long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle. Any donation to help defray expenses will be appreciated. Send to Tom Montag at: PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931.
This weekend I received news from his son Stan that Floyd Bolin of Alexandria, Minnesota, died on February 24th, just three weeks shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. I interviewed Floyd at his home in Alexandria, Minnesota, in May, 2003. He was 94 years old then, slight of build, ramrod straight, a little hard of hearing, and he was funny. I was a few minutes early when I arrived for the first of my two interview sessions with him. I rang the doorbell and got no answer. I knocked loudly and got no answer. The door was not locked so I opened it and called Floyd's name and got no answer. I stepped into the house a couple of steps, far enough to see Floyd in the living room, tipped back in his recliner, a blanket on his lap, his eyes closed, an alarm clock on the blanket. "Floyd," I said, "it's Tom Montag." Floyd opened his eyes, looked at me, looked at his alarm clock, and said, "Tom, you're a few minutes early. You'll have to go away and come back at 4:00 p.m." That's the sense of humor Floyd had, and that quick.
Some time later, after Floyd had moved from his home to an assisted living complex in Alexandria, I stopped to see him as I was passing the city on I-90. I knew his room number, but couldn't find him there. I waited in the hallway, and waited some more, then someone told me that Floyd was downstairs in the rec room. I went down there. The question is: was I gladder to see Floyd, or was he gladder to see me. He was a special man.
Floyd's was an interesting life and the world is better for his having spent some time amongst us. I'll miss his laugh, that twinkle of his eyes, the joy he seemed to take in everything.
to the west side of the house, up in a hole in a knob of trunk, a pair of wood ducks make their nest again this year. I've seen them in years past, coming and going. This morning I see them there again.
The ice went out of the pond on Saturday about 4:15 p.m. All day the water had pushed at the darkness, pushed the darkness to this edge of the pond, pushed the darkness to infinite retreat. The entire surface of the pond is ruffled by wind now. The temperature is about 30 degrees.
Yesterday's surprise was a coat of snow on things - wide, lazy, fat flakes that were much too slow for the sun. They were gone by 9:00 a.m. yesterday. The day warmed to nearly 50 degrees, a fine day for all of us but the snow.
A crispness at the edge of morning. I sit in the car in the driveway, looking north. A redness in those far trees again this year, a swollen wanting - wanting spring.
I stop to buy gasoline downtown. I hear from a neighbor we may have 2-5" of snow by nightfall. We are on the edge of it - rain or snow. This is Wisconsin, I said. He laughed.
North out of Fairwater, a smear of Canadian geese in the northeastern sky. They spread wide and dark, moving.
Blueness. Creamed sun on everyone's morning. The temperature is about twenty degrees. It's not spring, but we can see it from here. We can hear it in the bird chatter, the very birdness of their business.
As I walk to the car, the geese honk in the distance. I cannot see them. Then as I'm scraping the windshield, a pair fly over, followed soon by an angling line of seven. A mourning dove calls wooo-whoo, wooo-whoo. The sky is blue and the morning is fine, yet I must go to work.
Downtown, the Grand River runs and gurgles; eventually it slides beneath the ice of the pond.
North of Fairwater the fields are open, except where the geese have set down to feed. Some of them stretch their necks to strict attention, some of them eat.
The black asphalt is white with salt stain. This observation is about as interesting as I am this morning. Sorry.
warn you," Ivan said. "If you happen to see John Boden's pick-up parked along Main and you see his two dogs in the back of the pick-up, be careful. If you walk too close, you could get slobbered on and licked to death."
"Boy," said Ivan, "I was wanting Smith Center and Trego to meet in the state basketball tournament. But Smith Center lost to Bennington in the finals of the sub-state. But I've had other disappointments in my life, and if I live long enough I'll probably have more."
"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired of winter," Ivan said.
"OOOOOHH," Ivan said. "I thought I had a bad wheel bearing. And I did. But I also needed a front axle. That kind of news can make a grown man cry. Fortunately George Dubby is going to send me a check in the mail to stimulate the economy. I know whose economy I'm gonna stimulate."
"Back in the dark ages," Ivan said, "when you danced, if you were a good dancer, you could really cut a rug. When you kissed, you were smoochin. When you were in the back seat of a car and you were smoochin, you were pitchin woo. That was back when the testosterone was constantly at flood state."
"You talk about dullsville," Ivan said. "The Republicans have already got their presidential candidate all picked. That ain't no fun. But Republicans always were a stodgy lot. It takes a Democrat to keep both his pants and his mouth unzipped."
"You know," Ivan said, "they ought to have a Mike Hughes Day here in Smith Center sometime. Mike is one of the unsung heroes in Smith Center. He works out front or behind the scenes, wherever he is needed. Mike is one of those rare people who doesn't care who gets the credit, just as long as the job gets done. I think the Chamber or the Kiwanis or maybe even the Rotary ought to get pins made with Mike's picture on them saying 'I Like Mike.'"
this morning, blue and grey overhead, sky and clouds. The rebs seem to be winning. There was moon in the west quite early this morning, it would be hidden by cloud right now. Last night the sun set exactly in the fork of the old silver maple west of the house.
A thick layer of frost on the windshield of the car. The temperature is cold - not winter, but certainly not the best of what spring has to offer either.
A blow of snow on the iced surface of the pond.
A small vee of geese passes over the house. One of the birds calls out "good morning" as they cross above me.
Robins are pairing up, claiming space, talking sweetly to each other.
Just north of Fairwater, a pair of cranes considers crossing the highway west to east above me. They reconsider, turn back.
By the time I reach Five Corners the clouds have won the sky. The day holds onto its wintery cast. "If you don't like it, go," says the cold wind.
out there, the temperature is in the low teens. Get real, I say to this weather. Spring is coming; give it up.
A squirrel runs nose-first down the old silver maple. In a 1913 photograph of the house, those trees are just young whips. They must be 90 years old.
The plastic on the roof of the neighbor's garage flaps noisily. They had torn shingles off on a warm weekend. Then it got cold, then it snowed. The plastic still flaps.
There is ice on the pond still. Enough snow to block my view out the rear window.
Out in the country north of Fairwater, snow like mist hanging in the distance. Snow is cupped in the stubbled fields, in the ditch, along the roofline of the Sina barn.
At the edge of Ripon, a large crow is perched on a thin branch high in a tree. It cocks its tail this way and that, trying to hold its position. Just holding on requires constant attention. That much attention, just to stay where you are.
of cold, arctic weather coming down from the northwest, I believe. It's only about ten degrees now, in the broad light of morning. It's a struggle, push and shove, winter, spring, winter. There are clouds yet you find patches of blue sky, too.
Sure, it's ten degrees now, but you know there's another end to the string - fifty degrees, or sixty, not far off.
Icicles hang off the roof of Stellmachers' elevator; they hide in the shadows. North of Fairwater a sculpted snow bank cups some golden sun, a richness like real butter.
The sun is serious enough that it won't go away soon.
a couple inches. Everything is white this morning except the sky. The sky is blue. The temperature is in the teens. I don't know what's promised for later in the day. I don't care, really. It's the equinox: the world changes. Spring will come steaming into port here pretty soon.
The wind is coming hard from the northwest. There is no flag at the cemetery in Fairwater yet. At the edge of the village, snow is drifting across the road, as if to mark the limit of something. Out in the country there is not enough snow and blow to create a polar landscape, however. Corn stubble shows through the snow. Despite a snow plow hauling ass towards me, there is snow all across the highway, all the way to Ripon. I trust it won't last forever.
It is a perfect morning for a snowy owl, for a red tail hawk turning its breast to the sun. What I have is winter, is wonder.
a roughness on the land like the scuffed shine of new shoes. A greyness overhead. Yesterday was mild; today the temperature is 30 degrees already. Perhaps the mildness will continue. Outside birds discuss the fine points of their territoriality. Eventually the talk about territory turns on eros, of the bird variety at least. Perhaps for the human variety too. Hmm. Ownership turns on eros. How far could a fellow follow that thought? And what could one learn?
I step outside. A splash of water dripping off trees. It's warm enough for melting. Wetness on the streets. Geese fly away to the north. What do they know?
A mourning dove along Washington Street stays on the street as I pass, moves to the side, does not fly off. A few steps, it thinks, is enough.
A red-wing blackbird, perched on a fence north of Fairwater - its mouth open, calling, calling. What is it crying out for? The same thing we all want?
In the country the lay of snow appears thicker than in town. At least an inch along the roadside, in the ditches, on the fields.
At the edge of Ripon, all the trees bear the whiteness of snow like a hoarfrost.
Why do we think that what's here - what we have - why do we think that can't be beautiful? Why must we go far away to find something that meets approval. Is it because we aren't really able to find a language appropriate for the beauty we find here; or do those far off consciously refuse to understand. Perhaps it is some of each - our failure, those others' resistance. What can a fellow do about it? Is that the question Prairy Erth tried to answer? Is that the question Curlew: Home wrestles with, that Vagabond will struggle with too?
that you probably won't hear much about this basketball season," Ivan said, "is Sarah Tucker shooting one hundred percent from beyond the three-point line. Sarah is one for one from three-point range. That's a hundred percent on anybody's stat sheet."
"Last Wednesday," Ivan said, "all I could think of is what a revoltin' development this is. The KU-Iowa State basketball game was on at the very same time as the Big Joe Polka Show."
"It was 50 years ago, 1958, that the big snow storm started," Ivan reported. "Leo Tuxhorn was to get married, but the preacher couldn't get there, so they got married two weeks later. None of you kids remember that big un of 1958. Had to helicopter hay to cattle. Some people didn't get ther mail for six weeks. Eddie Sinden had some vehicle titles for a farmer out northwest of town. He put the titles in the mailbox and then the snow came and covered the mailbox. Farmer blamed his lost titles on the Post Office. They showed up during the spring thaw."
"Last Thursday morning I heard birds chatterin, chitterin, and chirpin," Ivan said. "I think, if I interpreted the chatterin, chirpin, and cheepin right, they were thinkin' of investin' in nestin'."
"They got to talkin' remote control planes," Ivan said, and "that reminded me of the time Ron McCary was into remote control planes. I asked him how far they would fly on a tank of gas. He said he didn't know. They always crashed before they ran out of gas."
"Had a lady from Pennsylvania call me wanting to interview me about things that happened years ago," Ivan said. "Said she was doing research for some Princeton professor. I declined. When you live in a town that has had a Rhodes Scholar, lots of medical doctors, people with PhDs, Master's degrees, and BS degrees, why would you want to hear anything I've got to say. I told that lady that the people in Smith Center consider me nothing more than a harmless buffoon."
"The question arose between Kendall Nichols and Dick Weltmer," Ivan said, "what is the county seat of Greeley County? Jennie, the waitress, brought Kendall Nichols the Paul's Cafe atlas. Kendall must have been playing hooky the day they taught map reading in the Gaylord school system. First he couldn't find the index. Finally he found it and discovered that Greeley Couny was located at F 2. He thumbed the atlas to the state of Kansas. He could find F but he couldn't find 2. Dick Weltmer, who couldn't even see the map, told Kendall, 'It'll be right down there,' and he pointed his crooked finger to the southwest corner of Kansas. Kendall leaned his head back so he could see more clearly and said, 'Here it is.' While they were loking for the county seat of Greeley County, everybody's coffee got cold. All they had to do was ask me and I could of told them the county seat of Greeley Count is Tribune. Tribune is midway between Selkirk and Horace."
spring has melted all that snow winter blew in Sunday evening. Roads and lawns and fields are bare. Yesterday's warmth was spring's promise, a girl with a husky voice saying "Soon, soon."
You let go of it, but do you let go? That which we desire has claws in us and isn't torn away gently. Everything I was I am and I will be, at least that I was. The past shouldn't be a box you crawl into; nonetheless at least it's a sack you have to carry.
"That's not a crow," I said to my wife on Sunday as we walked at the farm. We'd heard a bird cry out twice in the line of trees at the edge of the property. "That's a hawk." And then the hawk rose, as if to confirm the truth of what I'd said. I'd recognized the hawk's cry. I didn't know I knew that much about hawks.
The hawk's tree. Still I look at the emptiness. Still I imagine the tree, the hawk in it, another spring. The tree has not yet let go. The hawk has its claws in me.
You don't have to do anything you don't want to.
Grey geese fly away into the grey distance. Where alfalfa had been, the soil wants to be green, a faint hue of it, a pale flush.
winter did. A snow storm rolled through towards evening yesterday, left us three inches of snow. Branches of all the trees hold some of it off the ground, the snow. The ground has plenty. The roads, I think, will be messy in places.
There is snow on the roof of the elevator downtown - grey walls and blue walls and white roof and grey sky. North of the village, a line of geese overhead, geese upon a snowy field.
The closer I get to Ripon, the more that gets lost in a white haze - like fog, like a snow storm, but neither, more like a loss of innocence.
The trees along Watson Street in Ripon cast a white net above. Net cast up, catching the day.
You don't have to do anything you don't want to. You have a choice. If you are willing to suffer the consequences, you always have a choice.
last night, and none of the snow we were promised. There was a slipperiness last night and the temperature is about 30 degrees now, so we may have continued nastiness. The sky is grey.
I step outside to a greater mildness than I expected. The windshield of the car has dew or rain on it, not frost or ice. The street looks slick, not wet.
In this light, every building in the village looks shabby. A wetness of wood that ages the light reflected.
The fields are wet and the soil looks sticky. In the distance, the greyness hangs down, a curtain of mist in woods and farmyard.
Crows huddle on both sides of the road this morning. They are as serious as the day is grey. I think they are talking a lot of approximate. The two on my side of the road hop away just enough to let me pass. Then again they attend to their conversation. There's no business like crow business.
to send some of the snow on its way. It's a grey morning, temperature in the high 20s. We've been promised mixed rain and snow for today, and these clouds could bring it on.
The wind sounds vaguely like a train. The sky is full of sound: it has to sound like something. It tastes like chicken, perhaps.
North of Fairwater, geese in the field again this morning. Across the road from the geese, the memory of alfalfa. The soil was worked last fall; the alfalfa was torn up, another crop is coming. There is always something and it's always something else.
It's lovely. Temperature is nearly 30 degrees. Could we pack up a picnic and go out and play? It's the kind of morning you'd want to.
Let me add that there is dew on the windshield of the car, not frost. A mourning dove calls forlornly. Geese gabble and chat. Some puffs of cloud above.
There is still no flag at the Fairwater Cemetery. As I leave the village I see a bank of clouds to the north and northwest. North of Fairwater shadows on the road, and moisture imitating shadows. A field full of Canadian geese. Farther on, pairs and three-somes of geese in the air, uncertain about tomorrow, even about later today. What about breakfast, they say.
I left my winter coat at home. I forgot my pocket watch. I've got sun in my eyes.
and I'll say it again," Ivan said. "Whenever you see an old man with his fly unzipped, just say to him, 'Your fly is unzipped.' No need to use some fancy language like 'Your barn door is open.' Just a simple 'Your fly is unzipped.' You're not going to embarrass an old man. Last Sunday I was in Paul's Cafe. My pants were unzipped. I didn't know it until I left and turned north. That's when I could feel the cold north wind. I just thought to myself, 'Why didn't one of those waitresses tell me?'"
"I've watched some of those dance contests on TV," Ivan said. "That ain't dancing - that is foreplay."
"Track season is just around the corner," Ivan said. "When I was in high school, I set a high jump record, but they wouldn't count it. Said it wasn't legal. What I done was - I grabbed myself by the seat of the pants and threw myself over the bar. They said it wasn't legal."
"The Smith Center vs. Beloit boys' basketball game last Tuesday night was one of the best," Ivan reported. "Smith Center played a 'right when we needed it' ball game. The Redmen sputtered and stuttered and spluttered the first quarter. Then Jared Mocaby started scoring, right when we needed it. Joe Windscheffel didn't score a whole bunch of points, but he skied for a rebound and got a put back - right when we needed it. From then on, it was 'right when we needed it' by committee. Jared Hayes got upset with himself about something. So he grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast, penetrated the Beloit middle, and got a lay-up, right when we needed it. Drew Joy sank one from the baseline, then intercepted a Beloit pass right after that and gave Smith Center the ball, right when we needed it. Smith Center had the ball out of bounds under their own bucket. There was a long in-bounds pass to Brayton Gillen, and Gillen sunk a three-pointer right when we needed it. Then, even with four fouls, Braden Wilson took over the ball game and when Big W took over you could see a big w for the Smith Center side. The fat lady started tuning up with about two minutes left in the game. She was singing a full blown aria with 30 seconds left in the game. The only thing that bothered me was the early fouls that Braden Wilson seems to accumulate. I wish he would quit doing that because his early fouls are hard on my digestive system. They give me belly spasms."
"Ron Meitler bought the coffee last Friday morning," Ivan said. "When he went up to pay, we all told Stan Hooper to watch so he could see how it was done."
"Some of the local folks weren't too satisfied with the officiating when the Smith Center Redmen played the Osborne Bulldogs last Thursday," Ivan said. "The officials weren't all that bad, but I just hope they don't quit their day jobs. Sometimes I yell at an official. But I'm different than a lot of fans. The only time I yell at officials is when they are wrong. And I know when they are wrong."
"I can remember," Ivan said, "when taking food and drink into a gym was taboo. Now you can take a full meal deal in and eat while watching the ball game. Cuts down on yelling at the officials because you can't yell with a full mouth, and besides that you are in a much better mood on a full stomach."
is 20 degrees. The light is like a spill. Everything has depth today: we see through surface. We see through surface to the underlayment of reality, the very pith. It's March; it could be warmer. Spring is coming like an old coal train, maybe slow but it's got up a head of steam.
You can turn away all you want. Where do you think that will put you? We don't have to dress fancy: we know who we are.
The surface of the pond is frozen solid. The hardness of winter, the shell this weather makes. Beneath the ice, there is life; we just don't see it from here.
Just to remind us it's still winter - frost tight to the windshield. Sun, yes, but frost as well. Blue sky and a cold sear, both.
Saturday's high winds tore down a large branch of tree from north of the cemetery.
Where the hawk tree was, a hawk in the air, not a red-tail - greyer, like the day, a marsh hawk perhaps. Several hundred yards farther on, a ground hog runs across the road in front of me, its shagginess an undulation as it runs, as if winter has left it wobbling.
mighty winds on Saturday and Saturday night. The house was moaning and cra-a-a-king like a strangled duck. The image I had: we could put sails on it and sail across these prairies. Driving to Madison on Saturday afternoon we saw a dozen cars, at least, that had slid off the road, or had been blown off. An 18-wheeler gone belly up. Fire trucks, ambulances, wreckers, cops everywhere, holding on tight in the high winds; and a handful of sleet, just enough sleet to make things slippery.
Very cold temperatures came in behind the winds. It was zero when we rose on Sunday. It has warmed to 20 degrees above this morning.
A haziness above, but not so thick I can't see the con trails of this morning's jetliners, the darker mark.
Six months ago, the great howling sorrow.
What is art on a day like this? Art is a dab of color right when it's needed.
No flag at the cemetery yet. The wind, I think, blows south to north, blows me all the way to work.
and fog early this morning. The shine on the street looks like frozen rain. I am not looking forward to slip-sliding my way to work. It'll be grim, serious business.
Well, as I step into the day, the shine on the street seems to be water only, not ice. The air is almost like a spring breeze.
North of Fairwater, the rain has melted snow in the fields. Black soil and white snow like a checkerboard. North of the Sina pig farm, the fog thickens. It's close to the ground, heavy as unhappiness, a surreal sorrow.
last night. The streets are white with it. The sky is grey. The thermometer reads 20 degrees; we are promised more than that for today.
The road north out of the village is snow-covered, despite the best effort of the snow plow in front of me. The truck throws out a cloud of snow; when the cloud settles, it's mostly back on the road. In places the truck is its own snow storm. The white landscape rolls away forever, perhaps forever, a blue-white illusion in morning light.
Ivan reported. "What was formerly School Street is now and forevermore Roger Barta Way. At a ceremony at the Smith Center-Hill city basketball game, the entire city council declared School Street had been renamed Roger Barta Way. Here. Here. Let it be understood that there will be no passing on Roger Barta Way. It's Roger's Way, and Roger doesn't believe in passing."
"You ever notice," Ivan said, "that something or somebody doesn't look like what they really are. Case in point, Brayton Gillen. When you see Brayton warming up on the basketball court, he looks kinda barrel-shaped. When he goes out on the court he kinda looks like a stump amongst the Redwoods. Then he starts playin'. He is quick; he is knowledgeable; he is a shooter; he is a rebounder; and he can play defense. He gets position on rebounds; he has good footwork on defense. And his hands. His hands are so quick they look like a cobra striking. You put the ball away from your body when Brayton is guarding you, and he will just naturally steal it from you. And to add to all of that, he is a three point shooter. I like to watch him. There is this stubby little football tackle out there holding his own with the best of em."
"Talked to a fellow last week," Ivan said, "who told me he had joined A.A. Aerobics Anonymous. He said when he got the urge to exercise, he called a friend who would come over and they would drink until the urge was gone."
"Me N Momma had a doctor's appointment last week," Ivan said. "During the course of the visit, the doctor mentioned 'exercise' three times. Loud, clear, and distinct. Suppose he was trying to tell us something."
"Now nobody under eighty will understand this, but I'm gonna tell it anyhow," Ivan said. "Couple of fellows were talking about how life could be effected even while you were still in the womb. One guy thought that things that happened while you were in the womb had an effect on you all your life. The other guy said he didn't think so. He said while he was still in the womb his mother dropped a bunch of 78 rpm records. It cracked some, but his mother still kept playing those cracked ones on the old phonograph. He said 'playing those cracked records didn't affect me, didn't affect me, didn't affect me, didn't affect me.'"
"John Boden was trying to tell me something the other day," Ivan said, "but he is a lot taller than I am, and so some of the things he tells me go right over my head."
"I am really getting old," Ivan said. "I can tell it in my fingers and my balance. When I was young, I could ride a horse at a full gallop and roll a Prince Albert cigarette with one hand. And strike a match on my thumbnail. If you ever strike a match on your thumbnail and the thing gets under your thumbnail, that hurts."
Disturbed, it falls like snow in thin, wide flakes. Everything wears the white veil. Snow last night, only enough to leave the streets snow-covered and slippery. We are promised temperatures above freezing, yet does it matter much what happens today? The season is on its grand march out: spring is waiting at the back of the church to come gliding in. Everything we need, we've got. We can endure anything if we embrace it. The way out of sorrow is in the sorrow itself.
The higher up in the trees, the heavier the hoarfrost is. The topmost parts are full as with new leaves, white ones. The trees are brighter than the grey sky. Groves of trees are like snowy mountain ranges.
Desire, says the fellow on the radio, is the key to surrealism. Pardon me - isn't desire the key to most everything?
You can get good at writing grants or you can get good at writing what you write. I should keep my focus on my projects and not worry about the grant-makers feeding me or not feeding me.
On Friday we enjoyed a fine spring day. Friday night and Saturday we got socked good, as much as eight inches of snow. There are plowbanks along the streets in the village - some nearly hip-deep. I cleared the driveway twice, and it's still a mess - useable, but not pretty. It's winter! for some few passing days at least.
The flag at the cemetery has been taken in or it has flown away like a bird with a long beak - only the lower half of the flag pole remains.
The roads have patches of ice. The air is very cold, the sun bright in the east, the snow white as a snowy owl.
Once again the ditches are filled with snow. The fields are a polar landscape. Green Lake puts up its steam.
As I drive east in Ripon towards work, a sear of sunlight on the wet street. Salt and sun play their cold day trick, making liquid what very definitely ought to be solid this morning.