Sunday, November 1, 2009


It has been almost a year since I have devoted one of these columns to the Mississippi River. And at least several river-loving readers are becoming restless. So once more we will return to that powerful, timeless, hard-working stream and its beautiful valley.

When I was just a youngster our family sometimes drove to Cassville and took the ferry across the river to visit our Iowa relatives in and around Holy Cross, Rickardsville, and Sherrill. The distance was considerably shorter than was a highway jaunt down through Dubuque.

The original Cassville ferry boat was a far cry from the present craft. I imagine it was owned by the Klindt and Geiger Canning Co. and its main purpose was to carry men, horses, wagons, and machinery across to the Turkey River bottoms and to haul back loads of sweet corn, cabbage, and peas the company grew there.

I’ve lived all of my life within a dozen miles of the river, but never became a real “river rat.” Oh, I’ve done some fishing out there on the peaceful lakes and sloughs. I’ve never kept score, but the worms and night crawlers I’ve drowned would most likely outweigh the pounds of fish caught.

I’ve enjoyed some pleasure boating. My attempts to learn to swim and to water ski were none too successful, but I’ve enjoyed many good times on the Mississippi and its sand bars. I’ve also spent a number of sad nighttime hours in a boat helping search for an unfortunate person who did not return from a day on the river.

These days I’m quite content to just sit on the shore, preferably on a warm day, and in the shade of a large friendly tree. The Big River can be mirror-smooth and peaceful on a calm day, and appear wild, rough, and angry on windy, stormy days. Its surface can appear blue as a lake, or silver, or the color of lead, depending on the sky above. Or it can be wearing its plain muddy brown work clothes. For me, the bank of the river always seems a good place to do some thinking; an ideal surrounding for coming up with a good new idea or two. Also for rethinking and enjoying a few older thoughts and memories.


Bright sun seeks the west horizon,
Prepares for the coming night.
Blue skies mirrored on the river
Become pale, then silvery white.

I watch trees on the far island
Turn from green to inky black.
Downstream, I soon can barely make
Out the old fisherman’s shack.

In the distance I soon see the
First faint lights of a far town
On the smooth, calm, waiting river,
Night comes softly settling down.

The bald eagle has returned now
To its cliff-top aerie high.
An adventuresome nighthawk darts
Out across the darkening sky.

There’s a scurry on the shoreline
Near small stumps beavers have chewed,
Where a hungry raccoon family
Washes clean some new found food.

Out on the main channel all of
The big fish are not asleep.
A loud “slap” tells us they’re feeding
Where the water’s swift and deep.

Somewhere, far off in the distance
I hear a strange wild bird’s cry.
In the east, a full moon rises
Up to rule the nighttime sky.

Silver moonlight rides small ripples,
Bright, nearby, then fading, faint –
Such a living, moving picture,
I know I could never paint.

High up on the hill, a horned owl
Calls out loudly to its mate.
I must be moving along now
As the hour is growing late.

This big, mighty Mississippi,
As it rolls along its way,
Is a constant source of beauty
Any time, both night and day.

Such splendor – all we must do is
Look around us, here and there.
In this river valley we’ll find
Beauty almost everywhere.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I enjoy talking to, and exchanging ideas with people of various ages. Most of the younger ones have dreams. But for a good share of the older ones, the dream has flown.

For many of the youngsters and at least a few of us older folks, some of our best dreams and plans will ever remain in the dream stage. And will never grow and bear fruit, for lack of determination and effort. I think a wise person once said something like: “The formula for success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

Some of the younger people will forge ahead and, refusing to be sidetracked, will continue to work their plan until they achieve success. As will a few of the older ones. We have always been told that Colonel Sanders financed his initial Kentucky Fried Chicken shop with his first social security check.

At least a few of the older people I meet have given up the dream. And, sadly, they now spend a lot of their time looking backward and thinking of the way things might have been. They feel that their greatest hopes, dreams, schemes, and plans were smashed or suffocated by unfavorable conditions or circumstances.

Some will feel the full reason for their failure was a personal health problem. Others will point out family or other responsibilities or the lack of a good credit rating. For others, it is the national economy, or a high unemployment rate. For many, it will never be anything other than just an unnaturally long streak of bad luck.

The older we get the easier it becomes to place the blame for our failures on misfortune, or on other people. Without the big, bright dream to fill their hours and days, most retired folks now find plenty of time to focus on advancing age, failing health, and a whole host of unhappy things. Also on current local, national, and worldwide situations and conditions that are definitely not in their control and not to their liking. Too often when we ask an older person what he or she thinks of the Golden Years that question brings a quick and surprisingly sarcastic answer.

But, whether asked or not, we old codgers are usually ready, willing, and able to come up with advice.

The old man sought out the barroom
On a hot, late August day.
He was thin, with sagging shoulders
His long beard shaggy and gray.

The stranger looked the place over,
Said, “I’ve not been here before,
But I’ve seen bars just like this one –
Hundreds, maybe thousands more.”

The bartender said, “You’re lucky,
Gramps, today the first beer’s free
Provided you share your outlook
On life, with my friends and me.”

The old man agreed, then smiled as
He blew the foam from his beer.
He began, “Life’s like a valley
And it’s all uphill from here.

“I have met a lot of people
As I’ve traveled round about,
And like you gents, there are many
Whose hopes are seasoned with doubt.

“When you’re young and growing up you’re
Kind of brassy ‘cause you know
That, later, in grownup life you
Will be the boss of the show.

“But often life has a way of
Giving things a different spin.
The hills that confine life’s valley
Sometimes get you all boxed in.

“If you seek success and fortune,
You must climb life’s steep, long stair.
Take the path of least resistance
And you won’t get anywhere.

“Life hands out nothing for nothing,
Everyone must pay his dues.
If there’s an easy way, I fear
I can’t give you any clues.

“I keep heading up life’s valley,
Up around each turn and bend.
And I’m kind of hoping heaven’s
Just beyond life’s valley’s end.”

As he talked, a large crowd gathered,
Joining those who were there first.
The cash register played a tune
As new patrons slaked their thirst.

The bar owner thanked the old man
And shook his old, withered hand.
Four free beers for entertainment’s
Cheaper than a three-piece band.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A World Now Almost Unknown

The talented young presenter at the creative writing seminar did her best to convince us that we should choose subjects we know, and then write about the people, places, and things with which we are most familiar. Her closing words were “Strive for authenticity!”

“But,” I wondered, “If I write about my world, will there be any readers out there who have the slightest idea what I am saying?” Not wanting to waste the valuable seminar lessons, I decided to give it a try. So here goes:

I remember well the day when our family got its first telephone. That was definitely a highlight in my life, so there may be a good place to start this tale. Today everyone is familiar with phones. But I can hardly describe the excitement of getting our first phone without mentioning that we were on a “party line.” And that will require more explanation. And I’ll have to convince some readers that the early phones had no pushbuttons or even a dial, but only a crank you turned to make all your calls. Back then, each phone on a party line had its own special series of long and/or short rings, such as “short-long-short,” or “long-short-long.”

The combination of two, three, or four such rings told everyone on the party line whose number was being called. A person from that household answered, while there were usually at least several other people on the line who just ‘listened in” or “rubbernecked” to keep up on the local news. For calls out and beyond the party line, one medium-length ring was used to connect the caller with the local “central office,” usually in a nearby small town. The “operator” there would manually make the necessary connection to put through a medium or long distance call. And one long, continued ring was the 9-1-1 of its day, and was used to summon everyone on the line to the phone. They would listen for the message that followed the “long ring,” and if there was an emergency, they would all come running to help out. Back then, many phone numbers consisted of only one, two, or three digits.

Today, when a large part of our world appears to be powered by “double A” batteries, many of the readers I hope to reach just might not believe there was a time when a radio required several different sizes of dry batteries, plus a six-volt storage battery. When that big battery started to run down, it could be exchanged with the one in a car, and thus get recharged by the car’s generator, provided it had not been run down so far it lacked the power to crank and start the engine. Just to make sure, some folks parked their car at the top of a steep hill before making the exchange.

Before television became such a big part of our lives, magazines made up an important part of the entertainment of many. I remember those publications as being quite “reader friendly,” and did not require wading through many pages of advertising material to find a good readable, enjoyable article. And I don’t remember any of those nuisance “reply cards” that annoy us today, and that many of us tear out and discard before reading a magazine.

The better magazines contained very well-written and useful articles that were educational and dealt with life and the world around us. Some, including The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Country Gentleman had great fiction stories, some short and some long enough to be continued in three or four issues. A number of these stories were of high enough quality to later be made into movies. I remember one in particular, “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” that was filmed with June Haver, Lon McAllister, and Walter Brennan in the starring roles.

Perhaps some of my words will find a few readers out there who grew up on farms back in the 20s, 30s or 40s. They will understand if I tell of a time when you didn’t eat breakfast until after the cows were milked. There may even be a few who remember balancing on a one or two-legged milk stool while learning to milk a cow by hand. Also using a three-tined fork to feed the cows hay and a five-tined fork and shovel and perhaps even a wheelbarrow to clean up at the other end of the animals. Some may remember “hog chores” and “chicken chores,” including gathering and washing eggs.

Most farm kids and quite a few town kids once learned, at an early age, how to plant and take care of gardens. Also how to harvest fruits and vegetables and help prepare them for canning. We learned how to cut potatoes into seed pieces, making sure there were two buds or “eyes” on each piece. And how to drop them into shallow holes or trenches, step them down firmly into the ground and kick loose dirt over them. We always tried to drop them with the cut side down and the eyes up, so the sprouts would have the shortest possible route to the top of the ground.

In addition to the garden work, there was usually a lawn to be mowed by “kid power,” with a reel-type “push” lawn mower. Often, in those days before chemical herbicides, there were weeds to hoe or pull in the corn fields. And each summer there was grain to be shocked, and the haymaking season always required a youngster to “lead the horse on the hayfork.”

I can only hope there still a few readers out there who played “baseball” in a cow pasture, using a tennis ball and a piece of 1 X 4 lumber for a bat, and with tall weeds, burlap sacks, blocks of wood, or dried out cow pies for bases. People my age who attended one-room country schools played kick the can,

hide-and-seek, and ante over at recess and noon hour. And in the winter, rode their sleds, played fox-and-geese, and made angels in the snow.

Some readers may remember a time when all of the water used for drinking, cooking, and washing was pumped by hand and carried into the house in pails. Hot water was not obtained from a faucet, but from a “reservoir” built into the end of the wood-fired kitchen “cook stove.” Or a teakettle on the stove’s flat top. Water for washing clothes was heated on top of the stove in a “wash boiler,”

I hope I can make contact with some readers who remember a time when some farmers still drove into town with horse-drawn wagons or buggies, and in the winter with bobsleds or lighter vehicles that had sleigh runners instead of wheels and were commonly called “cutters.” A time when there were few paved roads, more graveled roads, and dirt roads – which became “mud roads” when it rained. And days when there were few trucks on the road and many farmers still hauled their fattened hogs to the stockyards in horse-drawn wagons.

Back then, farm children were still quite small when they learned to carry in wood from the woodpile or woodshed to fill a “woodbox” in the house. And later how to split firewood to “heating stove size” with an axe. It had to be split up into even smaller, slimmer chunks for the kitchen range. Some was split ultra-fine for use as “kindling wood” for starting the fires in the morning.

Hopefully I can share these thoughts with a few who, on crisp, cold winter evenings, were fortunate enough to hear the music of real honest-too-goodness sleigh bells singing out their merry tune to the rhythm of a team of high-stepping, spirited horses.

As I write, I can only wonder how many readers will stop and think of their own many and varied experiences along life’s way, the bad as well as the good, both the hard work and the play, and realize that these were, for the most part, what shaped our lives and supplied many of the building blocks that made (or make) us what we are today.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Martha McCutcheon picked up the electronic pager. Behind the desk, a middle-aged lady wearing a practiced, but tired, smile instructed her, “Please remain here in the waiting room and keep the pager in your hand. It will ‘buzz’ and vibrate to let you know when the doctor is ready to see you.”

Martha took one of the few empty chairs. Once comfortably seated, she looked around the crowded room. Some of the waiting patients were reading newspapers. Others leafed nervously through five-year-old magazines. Most of their faces displayed varying degrees of boredom, unhappiness, or worry.

A hint of a smile crept across Martha’s face. Slowly she raised the pager to her ear and began talking softly into the cute little gadget. Soon she appeared to be engaged in a conversation. Her tone of voice – warm, soft, and friendly at first – cooled a bit, then grew louder, taking on tones of downright displeasure. Her expression changed to one of complete disgust as she slammed the pager down into her lap. Then she closed her eyes, and apparently dozed off.

By this time, she had attracted the attention of almost everyone in the room. Some smiled. Several poked each other and cautiously, silently laughed at her weird behavior. At least a few may have been sympathetic. One or two probably said a private prayer of thanksgiving for still having their full faculties.

After several minutes, Martha opened her eyes and began to study a large painting that decorated the opposite wall. With the pager in her left hand, she slowly raised and pointed it at the peaceful rural scene. She pressed it repeatedly with her thumb. When the picture refused to change, she began to poke the pager deliberately and forcefully with the index finger of her right hand. Once again, an unhappy, dissatisfied look crept across her face. With an exaggerated, exasperated shrug, she again placed the “remote” in her lap, closed her eyes and once more appeared to drift off into a peaceful sleep.

A barely noticeable smile tugged at Martha’s lips. Time is just too darned precious a treasure to waste on worry when you are eighty years old (and then some). Especially for someone who has a sense of humor and sufficient imagination to be capable of self-entertainment. And if, while making one’s own world seem a bit brighter and more pleasant, it is possible to entertain a roomful of others and take their minds off of their worries, cares, and their upcoming doctors’ prognoses, a visit to the medical clinic can be almost enjoyable.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Emil Schmit's Valedictorian speech from 1941

Friends, teachers, classmates:

We think of the days of our American Revolution as time of Great change but as we, the class of 1941, graduate we find ourselves in a world where the changes are even greater.

These are historic years, and the privilege of living in them is too little realized. Perhaps no graduating class ever has been or ever again will be confronted with conditions that compare with those of our present time. Since about 1935, Europe and its surrounding territory have been unstable. This didn’t seem very serious to us until Sept. 1939 when England and France again declared war on Germany, beginning a struggle which will soon enter its third year. There is doubt now in many minds as to whether or not we can stay clear of entanglements.

Although from some angles, the outlook for a country threatened with war cannot appear bright, this present state of affairs which has resulted in our vast National Defense Program offers us excellent opportunities for employment immediately, so that whether the jobs prove permanent or not, we will be able at once to gain work experience and acquire references and recommendations. Besides the selective service draft, and the extensive drives being put on by the Army and Navy for more enlistments, a good many young men and women are being searched for to supply offices and factories where the work of making supplies for the Armed Forces is going on.

No doubt some of you remember conditions of ten years ago --193l. The Depression was then nearing its worst stages. Students were graduating from high schools and colleges.Jobs were hard to get, and graduates with little work experiences and no references could not get a start, no matter how cheaply they offered their services. Five years ago, in 1936, the conditions of the country were somewhat improved, yet many graduates had to join the Civilian Conservation Corps or work by the day. Even last year--1940--when conditions seemed to be pretty good, they could not begin to compare with those of this year. Although most of these defense jobs require the employee to be slightly older than we are, the government is offering some of us apprentice training, and besides, the hiring of older persons will leave many vacancies in various civilian enterprises.

But there is reason to believe this rise in employment will not be a flash in the pan. Whatever the outcome of the war, the need for greater and greater defense will last for years. Besides, movements are stirring that give hope of vast new industries and many new uses of farm products, such as soy beans and casein being manufactured into automobile parts and furniture. The government has just set up four great laboratories in the four extremes of the country for the sole purpose of studying and discovering more of such new uses. If a motor fuel could be contrived from farm-grown products, think what that alone would mean toward increased industry for both country and city. So we of the class of 1941 have many reasons to look out with hope and ambition on our future.

About 1 out of 3 of the members of our class expect to attend college, to learn professions, some will doubtless be employed in the trades, and rest will probably stay near their homes, engaging in agriculture or other rural enterprises. In all cases, chances for success are good. Colleges report they now have more requests to fill positions than they have students qualified to fill them. There is a crying need for skilled mechanics and as for rural labor, many farmers are having ¬trouble securing help for their summer's work. In our high school we have taken courses which should prove valuable in future life -- vocational subjects such as business, agriculture and home economics. And so, with conditions as they are, and with high school training finished, any member of this class who seeks employment should be able to obtain it.

And now, speaking for the class, I would like to bid farewell to the school and to our schoolmates. We have had a lot of good times together and are really sorry now that we must leave. And to our parents, our teachers, and our other friends who made this course possible, we owe a lot. To them we express our deepest gratitude.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Before the advent of the Internet, the goal of most of the writers I knew was to get their thoughts, ideas, and feelings down on paper and then into print by submitting their finished manuscripts to newspaper, magazine, and/or book publishers. They strove to get their writing into printers’ ink wherever they felt it would find and could be shared with the greatest number of readers.

Then the newfangled Web sites came along and rapidly gained popularity. On the positive side, they appeared to be the way to go for a writer to reach the largest reading audience. But they usually did not earn any money for the writer. Also, we were frequently warned that with Web sites there was the possibility we could lose control of our written material. That our precious creations would be hanging out there in the ether, unprotected, and fair game for anyone who wanted to steal them.

I never actually worried that such a thing would happen, I granted permission to several family members to include some of my rhymes on their Web sites, and to the TH to include my “Rhyme and Reason” column in the on-line version of the newspaper. I doubted that my type of material would tempt a lot of literary thieves or plagiarists or make any of them very wealthy. Thus far, I don’t think I have suffered any losses.

Having my published writing and also my e-mail address available over an almost limitless area has provided more than a few happy occurrences and an occasional ego boost. Every now and then I am pleasantly surprised by an e-message from someone who is a complete stranger lives many hundreds of miles away.

Now and then I’ll hear from someone who has left this area but still keeps up with local happenings by reading the on-line version of the TH. Best of all, sometimes the message will come from a good friend from days gone by. Someone like Gene Hilger, once a Glen Haven boy, who is now retired from the military and lives in Des Moines. Or a compliment and a “Keep up the good work!” from Dick Krogman down in sunny Arizona. Wow! I hadn’t seen or heard from Dick, an old Bloomington friend, for 50 years or more.

Recently, quite by accident, I was surprised to find that one of my poems has been used on the Web sites of two strangers. They both gave me credit as the writer. One of these sites is a tribute to the great old movie “Gone With the Wind.” It is beautifully and professionally done, with great use of color and design. The site includes quite a number of great reproductions of pictures of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and others, also of Tara. And it ends with my old poem “Apathy, My Dear Scarlett … .“

Finding my work on this Web site, I did not have the slightest feeling of having been “ripped off.” In fact, I felt highly honored to have had my poem included in a production of such high caliber. Maybe my old “Rhett Butler” poem is really better than I ever thought it was. This may be a good time to dig it out again and dust it off and give it a second look.


Some folks will climb a mountain
Just because that mountain’s there.
Others will face great danger
When someone makes them a dare,

But I am satisfied with
What and who and where I am
And, just like old Rhett Butler,
Frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Some people seek new records
For distance or time or speed,
And world-wide recognition
Seems to be their greatest need.

Politicians woo the public>
With lots of that old flimflam
But, just like old Rhett Butler,
Frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Some folks attend sports events
Where they join a noisy crowd,
Then cheer and clap and stamp their
Feet and carry on real loud,

But if the home team loses,
Each goes home meek as a lamb
While, just like old Rhett Butler,
Frankly, I don’t give a damn

.Some girls will go to great lengths
Just to catch some fellow’s eye –
Artificial lashes, nails, and paint
And heels six inches high.

One wise girl says, “To win my
Love, you’ll take me as I am."
Like Rhett Butler, she really, frankly,
Doesn’t give a damn.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


While listening to the TV news recently, I learned that some "experts" have decided that certain people are compulsive gamblers because of their genetic makeup. That they just can’t resist the impulse to take a chance. And that there is good reason to believe that soon the medical profession will have a medication that will dull that burning urge to wager.

An older friend once told me that those of us whose parents and grandparents came from Europe "have that gambling thing bred right into us." He went on, "Our ancestors were the kind who were ready and willing to take a big gamble. They came to this strange country where they did not have the slightest idea what the future held in store for them. These brave men, women, and even small children weren’t even certain that they would survive the trip across the ocean. They had no idea what they would do, once they had arrived here, or how they would earn a living and support their families. But they were real gamblers. Willing to risk it all. And we have inherited their gambling spirit."

I wasn’t in the mood to really discuss the matter. I could have mentioned that gambling, as such, is usually an attempt to just trust to our luck and to "get something for nothing." I’m sure our ancestors were ready to "pay their way." And anything they hoped to receive from this new land they were ready to earn with much hard work and sweat.

No doubt a medical cure for problem gamblers would be great. But what would come next? A "booster shot" or "Viagra-type gambling pill" for those of us who lack the craving or bravery needed to go after the big stakes?


The old man entered the barroom
And sat down on a tall stool,
Searched his pockets, even
Turned them inside-out.

He said, “Fellers, I’m an expert.
For the price of a few drinks
You can learn what gambling’s
Really all about.”

“I’m a rambling gambler and we
Rolling stones gather no moss.
I’m a sucker for all
Kinds of games of chance.

“I’m ready to take my chances,
Quick to lay my money down,
About all I own are
These old denim pants.

“I’ve made and spent lots of money,
Made choices that were unwise,
Bad investments in card
Games and rolling dice.

“None of them have paid much interest
Or big dividends, or such.
Mostly they have been a
Poor deal for the price.

“Shooting for ‘something for nothing’
Is what gambling’s all about.
We may win big, but won’t
Know, if we don’t try.

“Anywhere there is a question,
Betting seems the normal thing.
When we lose we rarely
Stop to wonder ‘Why?’

“I have bet on almost every
Kind of contest known to man,
Even on the date of
The first killing frost.

“I’ve bet on ball games and horses,
Even the Chicago Cubs,
Also on some dead-sure
Things, but still I lost.

“Yet, regardless of the odds, I’m
There, ready to ‘ante up.’
There’s always a chance, if
You know what I mean.

“Every game, contest, or conflict
Is almost sure to produce
Some big winners, though they’re
Few and far between.

“I’ve rubbed elbows with high rollers,
Guys who play for the high stakes.
I pretended to heed
Every word they’d say.

“All we gamblers are alike. We’ll
Never stop dreaming the dream,
And I wouldn’t have it
Any other way.

“I’ve purchased a few casinos,
They’ve all been bought and paid for.
I’m well known in Vegas,
I will have you know.

“But the sad thing is I have no
Deeds or bills of sale. There is
Nothing on paper, not
One damn’ thing to show.”

Monday, April 27, 2009


One of my friends has a “catch all” expression that he uses frequently. Whenever anyone does something unexpected, unusual, or inappropriate, we are likely to hear the old fellow repeat, “It takes a lot of people to make up a world.”

He once told me that it is fortunate that we are not all alike. “All types are important. We need thinkers and dreamers to come up with new inventions. We need entrepreneurs to take chances and start new companies and places of business to supply our needs and to furnish jobs for those who are content to punch a time clock and work for a regular wage. Also the world requires at least a few of us who readily tire of a steady job and are always ready and available to fill new positions and part-time jobs.

“There ain’t nothing wrong with working on the same job day after day and year after year, if you enjoy the work and don’t mind the conditions,” he went on. “But if you are a member of a team of Eskimo dogs pulling a sled, you’ll most likely find the job a whole lot less boring and the scenery much more interesting if you can work your way up to being the lead dog.

“Our lives often tend to become quite a bit like a carousel. But I suppose those wooden merry-go-round horses don’t really have it all that bad. They are well cared for and work where there is a good deal of activity. There are always a lot of people around, also lights and music. And they don’t have to worry about a thing. They don’t ever have to be concerned about thinking or making decisions. Like a lot of us, they just keep going ‘round and ‘round.”


Mostly I try not to think
Of how low folks’ hopes can sink,
How depressed and sad, at times,
People can feel

When they’re not winning life’s race,
But kind of “taking up space,”
Each, just one more bent spoke in
Time’s rusty wheel.

Years can surely take their toll
On the spirit and the soul.
Time can grind one’s confidence
Into the ground.

It wears down more than a few,
And the same thing must be true,
For each painted horse on a

In a large amusement park,
From morning till after dark
Beautiful horses run with
Smooth grace and pride.

Their home, the merry-go-round
Has a cheery, tuneful sound.
For many children, it’s their
Favorite ride.

On it, the circle of steeds
Of uncertain wooden breeds
Have shiny hides and hooves that
Reflect the sun.

Whites and blacks, spotted, and bay,
Carry the children all day,
’Round and ‘round in a daylong
Circular run.

They all move equally fast –
There is no first place or last –
All day long these steeds make their
Appointed rounds.

Running, as long days drag by,
Never pausing to ask “Why?”
The calliope cheers them on
With jolly sounds.

’Way back when I was a child,
Of those horses, fast and wild,
One big blaze-faced bay was my
Favorite nag.

“Thunder” had great strength and speed,
More than any other steed,
But I have never been one
To boast or brag.

We’d gallop around that track,
Close behind a speedy black,
With Thunder’s head high, and me,
Bursting with pride.

I was dead certain, of course
That mine was the fastest horse,
And we could pass them all if
We really tried.

Today I can only pray
Thunder’s still happy today,
Content with how his life’s race
Is being run.

And when each evening sun sets,
My old horse has no regrets
And, for him, running with the
Pack is still fun.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


For the last several years the big talk in the farm seed industry has been about new technology that makes possible the biological engineering of plants in ways that make them vastly superior to normal versions produced by natural means. One of the most successful has been the new “Bt” corn that is now planted on many acres here in the corn belt. The ability of a specific type of bacteria to produce an insecticide has long been a matter of great interest. Modern plant engineering has now made it possible to incorporate that factor into the corn plant, to design new Bt hybrids that can create their own “insecticide,” and actually kill the European corn borer larvae that would feed on, weaken, and destroy them.

Many serious environmentalists, along with numerous other assorted individuals and groups, take a dim view of this sort of progress. They all warn of the possibility of creating a Frankenstein-like monster. Some even put a religious spin on it, saying that when we bypass God’s natural laws we are sure to create many new problems that will vastly outweigh any gains. They like to use

Atomic-fission and atomic-fusion as horrible examples, often adding quotes by famous people such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

This summer, someone came up with data indicating that pollen from the tassels of Bt corn, when landing on the leaves of milkweeds, can weaken and even kill the monarch butterfly larvae that feed only on these leaves. I discussed this with an old friend, a corn breeder who has recently received a good deal of well-earned recognition for helping develop a corn hybrid that is currently one of the more successful in the state of Iowa. We kind of lamented: Of all the insects and other assorted bugs in the world, why did it have to be the monarch butterfly? What other bug is as widely known and universally loved as is the monarch? Scotty didn’t seem to take too kindly to my suggestion that the next move would have to be an attempt to develop a Bt-resistant monarch butterfly.

In late July a group of us visited the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisc., to see their special show, “Butterfly Bonanza.” Thousands of butterflies of assorted species were turned loose in the Bolz Conservatory, an indoor tropical jungle, where they fluttered and flitted about to their hearts’ content among the banana, breadfruit, and countless other rain-forest trees and plants. Giant Swallowtails, Monarchs, Queens, and Viceroys; Painted Ladies, Zebras, White Peacocks, Julias, Malachites, and many others gave us a colorful show of their flimsy, faltering aerobatics.

Arrangements were made to supply a variety of flavors of nectar for them to sip. In a special “birthing area” many chrysalis hung in rows, giving viewers a chance to watch newly-formed butterflies emerge, to dry their wings, and fly away.

The enthusiastic crowd that enjoyed the lively display included many family groups. Small children bustled about, searching the plants beside the paths for the brightly colored insects, anxious to report their finds to their parents and grandparents. Together they would try to identify each newly-found butterfly by comparing it to the 24 colored photographs in their beautiful brochures. Those with cameras recorded their sightings of various “Lepidoptera” on film.

Watching the fragile-looking creatures flutter slowly from plant to plant, it seemed difficult to believe that a monarch butterfly can attain a speed of 20 MPH, or fly as high as 10,000 feet above the ground. Much less survive a 2,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico.

A large banner proclaimed: “A world filled with the magic of butterflies is a world of natural diversity!” All of the happy, smiling faces at the “Butterfly Bonanza” convinced me that many people have a soft spot in their hearts for the flutter-bugs. And that butterflies do have their own brand of beautiful, colorful, magic.


Pretty butterfly,
As you flutter by
On your hither-thither way,

I sure hope you know,
As you come and go,
That you brighten up my day.

What a jolly sight,
With your colors bright,
As you clear my garden wall!

Soft, warm breezes blow,
You come and you go
Even above trees so tall.

You’re a welcome guest
(The one I like best)
In my garden by the lane.

Tomorrow, at noon,
If that’s not too soon,
Please, flit by this way again.

If I could but be
Light, footloose, and free
As you, off, away we’d fly

On our wings of gold,
We would flutter, bold,
Exploring the broad blue sky.

Air-borne jewel bright,
In the summer’s light,
Thrilling mere earthlings, like me,

Once some girl or guy
Much wiser than I
Reasoned: “Butterflies are free”

Monday, March 30, 2009


Every now and then a reader asks when I’m going to write another “cowboy column.” Maybe all the boyhood time I spent playing cowboy didn’t go to waste after all. Or the time spent watching cowboy movies and TV shows.

I can never qualify as a real cowboy poet. That requires a writer to actually be a working cowboy or cowgirl, or to at least own and operate a ranch. But at least I can try to think and write about the Wild West.

I’ve met a few real working cowboys along the way. And a whole passel of rodeo cowboys, including several of the very best. I’ve met only one real cowgirl. Last fall I wrote a column titled “Roman Rider.” It told the story of Prairie du Chien’s Elaine Kramer who once thrilled rodeo and circus audiences all across this country and Canada with her fantastic daring and exciting Roman riding act. I’m more than happy to say that this month Elaine will receive a great and well-deserved honor, when she is inducted into the National Cowgirls Hall of Fame down in Fort Worth, Texas .

Here is the tale of a barstool-riding cowboy:


“Rusty” Clayton is a cowboy,
Right out of the old Wild West,
Wearing hat and boots and Levis,
Jingling spurs and sheepskin vest.

He has a Southwestern accent
And can talk the cowboy talk.
He saunters into the barroom
With a John Wayne style of walk.

He tips his hat and says, “Howdy.”
No one feels it one bit strange
If he calls somebody “Pilgrim,”
That’s how it’s done on the range.

When people listen, he takes them
Back to his “cow punching” days
He tells about big fall roundups
Where they gathered up the strays,

And about those long nights when the
Dry, hard prairie was his bed,
When one small blanket warmed him and
His saddle pillowed his head.

Fighting rustlers is just one of
The risks a real cowboy takes,
Along with the prairie dog holes
And sidewinder rattlesnakes.

One night a short-tempered drinker
Snarled, “Tex, I think you’re all mouth.
Why not close your trap and mount your
Stick-pony and ride off south?

”For two hours I’ve sat and listened
To you till my ears were full.
I think your big cowboy talk is
Nothing but a load of bull.

”I’m sure I’m not wrong when I say
You’ve never herded a cow,
Or roped and branded young dogies,
Hell, I don’t think you’d know how!

”You ain’t killed any sidewinders
Or so much as a horned toad.
That barstool you’re straddling is as
Rank as any bronc you’ve rode.

”I’m declaring you’re no cowboy,
Here’s one thing that makes me sure:
You’re fancy old cowboy boots ain’t
Never tasted horse manure!”

Rusty slowly got to his feet,
Sneering, “I don’t take no lip
From no greenhorn who ain’t never
Slept west of the Mississip’.

”There’s just five guys who have tried me.
Three healed up, after a spell.
The fourth one still walks with crutches
And the fifth woke up in hell!”

The bar owner grabbed big Rusty
And rushed him right out the door,
Shouting, “Rusty, you’re just trouble,
You ain’t welcome here no more!”

Once outside, he whispered, “Rusty,
You know this is just an act.
That wise guy leaves town tomorrow,
And I know that for a fact.

”You know you’re the most consistent
Patron that we have, by far.
If you stayed away, we’d miss you,
You’re a fixture in this bar.

”You’re our only entertainment,
Best of all, you work for free.
Be back here tomorrow evening,
All your drinks will be on me.”

Friday, March 20, 2009


The older I get, the more I appreciate our Midwest with its four distinct seasons of the year. Maybe that is because I was born and raised here. I cant really say that I enjoy winter, but I think I would miss it. I am sure I appreciate spring all the more because of it. We often hear that anticipation is at least half the joy of anything. I'm sure that a lot of us begin anticipating spring when the snowdrifts are still hip-high to a tall person (Shucks, there goes another of my favorite old sayings that my politically correct friends wont let me use anymore).

I do occasionally run into folks who don't exactly look forward to the seasonal changes. A few just don't care much for change. And then there are some that are pessimists who aren't really pleased with anything. While complaining about the cold, snow, ice, wind-chill factor, and frosty forecasts, they don't like to be interrupted by someone telling about a newly developed variety of seed potatoes he or she is going to order from that colorful seed catalog that came in the mail yesterday.

Believe it or not, such people really don't look forward to spring. There is all that unsettled weather to look forward to, weeks of mud to contend with, followed by days of hard work raking and cleaning up the winters supply of fallen tree branches and trash and gravel from the lawn. And indoors, how will they ever find time to get all their spring-cleaning done? Then there will be all of that never-ending work in garden. And spring gives them nothing to look forward to but all of that lawn mowing and other hard work and, worst of all, the intolerable heat that summer will surely bring.

And that hot season will give them nothing to look forward to but fall. How could anyone enjoy a busy time of year like that? All of those dry, fallen leaves from the neighbors trees that the wind will deposit on their lawns will have to be raked up and burned, or bagged up and carted off. The garden has to be put to bed for winter. And then there is fall housecleaning. And soon there will be the cold and the deep snow, the icy, slippery, dangerous roads, and the huge fuel bills.

And when winter is finally finished, along comes that busy, messy, muddy season we call spring.


A few drab and shabby snowdrifts
Still insist on hanging round,
But if were quiet, and listen,
From the woodland comes the sound

Of the springs very first robin;
We stop just to hear it sing,
As it does its level best to
Turn our winter into spring.

As that season rounds the corner
Judging by these signs we've seen,
Soon the lawns and pastures will all
Turn from dull, drab brown to green.

Trees and shrubs will all be leafed out
In their lacy finery
As they do their best to please and
To thrill folks like you and me.

We can see the buds now swelling
On the maples branches high,
Praying for warm springtime sunshine
As they brush against the sky.

Waves of snow-white and pink flowers
On apple and wild plum trees
Will fill mild air with fragrance to
Awake winter-weary bees.

The brooks music will assure us
That, once again, spring has sprung,
Nests and dens of many creatures
Will be homes for brand-new young.

In farm fields, the newly plowed ground
Will echo the tractors roar.
Awaiting the new birth and growth
This great season has in store.

As we look around, we cant help
But feel we've been truly blessed:
All these wonders of creation
Displayed at their very best.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Free Spirits

I recently received a welcome e-mail from a reader who had a question regarding the making of wooden willow whistles. He said that when he was a boy his grandfather taught him how to make them, and fe felt the time had come for him to pass that knowledge on to his own grandson, but all of his recent attempts at whistle making had failed. He said he had forgotten some of the details including how to remove a large area of the willow twig's bark without damaging or destroying it.

Several times over the years, I have mentioned these whistles. On one occasion I wrote a published article that contained complete step-by-step instructions for making them. Perhaps the time has come for me to see whether or not I can still practice what I preach. It won’t be long until spring and the “sap will be up,” the time when willow twigs are the greenest and most tender and in ideal condition for whittling wooden willow whistles.

When spring finally arrives, if I can find the time (which should not be too hard) and the ambition (which may be more difficult) I will go out and select a nice straight unblemished willow branch. After sharpening my jackknife, I will cut off a 4-inch length, then whittle the mouthpiece and cut the sound hole. The next task is to make a girdling cut around the piece, making certain to cut all the way through the bark. Then, holding the knife by the blade, the handle of the knife is used as a hammer to bruise the area of bark I want to remove, loosening it from the wood. If everything goes as planned, this area of bark can be slid off the wood in one piece. After whittling away more of the bare wood, the bark is slid back on and, hopefully, we’ll have a willow whistle that whistles.

Who knows, perhaps the whole whittling experience may bring back a few precious memories and at least a bit of that wonderful feeling of freedom a boy felt each spring when he no longer had to attend school. In the woods or in a field or pasture, and armed with his trusty jackknife and perhaps a BB gun, he could be a pioneer, a mountain man, or a cowboy. He was free and the world was his to explore and to enjoy.


A small boy sitting on a log
Reached out to pet his faithful dog
Both content as
The warm summer day passed by

The boy said, “Shaggy little hound,
No matter where I’ve looked around,
I’ve found no friends
Who are close as you and I.

”If need be, we’ll forage for food.
If forced, we can act crude and rude.
No one’s ever
Accused us of being shy.

”Like me, you can act brave, small hound,
Bark loud and throw your weight around.
We won’t look for
Fights, but we won’t pass them by

”No one can guess, or much less, know
In this world, how far we will go.
We’re much alike,
Friend, as far as I can see.

”We’re kind of like a pair of strays –
Rough, tough, and real set in our ways,
And I know that
You lack a real pedigree.

”At heart, we’re a pair of free souls,
Without any real long-range goals,
Kind of taking
Life the way it comes and goes.

”If fate presents a real tough test,
We won’t just come in second-best,
We’ll rely on
My sharp wits and your keen nose.

”I‘ll bet no one will ever see
Two friends loyal as you and me
Together, we
Make up a real winning team.

”We both find the fresh air so grand,
Out here in nature’s wonderland,
A place we can
Dream the impossible dream.

”But right now, we will have to go.
Lengthening shadows tell me so –
By now, Mom has
Supper ready. Come, let’s run!

”I’ll fill your food bowl to the brim
To maintain your vigor and vim.
Come morning, we’ll
Come back here when chores are done.”

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Degree of Education

Quite number of years ago, one of the young professionals at an agricultural research department was showing a summer college internee around and getting him acquainted with the job and with the people. I heard him tell the student, “And Scottie has his ‘post-hole digger.’”

That one had me stumped for awhile. Then it finally dawned on me that in agricultural college boy lingo, a post-hole digger meant a Ph.D. degree. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other such names they had for various degrees and accomplishments. That looked like a fairly fertile field for growing a new poem, so I began rhyming a few words.

At that time I didn’t know of any publishers looking for rural rhyme so today’s poem never was submitted anywhere, but I kept it in my repertoire for public readings. When working with our company’s sales department, I was frequently asked to “loosen up” sales meetings by adding a little humor with a short poetry reading.

Of all the poems I read to farmer-seed dealers and their wives, this one was the favorite:

A young man drove a farm wagon
Down a dusty country road.
He grinned as one of the steel wheels
Almost nailed a lazy toad.

A well-dressed stranger flagged him down
And he said, “As you can see,
My car has a flat tire. Would you
Please install the spare for me?

“I’d hoped someone would come along.
I’ve been waiting for some while
And I’m afraid that changing tires
Has just never been my style.

”Getting down, the young man tied his
Mules so they’d not stray away.
He said, “This won’t take five minutes,
And I’ll have you on your way.”

The older man admired the young
Man’s ambition and his zeal
As he promptly jacked the car up
And removed the airless wheel.

The older man said,“Young fellow,
You should really be in school
With higher learning, no one would
Look on you as just a fool.

“At City College, with a bit
Of alumni help, one can
Pull himself up by his bootstraps –
Be an educated man.

”“You’re tall, and sound of wind and limb;
Plenty broad across the beam.
I’m sure there would be room for you
On our college football team.

The young man smiled a happy smile,
When he’d finished with the car,
He said, “Sir, you just don’ know how
Far off-base you really are.

“My working skills and fencing tools
Make my future very bright.
I’ve all the work I want to do
Every day from morn’ till night.

“I ain’t got much education,
But can write and I can read.
I’m happy and doing nicely,
With all the degrees I need.

“These Muscled Arms are my M.A.
I make a good living and
This Post-Hole Digger’s my Ph.D.
My work’s always in demand.

“This Blunt Shovel and Broad-Axe are
My B.S. and my B.A.
My M.S. is this Muddy Spade
That I use ‘most every day.

“If a sticky problem stumps me
My dad will consult with me.
Like me, he is a Mule Driver,
So he, too, is an M.D.

“I get exercise and fresh air
Without paying no greens fees.
I face right up to my Maker
When I’m praying on my knees.

“You look down your nose and tell me
To just what I should aspire.
Shucks, at least I’m smart enough to know
How to change this gol-darned tire!”

Saturday, January 24, 2009


An old friend recently remarked, “My wife always reads your columns. But she wonders why you never write anything about cats.”

I think I have mentioned cats a time or two. Most people who know me don’t consider me a “cat lover.” Or overly fond of any kind of pets, which may not be completely true. I recall a number of cats and dogs I have enjoyed and considered friends. But, for the most part, I much prefer the company of humans.

During my days on the farm, cats were always welcome. In exchange for shelter, a small amount of food, and a certain amount of protection, a farm cat paid its way by helping control the rodents around the farmstead. Most farmers who milked cows were happy to give the cats a pan of fresh milk twice a day.

Many young people today, having never known a time when kitchens didn’t have garbage disposals, may find it hard to believe that “table scraps” once made up an important part of the diet of many cats and dogs, I’ve seen pets engage in some exciting fights over table scraps. Once, even a family’s pet crow was right in there, taking and getting in his share of licks in exchange for a share of the goodies.

Mother cats regularly supplied new kittens with which children could play. The survivors grew up to be mousers and ratters. Wandering tomcats often made their rounds, killing any small kittens they found. As farm kids we could never quite figure out why. Many small tykes today, having spent time watching an animal channel on TV, have witnessed this same thing happening with lions in the wild, and might explain it as nature’s way of strengthening a pride of lions (or clowder of cats) by preventing excessive inbreeding.

OK, about that word “clowder” – that’s a “book word” for a whole herd of cats. But in my eighty-plus years, I have never heard the word used in conversation.

For the most part, cats haven’t changed much since they first left the wild and agreed to live with humans. Numerous distinct breeds have been developed. And a few cats have learned, and are willing to perform, various tricks. I’ve always felt that felines could be taught to do almost any stunt a dog can perform, and many a dog can’t. But most of them refuse to lower themselves to that level. After all, in ancient history cats were often considered to be god-like creatures, and not jugglers, fools, or clowns.

Some of my cat-loving friends are convinced that their cats love them and miss them when they are not around. I certainly won’t argue with that. But I’ve never heard of a cat lying on its dead master’s grave and starving to death. That’s more the kind of behavior we expect of dogs.

Anyway, if you wanted a “cat column,” Mary, this is about the best I can do.


Morning’s sun warms up the front steps
And the old cat lounging there.
Now and then, she’ll lazily stretch
And she’ll comb and groom her hair.

Tabby’s master comes outside and
Sees her enjoying the sun.
He wonders if cats remember
Things they’ve known and things they’ve done.

The first day she came to his farm
He encouraged her to stay
By setting out a small pan filled
With fresh cows’ milk twice a day.

That was 14 years ago now.
Tabby’s old as farm cats go.
She’s survived the hottest summers
And waded through winters’ snow.

People at her farm home were kind
And mostly treated her nice.
The cat paid her way by helping
Them control their rats and mice.

Her body, so slim and agile,
And her teeth strong, sharp, and keen.
And her claws, like sheathed steel daggers,
Made her a “killing machine.”

In the summer, she would visit
A pasture or field of hay.
There she’d stalk and kill striped gophers.
She would bring one home each day.

She produced a hundred kittens
Give or take, maybe a few.
All in all, Tabby did what farm
Cats are expected to do.

She always hid well her kittens
When they were helpless and small,
Protected them from tomcats that
Would have tried to kill them all.

A farm cat’s life is no picnic,
Dodging mean dogs and rat traps,
And each day having to fight for
Her share of the table scraps.

The farmer knows, before long now,
Tabby will have to move on.
Up to Cat Heaven, the day when
Her ninth, and last, life is gone.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


One unexpected stocking stuffer I received for Christmas was a set of video tapes of four of the old Gene Autry movies. I looked over the titles and…Wow! I was fortunate enough to have the show titled “Oh Susannah!”

I couldn’t wait to get that one home and get the cellophane cover ripped off and get it popped into the VCR. I knew this was one of the two Gene Autry movies in which the country music group “The Light Crust Doughboys” had appeared. I once met and spent half a day with Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery, one of the members of that group.

In 1931, the Doughboys were organized and sponsored by the Burris Mill, the producer of Light Crust Flour. They first performed on radio station KFJZ in Fort Worth five days a week. One of the original members of the group was Bob Wills (of “New San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love” fame), who not only played fiddle and sang, but also drove truck for the mill, and all for $10 per week.

With the daily radio show, the Doughboys’ popularity grew, and their transcribed musical performances were soon heard on stations all over Texas and a number of the neighboring states. By that time, naturally, they were in big demand for personal appearances all over the Southland.

The group grew from three to seven members. Bob Wills eventually left to organize his own “Texas Playboys” band. As years went by other members came and went, including names like Herman Arnspiger, Zeke Campbell, Hank Thompson, Slim Whitman, and Charlie Walker. Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery and his “Smokin’ Banjo” joined the group in 1935.

The Doughboys were off the air from 1942 to 1945 because of World War II, but came back strong and broadcast regularly until 1951, when TV began to put pressure on the radio industry. They continued to make personal appearances at state fairs, rodeos, super market openings, TV shows, homecomings, etc. In 1977, the State Senate of Texas passed Resolution No. 463, honoring the Doughboys for their part in Texas history. In 1981 the group recorded an album titled “50 Years Of Texas Style Music.”

In 1982, while visiting our oldest son Mick in Texas, he and I were working on several (non-too-successful) music projects. We went to see his friend Smokey at a large recording studio in Dallas. Smokey gave us a lot of advice, and also wrote up lead sheets for two of my “creations.” He gave me a copy of the above-mentioned Doughboys’ album, also a copy of one of his own albums, “Mostly Banjo,” on which he demonstrated his almost unbelievable skill with the tenor banjo.

My career as a tone-deaf songwriter has been anything but successful. Here is an example of one of my works, a kind of lament in three-quarter-time that just “didn’t quite get published” (until now).

The stream in the valley
Runs murky and black.
Hell, yes, I am leaving
And I ain't coming back.

I’ve been here too long in
This valley of tears,
Just came for a look,
butStayed too many years

In this valley, I’ve had
To face life’s great test.
I’ve seen lots of changes,
But none for the best,

The stream in this valley
Grew old, just like me.
Now muddy and still where,
It once rippled free.

All the homes here are old
And kind of run down.
And black factory smoke
Comes filtering down

The big old machines are
All covered with rust.
In the street I’m up to
My ankles in dust

As I sit on this bench
On a moonlight night
I stare at the bars with
All their neon lights.

My stream in this town just
Ain’t pretty no more
With old dreams and beer cans
Now choking its shore

Now I have found a place
In my dreams at night
Where summers are gentle
And winters are light,

Where an old man can stay
For many a year.
The stream in the valley
There runs crystal clear.

The stream in my valley
Looks murky and black.
Hell, yes, I am leaving
And ain’t coming back

I’ve been here too long in
This valley of tears,
Just came for a look but
Stayed too many years.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Now is the time to celebrate
The birth of a brand-new year,
A time for faith and hope and trust,
Not for worry or for fear.

No time to mope about the past,
But to look forward, instead.
Focus on a brighter future,
Envision great days ahead.

We know with each day problems come,
Every month’s another test,
Our whole lifetime’s built out of years,
Let’s make this new one the best.

We’ll seek out progress and success
As this new year passes by.
If we fail, let’s make sure it’s not
Because we just didn’t try.

We often can blame just ourselves
For defeats in early years.
We’ve ignored the success blueprint
Hidden right between our ears.

We’re all seeking a better way,
Hoping to “get in the groove,”
But things don’t just “fall into place”
We have to make the first move.

Most times there really is no need
To relocate, rove, or roam,
Often our “acres of diamonds”
Lie hidden right close to home.

So let’s get those brain cells working,
Be prepared to plan and dream.
Keep looking for the bright side, and
Find that winning theme or scheme.

Happiness follows clear thinking,
Persistence and strength of heart,
Making New Year’s Resolutions
Seems the perfect way to start!