Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Blueberry Thrill

The women in my life have done a great job helping me indulge in a great pleasure—eating plump, sweet blueberries. I love ‘em.

My mother, an elegant lady who usually dressed as if for a special occasion whenever she left the house made an exception at the height of blueberry season in northern Wisconsin. She put on her field uniform. It consisted of high-top boots, a pair of well-worn coveralls, and a decrepit floppy hat. Thus attired, she went off to spend a long day picking as many blueberries as she could find.

When Mom got home, we enjoyed blue treats for weeks. The berries appeared as desserts, in muffins, over breakfast cereal, and best of all, in pies. The pies were heavenly. They inspired me to demand a blueberry pie instead of the traditional cake as the centerpiece of my birthday celebrations. I not only requested pie, I insisted on one to be eaten only by me!

Mom had no freezer when I was a little boy. She compensated by canning and otherwise preserving foods in wondrous ways. Because of her skills, blueberries were available in our household months after the picking season ended. I got my personal pie complete with candles on every birthday as far back as I can remember.

My addiction to the annual pie coupled with a reputation for conservative financial management (being a tightwad, some might say) led to a family story that survives to this day. On one of my birthdays, a favorite aunt, Dorothy, was visiting from Milwaukee. She begged for a piece of my pie. I very reluctantly agreed, but only after she agreed to pay me a dollar for a small slice.

Wife Sandy is a superb cook, but pies are one of the few things not in her repertoire. After we hooked up, she compensated for that by ferreting out stores that could provide a blueberry pie in mid-winter for my birthday. A couple of times, when no stores or bakeries had pies on their shelves, she was forced to substitute things like blueberry pop-tarts, but the tradition continued and we got some laughs out of the new varieties of pie.

Last year, our first in southwestern Michigan, son Lee’s fiancĂ©e Karen showed us one of the reasons agriculture is a leading industry in these parts. We are in blueberry heaven. Karen took us to a major blueberry farm only about 12 miles from our home. You could pick your own, as my Mom once did, but it was a lot easier to let a small army of green-card workers do that hard work. Sandy bought 30 pounds of Michigan’s finest. We celebrated with a round of blueberry ice cream cones.

Sandy split the haul into manageable quantities and froze the bags. Now, I’m enjoying the “perfect breakfast’ (see Dec. 6, 2006, post) seven days a week. I just thaw out a bunch of berries, top off some oatmeal with them, and love every delicious minute of getting started into a new day. If Sandy must buy pop-tarts for my birthday, she is forgiven.

As a native Badger, it is embarrassing to admit that southwestern Michigan blueberries are superior to northern Wisconsin blueberries, but they are. Some of the same soil, topography, and climate conditions that once made our newly adopted area the celery growing capital of the United States (Michigan still is number three behind California and Florida, which have much longer growing seasons) apparently are ideal for growing fantastic blueberries. We didn’t move here for the berries, but had I known how good they are, I might have.

Hey, Fats Domino. Where did you find Blueberry Hill?  I’ll bet it was right here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Say the Words

At an age when I probably won’t make the effort to do so, I still harbor yearnings to master a second language. Maybe that’s because I missed out on a perfect opportunity to become bilingual as a boy.

My father’s parents were German immigrants, and their native tongue was their household language of choice. Grandma never truly mastered English, despite living to a ripe old age. In her later years, when infirmities confined her to her home, the Evangelical Lutheran minister made house calls to read to her from a Deutsch Bible. My father’s early school days had been split between classes taught in English and German. He often served as a translator for immigrant farmers who lived in our area in northern Wisconsin.

Yet German was not spoken in our home. Now, I think that was a pity. I believe people who can speak two, or several, languages have richer lives than the rest of us. However, American society was quite different when I was growing up than it is today.

Mom and Dad had witnessed strident, sometimes violent, expressions of anti-German sentiment in World War I years. Mom told us of her horror the day a mob stripped every German book out of the high school library and destroyed them in a bonfire. Dad described the time an immigrant farmer jumped out from a crowd of observers as the local machine gun company recruits marched somewhat inexpertly up Main Street. The farmer, once a Prussian soldier, demonstrated a precise goose step. “That’s how real soldiers march,” Dad said the man yelled. Others knew how to translate. The farmer was thrown in jail.

Dad sang snatches of little German songs now and then when he was in especially good spirits. I still remember a few, although I never did get the pronunciations right. Dad would tell my sister and me what a German word or phrase meant if we asked, but offered nothing beyond that. He did teach me to count in Deutsch, probably because I pestered him so much about it. I practiced by reciting the numbers to myself.

I still can count in German. That’s about it. My sister couldn’t even understand the German numbers I enjoyed spouting. My parents, like many others in second-generation American families, didn’t want us developing skills that might lead anybody to think we were anything but patriotic citizens of the USA.

Lately, my only linguistic development has been picking up a few German words during two trips to Europe. The icon that would instantly lead me to free German lessons stares at me from my computer screen every morning. I never quite work up the gumption to click on it.

On our most recent trip to Deutschland, I got up before sunrise one day in the farmhouse where we were guests. I had decided it was about time we brought something to our hosts’ table besides our appetites. We had learned to love freshly baked pretzels at breakfast time, and we also needed lunch and snacks during a road trip that day. I trudged in the semi-darkness down the cobblestone street to the bakery.

The baker, a stocky woman with a no-nonsense air about her, was chattering with the only customer in the place, a big man occupying a small table. I interrupted them by pointing to the large replication of a pretzel on the wall. I started showing off my German numerical skills, but the baker’s fierce stare somehow erased my ability to remember which number went where. Nothing intelligible came out of my mouth. I finally held up all ten fingers, and then three.

“Oh, you want thirteen pretzels. Why didn’t you just say so?” she said. Her English was very good. I took the sack and, still a little shaken, held out all the Euros I had in my pocket. She selected what she wanted, and I became the owner of perhaps the most expensive pretzels in the region. I thought to myself that working a little bit to learn German could have definite economic benefits.

When our hostess, Dorothee, emerged from the kitchen with the coffee pot she was surprised by the mound of pretzels on the family table. “Who got those?”

Wife Sandy pointed to me. “You mean Dick went to the bakery all by himself?” Dorothee asked with a tinge of doubt in her tone.

I shrugged and said, “Ja, ja.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hey, Look Them Over

Over the past 60 years, finding anyone in our nation who didn’t know what a U.S. President looked and sounded like would have been difficult. Since the 1950s, presidents have been major television stars. They don’t need to invent creative ways to appear on the tube as lesser publicity seekers do; networks clamor for the opportunity to feature them.

The television moguls know what they’re doing as they vie for viewers. The American people, no matter what their political persuasions, long have been interested in what our top politicians look and sound like. Before television, when I was in junior high school, Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, Republican candidate for President, scheduled a stop in my hometown. It was such a big deal in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, that the schools were let out so we youngsters would have a chance to get a glimpse of the great man. The movie theater where he spoke was packed beyond capacity. I couldn’t get in, although I did see Taft make his entrance into the building.

Taft’s presidential bid failed, so I couldn't claim I’d seen a man in the flesh who had occupied the White House. That didn’t happen for another 35 years.

No matter how familiar a President becomes to television viewers, actually seeing the real person seems important to many citizens. President Obama recently spoke at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in the “Big House” football stadium in Ann Arbor. Event organizers printed 80,000 tickets, and demand exceeded the supply.

Mr. Obama will be back in Michigan on June 7. Kalamazoo Central High School won a nationwide contest to get the President as its graduation speaker. The inner city public school topped the nation with its outstanding record of academic improvement through several creative programs. School officials changed the graduation date to give their Class of 2010 what they called a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to see and hear a President.

I thought about trying to get a ticket until information on the demand appeared. Central usually attracts about 2,500 spectators at a graduation. This year’s event is scheduled at the local hockey arena, which holds 4,000. If it stays there, grads for the first time in history will be limited in the number of family members and friends they can host. There is talk of moving the event to Western Michigan University’s basketball arena to squeeze in another 1,000 people. Mention also has been made of moving to the university’s football stadium, where 27,000 could be admitted. If that happens, I might try for a ticket.

Why would I bother? Well, there aren’t a whole lot of average Americans who can say they’ve seen a sitting President in real life. Something about the possibility of joining that small number is intriguing. I have seen a First Lady and a former President at close range, and those memories remain vivid.

First Lady Barbara Bush passed within a few feet of me as she walked down a corridor in a Salt Lake City hotel. She was on the way to a meeting room across the hall from one where I was attending a Forest Service conference. She was there to give a speech to a group of Republican supporters. I was in the hallway having a smoke, and I stayed for her appearance when a Secret Service man told me she would be coming.

Mrs. Bush was known as a great lady. When I saw her, she radiated charm and good humor as she passed by. She nodded to onlookers in the corridor and smiled at everybody. I was clapping as hard as I could, as were others, so I’d like to think she smiled at me, but that’s a stretch.

A few years later, the annual Marie Lombardi Charity Golf Tournament was held at the Menominee Falls Country Club, about a mile from our home in Wisconsin. Proceeds went to cancer research in memory of the famous Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi. Many political, sports, and show business luminaries participated, with heavy representation by present and former Packers and Chicago Bears football stars.

I walked the mile from our home to the country club. Seeing no reason not to, I slipped under a rope near the entrance just in time to see former President Gerald Ford, escorted by several young men, pass slowly within a yard of me as he headed for the scorer’s tent. Mr. Ford was smiling and waving to everybody on both sides of the roped-off pathway to the tent. I’d like to claim he waved at me, but I’ll settle for stating he at least “waved near me.”

Mr. Ford had been out of office for several years when I saw him. It was a good day for celebrity sightings of others who had joined the ranks of retirees. I saw “Mr. Perfect,” Bart Starr, the former Packers quarterback, hit a perfect drive long and down the middle. Dick Butkus, former great Bears linebacker, crunched a fairway wood that appeared to travel about 300 yards. Years earlier, Butkus would have been more interested in crunching Starr.

When Mr. Obama comes to town, I think sneaking in to see him will be out of the question. I’m hoping the ceremony is moved to the football field to give me a chance for a ticket.