Northeastern Minnesota is, need I tell you, provincial, a condition of which it is in some ways proud, as are, I suppose, most provinces. If you consider it carefully, what region of the United States is not provincial? The more sophisticated coastal states call the Mississippi River Basin the “flyover states,” a arrogant label which betrays the coasts’ provincialism. On the other hand, the center of the Mississippi Basin considers the two ends of the Mississippi provincial—Cajun Country, known for its hot sauce, and the North Woods, known for its cold weather.
As time has passed, Northeastern Minnesota seems even more provincial with its unionism and its stolid support of the Democratic Party. The Arrowhead’s history is rooted in economic suppression. Emigrants came to the area to escape poverty or economic servitude in other lands, only to discover the economic suppression of the timber and mining industries. Unions, supported by the Democratic Party, gave them a voice and leverage, although the region often demurs at the social planks in the party platform.
The migration pattern of the post World War II era was for Midwesterners to move west, including a large number of rural Minnesotans, Northeastern Minnesota strongly included. Most of these migrants, like all migrants from the provinces, were eager to shake off the the odor of their home land, scorning the place where they were nurtured.
And they looked down on their relatives who had been foolish enough to stay home. The migrants adopted the conservatism and fundamentalism to be found in the West. How easy it became to preach with the self-righteousness of the convert at their hopeless relatives still lost in the backward liberalism of the Arrowhead. With the decaying effects of distance and time, family attachments sometimes suffered in the clash of contrasting points of view overladen with family rivalries.
Peggy and Betty were born Margaret and Elizabeth in Duluth in 1951 and 1953. When their father came home from Korea, he took a job farther north in the expanding paper industry. The close ages of the two girls drew them together, despite differences in temperament. They were playmates as small girls and remained close as they became more consciously competitive at home and in school. They fought often, but their words were never cutting enough to sever their tight bond. Then one day Peggy went off to the University of Minnesota, Duluth, not that far, but in important ways too far. Betty, hurt by Peggy’s eagerness to be off, was left home alone to discover just how far away Duluth was. Walking around the too quiet house, Betty decided her path would be as unlike Peggy’s as she could make it. Two years later the parents drove Betty the four hundred miles to St. Olaf College. Peggy was not sitting at home in a lonely house; that would be the parents fate when they returned from Northfield. Peggy was at UMD being trained as a dorm RA.
The next summer Betty worked at a Lutheran camp. Peggy worked, as she had since tenth grade, at the town Dairy Queen. A frequent customer, more frequent than just to eat fattening food, was a new U.S. Forest Ranger. Willowy with a full red beard, glasses, and a shy manner that had never before charmed a girl. Not quite sure how it happened, he took Peggy out on a few dates and several walks in the woods. The next spring Peggy complete her El. Ed. degree and accepted a job in her hometown, in the room where she and Betty went to first grade. She and her dazed forest ranger Paul were married in their Lutheran church with only a best man and Betty as maid of honor before a small number of guests.
In her freshman year at St. Olaf Betty met a junior from the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Christopher, never Chris. Handsome, gregarious, almost imposing despite being only five feet six inches, an inch shorter than Betty, who had now changed her name to Beth. While she completed her degree in psychology, he earned an MBA from the University of Minnesota. To her family it seemed the only thing that forced them into marriage was that Christopher took a job in the timber industry near Seattle. Peggy was bridesmaid number four out of six in the grand wedding in the St. Olaf Chapel.
At first the sisters exchanged ten letters a year, which dropped to five after the birth of Peggy’s three children and Beth’s one child. By the time the children reached junior high, the letters dropped to only four a year from Peggy and only a Christmas letter from Beth, now called Elizabeth. Only the first two of Elizabeth’s Christmas letters included a personal note.
In 1987 both of their parents died, at opposite ends of the year, which generated an exchange of phone calls and notes. Elizabeth came to neither funeral. She was simply too busy at their fundamentalist mega-church. Beside she found Lutheran services of all types not up to four-square Biblical snuff. She had an important Republican party meeting the day of the mother’s funeral.
Peggy made the resolution to rebuild the bond with Betty/Beth/Elizabeth. She mailed monthly letters, which she continued despite receiving back only the form Christmas letter, now including tracts on Prosperity Theology and a pamphlet on the evils of unions. Because Peggy’s body was telling her the news she would soon hear from the doctor, she sloughed off the hurt and kept writing. In 1991 the words were spoken: multiple sclerosis. She called Elizabeth but reached only the answering machine, on which she was not willing to leave the news. She wrote a letter, at the end of which she asked her sister to call. Elizabeth called with her tepid response to the news. The conversation soon drifted into how out-of-touch Minnesotans were. The people living out west knew the reality. When her sister segued into how unions had destroyed public education, Peggy politely excused herself to sit in the dark and cry. After two months of quiet sorrow, she resumed her monthly letters.
In 1995 Peggy had to leave the classroom she loved. In the spring of 2000 Elizabeth wrote to explain that Christopher had taken early retirement. He and Elizabeth had purchased a second home in a retirement enclave east of Reno. The letter seemed to hint the decision to retire was not Christopher’s. The letter contained inserts, which Paul, who now opened the mail for his wife, threw away without reading. At the end of the letter was a perfunctory postscript inviting them to visit the next winter “if you should happen to be out our way.” And not to worry: it was a safe gated community.
After rereading the letter, Peggy and Paul discussed what lay ahead for them. Peggy wanted a chance to hug the sister with whom she had once been close, no matter what the emotional cost. Peggy and Paul had never traveled beyond the Midwest. Yes, they were that provincial. In her August letter Peggy wrote that they would be out that way in March. Peggy was not yet ready to use sympathy as a bridge between them. Perhaps Elizabeth understood; she sent a note back that they were a welcome to come for a few days in early March and reminding Peggy not to worry because it was a safe gated community.
And then that fall there befell September 11, 2001.
Elizabeth’s Christmas letter contained five inserts, which Paul scanned and threw away. He wanted to cut out the Muslim hate references from the letter itself. The letter contained no personal references, neither uninviting them—nor re-inviting them as Minnesota Nice protocol would require.
On March 1, 2002, Peggy and Paul headed west. Peggy brought three pieces of china of no real value except they had been passed down from their grandmother. Exhausted from M.S. and tension, Peggy slept fitfully much of the the three-day drive.
At the door the two sister hugged, or rather Peggy hugged her sister. Elizabeth could not stop talking as she gave them a tour of the house, parading their isolationist attitude about the area, the country, and their religion, after which Peggy had to nap. Elizabeth, now that she had seen the look of M.S. in her sister’s face, hugged Peggy before she slept.
Paul was left alone with Christopher to hear about the evils and ignorance of the U.S. Forest Service. Unflappable Paul had heard it before. He had heard it better said, he wanted to say, but just nodded and said “oh” about once a minute. Several times he was told how the idiots back in Minnesota just didn’t get it. Once Christopher mentioned the lack of loyalty in modern business. It was easy to conclude how Christopher had come to be retired. Again Paul held his silence, even with Peggy that night.
For dinner Elizabeth served up salmon and Christopher served up starch. Over coffee in the large living room, Peggy brought out the three pieces of china. With a severe glance at her husband, who was about to speak, Elizabeth accepted them warmly. The two men watched an NBA game in the entertainment room, or rather Christopher watched and provided a running negative commentary about the loss of values in America. The lack of effort and team loyalty by athletes was the excuse for his broader comments, including a direct attack on the large company which had handed him a golden parachute.
The two sisters stayed in the living room. Peggy apprised Elizabeth of her health and that she had come to say good-bye. Without intending to, she had played the sympathy issue. They cried and hugged. They relived many good memories of their childhood. Elizabeth told Peggy how devastated she was when Peggy left for college leaving her home alone for the day. They hugged, cried, and talked until Peggy was exhausted.
The next morning with the two wives sleeping in, Christopher invited Paul to take a walk, on Paul’s own he meant, reminding him it was a safe gated community with none of “those people” in it; “those things can be managed if you understand good business.” Paul walked a circle through the compound, stopping to stare at the gate. A man came out of his house to ask who Paul was. Paul explained. To show he was not intimidated, Paul did it a second circle and a third. The man watched from his window both times that Paul again passed by. In the afternoon Christopher retired to the den to tend to his investments. Paul took out one of the books he had brought. The two sisters resumed their talk in the living room. In the evening they all drove to Reno for dinner and a visit to a mall for Elizabeth to buy her sister a present, a glittery top, which was a poor match for Peggy’s backwoods taste.
The next day was much the same. On his walk Paul was watched from three houses on his four circles of the community. He wanted a place to sit, a public bench or small park in which to kill time, but there was none. Maybe he would go sit on the gate just for the lark. The afternoon was the same. Peggy was clearly energized by what had happened. After supper was another NBA game, which turned into a philippic on how Clinton was at fault for the 9/11 attacks. The Democrats had made a mess of the country. They let in the Muslims. Thank God their daughter had not gone to public schools to pick up all that liberal BS. Trying to be congenial, Paul asked how the daughter was doing. Where was she now? Christopher ignored the questions. Paul talked about their three children back in Minnesota, hoping to avoid more anger. Instead Christopher announced he was tired and was going to bed early.
Elizabeth said she was taking Peggy for a drive. Once past the gate Elizabeth explained she wanted to show Peggy the church they attended. On the way Elizabeth asked Peggy if she had been born again. Peggy laughed. She had not meant to laugh. The question was sprung on her from left field. Elizabeth was offended and lectured Peggy that it was no laughing matter, that she was bound for hell if she was not properly prepared. Elizabeth had arranged for the preacher to talk to Peggy and baptize her. If she had been born again. Peggy refused as softly as she could. Elizabeth parked in front of the church and insisted she would not drive Peggy back to the house until she had gone in. Peggy got out of the car to walk back to the house. Elizabeth relented. She alternated between pleading and haranguing on the drive back through the gate.
Peggy went straight to their basement bedroom, the smallest of the five in the house. When Paul came to bed, she was, to his surprise, awake. She said she wanted to leave early before her sister awoke. Could Paul get through the gate? Yes, there was a hidden button he had found on his walks. “Maybe I can figure out how to leave the gate open.” Peggy laughed and told him she loved him.
Paul was one of those with the knack of setting an internal alarm. They awoke at 4:00. Peggy left a note on the counter that said, “I love you, Betty.” Not far past the gate Peggy went to sleep. She did not awake until he found a place to eat lunch in a small city in the desert. They rode a strong tailwind through the long emptiness of Nevada and Utah. An hour after the fast food, a lunch neither of them tasted, Peggy awoke in panic, unable to breathe. Paul wanted to turn back for a hospital, but the map showed it was as quick to keep going east. Peggy slowly recovered. “It must have been one of those panic attacks. To think calm, dull me would panic.” She laughed; Paul tried to laugh; he could not. She looked so pale in her sleep that Paul almost stopped in Salt Lake City for a hospital. They passed a few big blue H signs. He knew she would have refused to go into a hospital. East of Salt Lake City her color came back. Paul was exhausted. Despite ample driving time left in the day, they found a plywood chain motel and ate a cardboard meal.
The next day she slept all the way across Wyoming, her color changing from dull pink to ash white as she slept before and after their stale Subway lunch. At the Nebraska border, she sat up and patted his shoulder. “I’m better.” She told him what had happened on the drive with her sister. “I suppose I should have known it would come to that. I had what I wanted for awhile at least. Let’s go back to the sticks and stay there.”
They found their next plywood motel in central Nebraska. They ate at one of those interchangeable sit-down chain restaurants, a cardboard meal with papier mache service. Paul was exhausted but had two days of driving ahead of him to reach the Northeastern Minnesota sticks. As they passed through the lobby from the restaurant, the motel clerk handed him a coupon for a free breakfast at the restaurant they owned next door. Paul dismissed it as of no use for them, but next morning Peggy wanted a solid breakfast.
It was one of those modern, faux-old, narrow, shinny aluminum dining cars. When they walked in, the cook said he was alone at the moment, the waitress was late, as usual, that it would be best to sit on the stools so he could wait on them, that the local regulars were territorial about the six booths. They sat down at the counter right in front of him and handed him the coupon.
The cook said, “What do you want?”
Paul asked, “Menu?”
He answered, “Not really; just tell me what you’re hungry for. Long as it’s not pate de foie gras, I’ll come up with it.”
Peggy asked, “Waffles?”
He looked carefully at her, assessing the state of her health and said, “Leave it to me to do it up right for you.”
He looked to Paul, who said, “Some sort of full breakfast.”
He said, “Leave it to me. Drinks?”
She asked for tea and Paul for coffee, which quickly appeared.
The cook had a standard flattop grill with an an oven beneath, a hot plate, waffle iron, and a toaster. Not much else. Paul noticed the lack of a microwave. The cook did not have to step more than a foot or two in either direction. He was the standard time-worn, life-worn, weather-worn fifty-year-old short-order cook. Pencil thin, wearing a battered gimme cap, long braid down his back, tattoos down his forearms embroidered with needle scars, scraggly beard, guarded eyes, sunken cheeks, and hawk nose. His name was Sparks, which they knew by the greeting from all the locals as they crossed in behind them to the booths. Sparks nodded to their greetings but did not talk. The locals shouted out their orders, usually “the usual.” With minimal effort, he worked ten orders.
Turning slightly, not looking over his shoulder, he asked, “East or west?”
Paul said, “East.”
After a pause to whip cream, Sparks asked, “Good trip?”
Paul said, “Fast.”
Peggy added, “Well, I hoped it would be good, but it was not.”
Sparks said, “I can see. Bet it was family stuff. It’s always family stuff.” He turned to plate up six orders. “Minnesota?”
Paul said, “See our license plate?”
He grinned and nodded.
After a pause for plating other orders, he added, “But I can tell. What part.”
“Northeast,” Paul told him.
“The Arrowhead. Been there. The Iron Range?”
“North of there.”
“The pines. I remember how it smelled, or did when I was sober.”
He handed them plates of food that only an authentic short order cook can do right. Peggy had waffles with two kinds of meat, warm syrup, the whipped cream, and two eggs on the side. Paul’s was two kinds of meat, eggs (over-easy, poached, and scrambled), two kinds of potatoes, and thick bakery bread toast.
Sparks went off delivering to booths and came back to start four orders he took along the way. Over his shoulder as he worked, “Okay?”
“Perfect,” Peggy told him. She ate with relish.
“Always is,” he said.
Now he turned and smiled at her and winked. He leaned his forearm on the counter in front of them. “I’ve got one of those families. I used to try to get back in their good graces, but they have that old-time religion. Right-wingers, the lot of them, bless them.”
Peggy nodded at him. “My sister has the new old-time religion. I tried for good graces and failed, too.”
“You two got a church?”
She nodded as she enjoyed the waffles and fresh whipped cream.
“Part of my sobering up was finding a church that didn’t care about my past. Sparks is my name.” He shook both their hand and turned back to his magic.
In came the missing waitress. “Kids,” she said, shaking her head.
“Always is,” he said. “Least you got ’em.”
As she put on her apron, she asked Paul and Peggy if they wanted to hear about it.
Sparks said, “No, they don’t.”
She took menus from under the counter and unfolded them in front of a young couple who walked in and sat four stools over from Paul and Peggy. When Peggy and Paul were done, the waitress started to write a ticket.
Sparks said, “They’re on the coupon.”
She looked at their plates. “Really?” she said, but added, “So no charge.”
As they stood to leave Sparks said, “Give her a good tip, if you can; she can use it. Peace to both of you. Safe drive back to that pine smell. Okay?”
“Thanks, Sparks,” they both said.
“Nevada,” he said. “I come from there, the town in Nevada. Good weather to the east.” He turned back to his flattop.
Peggy’s color stayed bright. She remained awake for the most of the two days home. They relived some of their favorite memories.
When they pulled into their yard, Peggy rolled down her window. “Smell that pine, Mr. Ranger.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017