Ichabod Crane

There were lots of stories that kept me awake at night as a child, not just tornadoes and blizzards and squirrels. I was a little too old for R. L. Stine or the “Scary Stories” series growing up, but we had a copy of The Headless Horseman in some sort of pseudo-children’s book form. It’s really not children’s book appropriate, people. There is nothing child-friendly about decapitation, and even though poor old Ichabod replaced his own skull with a jack-o-lantern (or perhaps because of it), that story terrified the bejeezus out of me.

Runner up for this letter I entry is Isabella, which was my name in German class in high school. I think that all classes should allow you to choose a new name. “What’s your name in Women’s Studies?” should be the kind of question everyone asks. Ooh. Maybe I should assign new identities to students on the first day of class, and they must research their namesake and introduce their new selves to the class. I love it when blogging gives me new teaching ideas.

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I grew up in a small town that has no interstate exit, so it’s a rare day I meet someone who knows where it is. In college, I began to tell newly made friends “It’s like a chicken with a percussion instrument,” because apparently “Hendrum” was hard to wrap their heads around.

Today, there are 309 people, according to the sign, though when I lived there we sat at around 365. Both my parents were born in this town. My paternal grandmother, too (I think). My mother’s parents moved to Hendrum around 1940, where he was the only Swede for miles around. He sometimes read out loud to himself from his Swedish Bible just to hear his native language.

It was, by and large, a good place to grow up, and I’m still stunned that V’s elementary school has more students than my entire home town has people.

Hendrum is a big part of who I am, who I was, and who I will be. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Growing up in a town of 300 people, with no cable TV, we had a full time job just keeping ourselves entertained. Mostly we ran around town like rabid monkeys, riding bikes, swinging on swingsets, jumping through sprinklers. But in the car, especially, when we couldn’t get out and play with amphibians, my sister and I would get bored. So we invented a few (brilliant, if I do say so myself) travel games.

The first was the simplest, and it may be that our dad invented it. It involved careful watching out the windshield once we were past Perley, and the first person to see the Hendrum water tower, that clear evidence that we were almost home, would chant, excitedly, “I can see the watertower! I can see the watertower!” Emphasis on the first of each pair of syllables, as in I can SEE the WAterTOWer.  (This may have been when my love of iambic language comes from, now that I think of it.) Now, this may not seem like much of a game to you, but with two Johnson girls in the backseat, we could raise holy hell trying to shout louder than the other. Then we’d usually devolve into pinching and shoving over who saw it first.

It’s a miracle our parents let us live to adulthood, frankly.

The second, and more impressive, game is one Jess insists I invented, but I’m pretty sure it was her idea. This was one we usually saved for longer car trips (to White Bear Lake or Brookings or Eagle Bend), when we were more than 100 miles from our water tower. It was called, brilliantly, “Lip or Tongue?”

As you might imagine, it was a game of illusion, where one or the other of us would try to trick the other into guessing wrongly as to whether what was at the bottom of our closed, giggle-stifling mouth was actually our bottom lip or our cleverly disguised tongue. This game could actually be quite challenging, though I imagine my nearsightedness helped Jess win quite a few. If you really couldn’t tell, and you were mad enough, you could reach out and poke the lip or tongue to see which it felt more like. This was, obviously, against the rules, and usually led to one of us punching the other in anger. The winner of each round was whoever managed to fool the other person, or if you happened to guess correctly.

This is very hard to explain without a visual aid. Let me assist you.





Now, sure, those photos may seem clear and ridiculously identifiable now. But try it when you’re 4 years old and your 3 year old sister has a smooth baby tongue and wily ways to convince you that you don’t know what you’re seeing.

Now that I’ve admitted my most treasured childhood games, I’m feeling vulnerable and I’m pretty sure I should delete this whole post. But I won’t. Because some day, when the iPads all run out of power, we’re going to need to remember how to entertain ourselves. This story, and stories like it, will carry us all through. I’m certain of it.

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I’m not afraid of many things. When V was younger, she used to get confused by the cartoons on TV that showed people (usually women) being terrified of mice or spiders or snakes. “What’s wrong with her?” V would ask. “I dunno,” I’d say, because I really don’t.

Now, I’m not trying to minimize fear. I think it’s healthy and useful and even when it’s not, it’s understandable. And I find things unpleasant, certainly. I didn’t like it that one fall when we had mice in our house, or the time after the flood in ’97 when Myra had what we hoped was a squirrel but what ended up being a small-ish rat stealing dog food and chomping up Rubbermaid containers. But both times I took care of the eradication (I had some help with the rat, to be fair).

I am afraid of weather, though. You can’t defeat a tornado, and blizzards kill people. Floods you can usually fight, but not always. And I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I hope never to be. When I was a little girl, whenever my family went out of town, I would be afraid coming back home that a tornado would have struck and taken our house. Just our house: the neighbors would be fine, I figured. I would hold my breath most of the way from Perley onward, hoping to will the house into still being there.

And I am afraid of squirrels, still. My friend Liz has a squirrel who lives in her yard.  Liz is quite fond of this squirrel. She’s been coming around for 6 years or so. And my friend Dan adores squirrels, and feeds them on the maple tree in his front yard. These people, while my friends, are fucking crazy. Squirrels are not right, and they’re getting too comfortable with humans, and this is not okay. I’ve known this since the early 1990s, people. In fact, I shared this knowledge in 2010, on the old blog. So here it is again, a piece I wrote almost 20 years ago about squirrels. I stand by it.

The fear abides.

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I’m a big fan of the concept of eventually. Eventually, I’ll get my craft room organized. Eventually, I’ll teach the girl to cook. Eventually, I’ll learn to keep up with my grading so I don’t have to read student papers until I’m nauseated and angry. Eventually I’ll weed the garden an fix that fence that wobbles and replace the screen door which blew off in a windstorm at least four years ago.

Just as I finished the above paragraph, a colleague brought a poem into my office, handed it to me, and walked out. I think the point I was trying to make has been trumped, and so I present the poem for you. Meanwhile, I’m going to think about how eventually, I’m going to clean my office.

A poem by Kate Green, from the book If the World is Running Out.

Don’t Make Your Life Too Beautiful

Don’t fix the three-foot hole in the plaster

over the stairway.

Don’t sweep up the tiny specks of white

that gather in dust like stars.

Leave the hole under the fence

the dog dug in the marigolds

that never flowered.

You can look for hours at the pile

of shingles your neighbor ripped off his roof

and left to mold the green summer

with plenty of dark underneath for the beetles

and the worms to damp in.

Leave the rocks imbedded in odd places in the lawn.

And the black locust you cut down year after year–

you can let it become a tree after all,

towering thorns over the lilies and the peonies.

Look out the cracked window–

that broccoli just kept blooming

until the ice came down

and made us bend over our hands

in search of something we held and lost.

Leave it all exatly as it is.

There are heartaches enough to live for.

Leave the old worn boots stacked in the hall,

the rotten mattress in the flagstone basement.

Live out your ecstasy on earth

amid the flaking patio stones,

the boarded up back door

and the rusty car.

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A train car I saw about a month ago, when we still had snow. 

My dad was drafted in 1951 into the Army during the Korean conflict.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to argue for a II-C exemption, on the basis of  essential agricultural work. He and his brother farmed with their father, my Grandpa Ernie. Dad argued it would cause an undue burden on his family. The military said the undue burden would be on them, so instead of drafting into the Army, he enlisted in the Navy.

He served in the Sea Bees, and as such saw no combat. But he built swimming pools in Cuba, and moved houses in Morocco.  He brought gifts for his sisters most places he went (it would be almost 20 years later before he got married) and sent postcards home. He made dear friends in the Navy, men who would call him 30 years later from Maryland and Florida, among other places.  Scotty’s accent was unmistakable, and by the time I could answer the phone, Jim had lost his vocal chords to cancer and had the coolest robot voice I’ve ever heard.

Dewey came home with uniforms he quickly outgrew, a few of those classic white sailor hats stenciled “Johnson,” and a fork stamped “USN.” He also had a Navy-issued towel, which must’ve been made of something impressive, because it was still in rotation until I was 10 or 11, which would’ve been 30 years after his discharge. On the towel, written in some equally durable permanent ink, was his nickname, which we occasionally saw on letters from his friends, too.

Sleepy Johnson.

I’d forgotten about this nickname, until the train car, above, crossed my path. I miss him, and his Navy friends, and his stories of his travels. I’ve done my part to carry on the Sleepy Johnson legacy, enjoying naps as one ought. I hope I would’ve made him proud.

Posted in Dad, Family, Nostalgia | Leave a comment



My desire to run away from home started when I was a little girl, but I was slowed down considerably by my parents’ one rule, which was that I couldn’t cross the highway by myself. It never occurred to me that if I was running away, I didn’t have to follow their damn rules, so I mostly stayed home.

When V was a wee babe, she and I went camping a few times, and it was awful and also wonderful. Every spring, we talk about doing it again, though my teaching schedule and general laziness have sort of limited our return to the great outdoors. Still, I love being outside, and I want V to love it too. Tent camping really is best left to the young, though.

A couple of years ago, I got terribly wanty of a vintage camper. Like this, or this, or any of these…..I had to stop looking, because the wanting was giving me a belly ache. Besides, I don’t own a car that pull a camper, so all that dreaming was for naught unless I could afford a pick up truck or something.

But then I saw one like this. Go look at it. I’ll wait.

A Toyota Mini-home. Well now, that would solve my need to have a pulling vehicle, wouldn’t it? It’s small enough that it wouldn’t be too burdensome to have to drive it around, and the engine runs for.ev.er. Also, they generally get 18-19 mpg. That’s right. Almost 20 mpgs AND a camper all in one.

So, I did what any normal person would do. I joined a Yahoo group. I read fan sites, essentially, full of people who love their Toyota mini-home. I learned all about rear axles and the importance of the 6-bolt vs. the 5-bolt.  I was so excited! I started stalking Craigslist.

One day, driving through Detroit Lakes, as I think we all do sometimes, I noticed a 1978 Toyota Mini-home for sale in a used car lot. The sticker said $2495.  Seriously? A tiny little house I can drive around for $2500? Yes, please! I called the lot owner and he promised to meet me.

I was too afraid to test drive it, because I thought I’d fall in love too much and not be able to negotiate properly. I noticed a small leak, above one of the cupboards, but it didn’t smell musty/weird and despite the orange carpet everywhere, I was sure V and I and Myra could use this lovely machine to have adventures all over the place.

It looked like this on the inside, but orange. Because 1978:


Isn’t it adorable? All compact and convertible and a tiny sink and a tiny stove and oh, be still my wanderlust-filled heart!

But one of my new friends on the Yahoo Toyota Mini-homes group suggested I take a second and think through  my magic plans. Even if I only found one leak, in a 35 year old aluminum sided camper, there were bound to be more. People can (and do) tear the camper down past the studs and rebuild them, but that was a project beyond even my eager handiness.

So I didn’t buy the little camper that could. I stopped looking at campers, because the only kind that would not have extensive water damage would be one with a fiberglass body, and those are harder to come by and much more expensive. For example, this 1984 model, an 18′ Sunrader, is being sold as we speak for $15,000.


Um, yeah. Unless one of my gentle readers has a grandma with one of these tucked back in the garage, and wants to contribute to my overall happiness by letting me buy it for only $2500 or so, I’m going to have to stay put, and pack up the wee Mazda Protege once in awhile to find my own adventures. I could probably figure out a way to sleep in the Mazda, if I used my imagination. I wonder if there’s a Mazda-as-Camper Yahoo group I could join….

Posted in Camping, Daughter, Play | 2 Comments