September 29, 2021

"Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, 5 cents a glass"

My family and I have often and happily traveled Back Roads on our forays from one area of Michigan to another. My children grew use to the sudden stops when I would spot a "stand" along the side of a road. Climbing out of the car I encouraged them to at least TRY looking thirsty or hungry, claiming that at last we can have sustenance for our parched tongues or bellies. Ours is a delightful hobby, and one that helps support local entrepreneurs, some cute as a bug.

On one leisurely outing near Ann Arbor, I spotted signs with arrows pointing toward a peanut stand. A peanut stand! Different. Drawing closer we spotted a middle-aged man, perhaps Middle Eastern in origin, seated in a worn lawn chair next to a bubbling caldron. Again, different! He held a colorful umbrella over his head as he leaped from his chair and waved and greeted us with a full-faced smile urging us to stop.  Of course, this is what we do, AND, because of the unique stand, we pulled into the driveway. 

 It’s so important to have an adventure

to help clean the sour and painful things in your soul

The entrepreneur proudly raved about his "creation" and shared the story behind his product, assuring us that we would love these peanuts in a shell. The thick aroma was intoxicating, drawing us in. Our host told us these peanuts had been boiling in a mixture of Cajun spices for ten hours. Ten Hours! With extreme care, he scooped out a trial sample, placing the mixture in paper towels giving the instructions to first suck the juice out of the pods. We did and enjoyed a mild bean texture mixed with pleasant spices. 

Purchasing two large plastic cups we pulled out of his driveway and into traffic feeling almost giddy at his joy over his three new converts. He waved heartily and yelled out, “watch for me; I’m here on summer days.” We hollered back a hearty dose of encouragement.

As our adult children move on and travel on their own journeys, I hope they find themselves thirsty and, as they spot a little kid or adult selling drinks or treats, that they feel compelled to pull over and exclaim to the entrepreneur that this was exactly what they needed -- and obviously, pay generously with a tip. I also hope they remember fondly the quick stops we made as we adventured Michigan’s back roads together.

 Comic created by a friend, Kim Perez Greve

January 26, 2021

Reflections on Growing up Olsen

(On November 11, 2009, I videotaped my uncle, Eric RP Olsen telling stories about his life in Marquette, Michigan. This post is but a segment of this recording and in Eric Olsen's own words.)

I have learned that if I become a success it’s because of my parents.

I was born on July 17, 1939 to Emil and Edna Olsen. My dad came to this country from Norway on a whaling vessel when he was 14-years-old back in the days when kids worked. On his second voyage on the Whaler he got sick and they put him off in New York City and he ended up on Ellis Island, recovered and made his way to Minnesota and from there to Chicago where he met my mother. Dad sailed for years on barges on the Great Lakes. 

In 1918, everyone had the flu and this killed an awful lot of people. Dad quit his job on the Great Lakes as a skipper to come home to take care of the family. 

I had four brothers - Clayton, who died of diphtheria at two-years-old, Donald, Richard who retired as a skipper on the Great Lakes ... who became a pilot on the Great Lakes, Russell who had nothing to do with the water. My brother Don (the Barefoot Norwegian's father) was raised his first couple years on board a ship - back then you could be on these vessels. He walked the decks of these Great Lakes freighters where my mother was a cook and my father a chief engineer. When Donald was about three-years-old he got off the vessel and had to learn to walk all over again. As he got older he still didn’t walk very well. He had walked decks too long. I also had two sisters - Janice and Betty.

I was born just before the start of WWII and it was 4-5 years before I got acquainted with my brothers. My sister Betty was a different matter. My mother became sick and lost her eye sight for a short period of time after I was born so Betty quit school and took over raising me. My first remembrance of her was that she was like my mother, she took care of me.

My father worked at the Cliff Dow Chemical Company for a short period of time so we had a company house down in the Furnace location in Marquette. It was quite a life. My favorite memory of growing up in the furnace location was the start of my life of crime. 

My friend Paulie Pringle and I were about three-years-old and we use to go lay under the porch. When the women put the milk bottles on the porches, Paulie and I would take our cut of the money in the bottles. Then we would head up to the north end tavern where they sold these little packages of six cookies for 3 cents apiece. We would spend all our money on these cookies. I’m sure Paulie talked me into it - it just doesn’t seem like a thing I would do, but I did.

We moved from there out to the farm in Big Bay where dad got a job with the Ford plant and got back into his old field of engineering. He was the operating engineer at the plant and kept the steam engines running. 

We lived on the farm for a short time and there are a lot of memories there. I was about four-years-old and I remember my mother being a wonderful person - to me she was a saint and took good care of us. But she had one failing – she loved to play poker. We lived in the country and were 20 miles from the nearest town and a mile from the nearest neighbor. My aunt and uncle, Dupra, owned a place up the road and they use to sponsor a poker game once a week and my mother would go play. My younger sister and I would have to traipse along with her. 

One day we were coming back home and there was something in a cherry tree right behind the house. My mother did the lady-like thing and went in and got the shotgun. I held the flashlight and she shot what she thought was a bear, and thank God it wasn’t my dad up there. It was a porcupine. We washed it out and the next morning we had some rather suspicious meat on the table, which I am sure was porcupine.

 After about six months we got a company house.

Living in the Upper Peninsula we ate some strange things. Porcupine, never ate a skunk, but we had muskrat because my father trapped these and we regularly ate and loved them. He use to shoot geese and I didn’t like eating a goose because I hated to clean them.  We lived on wild game and it was amazing – everything from snapping turtles to venison.  Some people say it was a terrible way to live but I learned to really appreciate a good beef steak now, or even a poor beef steak. 

After living on the farm for a while my dad got a company house in Big Bay. I remember the day we arrived in Big Bay - every kid in town was in the front yard. Dad had been there for six months living in a little shack down in a place called Squaw Beach. He made every kid in town a sling shot and sling, like David used to shoot Goliath. My dad was unusual in that he could use a sling and was good with it. Every kid in town had a sling in his back pocket along with a sling shot. The kids were all just waiting because they knew I must have been something special to have a father like dad. Those were some wonderful, formative years and I was learning things that I never realized would come in handy later in my life.

The first thing I remember my dad doing is taking me with him on his trap line when I was about six-years-old because I was interested in that. He came home and had half a dozen muskrats and he said  

“you watch me trap enough you should know how to do this.” 

So, I started setting my own traps in a ditch around the Ford plant – a place I could walk to. The first year I caught about 30 muskrats and that’s when they brought in $2.50 to $3.00 apiece. I was the best paid first grader. The other kids were living on a quarter allowance, if they got an allowance. Some of these people never saw a quarter, or a beef steak.  But I was making pretty good money trapping.

Now my mother was a very frugal person and when I got my first check from Sears and Roebuck of $18.75 I had to buy a darn war bond. This continued for many years and even in high school I was buying bonds. The benefit of this story as when I bought my first car I cashed in bonds and paid for it. Mom had that in mind when she made me buy these bonds.   

Those were interesting days and Big Bay was an interesting place.



September 14, 2020

Birdman of Small Acres Lane

As I review the "trees" of my childhood, I find myself ruminating about my maternal grandparents who lived in a farm-y home at the end of a short dirt road. These memories light up this tired ol' soul. 

Please take the journey with me. 

Turning south off a busy road, you are immediately met with a tall hill lined with tombstones. To me it was a place of quiet and time with grandpa. The cemetery was a sacred place my grandfather, known and written about as The Birdman of Small Acres Lane, would take me, sit with his back against a gnarly tree tenderly petting his beloved dog, thinking or reading, while I wandered around reading the stones. Next to the cemetery was the Red Cedar River, which he told me to view but admonished me about getting too close.

Following this dusty road toward their home, we pass Sadie's woody and partially hidden home on the left and Lilah's small cottages on the right. Rumor back then was that grandpa and Lilah were good friends and that Sadie was peculiar and exotic.

Continuing down the road you would walk over a small bridge above a creek with the Red Cedar River to the left. To get to the river you had to walk down a steep hill, through beds of nettles, and find the muddy bank where I found hours of delight bamboo pole fishing. Along the bank, away from Sadie's house, there was a small wooden dock, where I would lay holding a worm in the water inevitably attracting a hungry sunfish.

About an acre of thick "magical" woods was on the opposite side of the road. Our family and the neighbors played there for hours. At one point and only for a short while someone strung a long rope from a tree near the edge - long enough to swing on as we played Tarzan and Jane. To the right of the woods was the Hagerman home ... alongside their outbuilding was an unplugged freezer filled with yummy worms where I'd get my fill for fishing in the river.

Onto the road again and 25 feet more was a white house on the left filled with my childhood friends. Evenings would find us sitting in their multi-window back room, which overlooked the river and woods, playing hours of card and board games. Then we'd go to my grandparent's house and play aggravation on the red metal table that overlooked the gardens and chicken coop.

Across the dirt road was my grandparent's rustic brown and yellow home with the yard filled with bird houses built by grandpa. Perched on poles, trees, in the gardens, on the lawn, these houses attracted a multitude of regional birds, along with the press, who named Alfred Fredrickson "The Birdman of Small Acres Lane". 
Grandpa and I sat on chairs in the front yard as he taught me the practice of twiddling our thumbs -- entwine your fingers together leaving the thumbs to fend for themselves as you focus on circling your thumbs back and forward. Quite a calming activity he was found to enjoy as the silence brought out nature sounds. Grandpa was a successful gardener and loved eating warm tomatoes with salt fresh off the vine, roasting sunflower seeds, eating grapes, and tending his chickens in the little coop along the side of the garden. He was also quite a musician playing accordion, violin, harmonica among some of his instruments. We were told he wanted to attend a music school but was denied by his parents because he had to help on their potato farm.
Behind my grandparent's house was a long garden bordered by a huge hill, a place where my siblings and I spent hours. A piece of cardboard served as our sleds. The steep hill was scaled over and over as sliding down was fast and exciting. Occasionally, the sharp grass would slice into a finger but didn't seem to bother anyone. I'm sure my mom tried and tried to scrub the grass stains and smell of grass off our blue jeans in her ringer washer but to no avail.

At the end of the road  - the railroad tracks. When I spent the night I'd sleep with my grandmother under bed sheets that were cool and clean and fresh smelling from the clothes line. Every night grandma would lean over and wind up the round alarm clock which would jangle us awake in the morning. But during the night the haunting sound of trains passing by and rattling the windows soothed me as they raced to destinations I couldn't ever fathom.

I spent weeks with my grandparents, every minute I could, and know they helped form the hopeful and good part of me.


"Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, 5 cents a glass"

My family and I have often and happily traveled Back Roads on our forays from one area of Michigan to another. My children grew use to the ...