These pages will reflect the art of story telling and may involve my family stories as well as history and travel. They are a hodgepodge of topics with antidotal comments, but always involve the attributes of a good story.
I have been getting over a bit of writer’s block lately. Plenty of thoughts, but just not connected. In the midst of that, a title came to me and after a lot of searching for inspiration, I think I am ready to tackle this piece.
Deb and I just returned from some long awaited travel. We started the winter with a two week stay on Kauai and Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, returned home for a quick two week catchup, and then went down to Cancun for one more week. Hopefully you are not judging me for my irresponsible galivanting, but we had saved up for this and Covid-19 had left us longing to start traveling again. Regardless, we took both trips looking forward to the memories we would make. And we made memories.
These two trips, in some ways similar, had marked differences. Hawaii was activity driven. With my faithful travel master friends, Larry and Annette along for the journey, we never lacked purpose on any of the days. There were waterfalls to hike into, zip lines to tackle, whales to watch, and fish to snorkel among. Every day had a hike planned for at least part of it. Cancun, on the other hand, was meant for soaking up sun, walking the beach, and eating at a different restaurant every day (we were in an all inclusive so why wouldn’t we). Where our purpose in Hawaii was exploring and, as it turned out, exercise, Cancun was about down time.
We met random people throughout our stay in Hawaii, but they were usually “one and done” as we moved on and so did they. Cancun was different. As it was an all inclusive resort, it was like being held in this exotic, beautiful, prison. There was no need to venture outside of the walls and the food and the guards were incredible. The offshoot of this kind of vacation is that all the guests are traveling in the same circles. We were all there together and seeing a couple multiple times a day was the norm and offered the chance to make new friends, which we did. Though there were multiple couples, Chris and Sammy, Kristy and Chuck, not Paul (inside joke), half the state of Nebraska, and a very friendly group from Green Bay, Wisconsin, there were two couples who deserve a shout out.
Marcello and Julianna from Sao Paulo, Brazil were there to do a recommitment of their marriage vows on the occasion of their fifteenth wedding anniversary. We met them one of our first nights. They had come into one of the lounges and Julianna’s beautiful wedding dress caught our eye. Something told us they were looking for company. They had, like us, made the trip alone. As we started a conversation, we discovered that Marcello was able to speak some English but Julianna could only speak her native tongue, Portuguese. After spending some time apologizing to each other for not being able to adequately speak each other’s language, it was decided that we could fill in most of the gaps and we would not let it get in the way of what instantly felt like a friendship in the making. By weeks end, I was improving my very limited Spanish, and Marcello, his English. We had spent hours learning about each other and forming a friendship that just might, with the help of Facebook, last beyond our week in Cancun.
On night two of our stay, we sat across from a couple playing cards and talking with each other. As is the way with me, my incessant belief that people want to join in a conversation, I asked what game they were playing. That is all it took. By the end of the evening, we were making plans for breakfast the next morning. Erin and Alex, as it turned out, were from St Louis, a city we visit often and, by the end of the week, a city we now had a new reason to visit.
In our every day lives, we pass by so many Marcello and Julianna’s, so many Erin and Alex’s, but we never get to meet. When we travel, it seems so much easier to take the risk and start that conversation. In the case of Marcello and Julianna, we had to overcome the language barrier, but I will tell you that the challenge made the friendship all the sweeter. With Erin and Alex, the conversation was easier, but we still had to take the risk and put ourselves in play. In both cases, we formed a friendship that just might last long after the vacation ended. That is, of course, if both sides make the effort to keep the conversation going.
We are home now and the world is back to passing us by on the street, but what if we just once in a while mustered up the courage to talk to that person across the aisle or at the next table over. Who knows whether or not that is a friendship waiting to be formed. Don’t be afraid to take the chance. After all, can we ever really have too many friends?
Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Wundrow of Rt 4 Appleton, Wisconsin, announced the birth of their first born son at 2:25 AM on February 25th at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. The baby boy named Kenneth, apparently by the attending nurse, weighed in at 8lbs 8 oz and joined the family previously ruled over by two earlier sisters, Karen, aka Peaches, and Kathleen, aka Kay also both named by same said nurse. Kenneth will now attempt to take his place on the family farm and attempt to survive the bossy nature of his two siblings.
As time passed, Ken, Kenny to his parents and absolutely no one else, was joined by another brother, Karl. Ken and Karl were to become fast friends and thick as thieves. There was no challenge that once thrown at one brother by the other wasn’t met by the other, no matter how great the danger. In time, mom and dad Wundrow would add two more brothers, apparently just to keep the two sisters in check.
Kenny would eventually become Ken, enter high school, and graduate summa cum average. Woodstock was in full swing that summer as was the Vietnam War. Ken wanted UW Madison, mom and dad, wanted Fox Valley Tech. A compromise was struck and Ken was off to Wisconsin State College at Oshkosh, later UW Oshkosh. He entered as a science major, apparently aiming to be a scientist, and left as a math teacher with a degree in education. Seems the counselor thought he’d make a better teacher than a scientist. That, or the fact that scientists didn’t get draft deferment status.
Loyal Middle School (Loyal, Wisconsin) needed an interim math teacher and four years later, Oregon School District (Oregon, Wisconsin) did as well. Twenty-five years later and an illustrious career in education coming to a close, Kenneth Wundrow, EA. sold his blossoming tax business to the highest bidder, left teaching, and entered what would be a tax and financial planning career.
Now entering his sixth year of semi-retirement, and because a reasonable number of people still feel he has a little bit of wisdom left to share, volunteers as a business mentor. When able to say no, he travels the “world” with his wife of forty-two years, Deb.
And that’s it. seventy-two years summed up in two or three paragraphs. Some where along the line I have grown a little over four feet and gained roughly 180 pounds. I’ve added two beautiful, incredibly bright daughters to this world (Bailey and Kathryn), inherited two well appreciated son-in-laws (John and Eli) and at last count, two incredibly sharp grandchildren (Jackson and Adela) with a future draft pick to be named in June.
Life IS good and on this day each year, I want to thank the countless number of friends who wish me happy birthday, support me in my endeavors, and generally make living so worth well. Age is just a number and whether or not I like mine being such a big one, I will savor all the years that have passed and wisely spend all the ones that remain.
Growing up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm in the 50’s, I constantly had chores to do, among them, cropping the fields, stacking the mows, filling the cribs and silos, and the main one, milking twenty three cows twice a day. Because my dad always believed that music would keep the cows content and that they in turn would produce more milk, meant that he would play the radio with the station tuned to WGN out of Chicago. This was an am radio station with a wide assortment of music, news, and talk shows. Thus, I and the cows were treated to a wide variety of programming. Two of my favorite programs were Let’s Go Fishing and Hawaii Calls. Let’s Go Fishing, as the name implies, was a half hour show about fish and catching them. The catchy little tune they would play, totally intended that pun, has never found its way out of my brain; “Let’s go fishing, for a day and a half, and a half a day, for a day and a half a mile.” Don’t ask me why they ended it with “mile” and I will leave the melody to your imagination. The second program was entitled “Hawaii Calls”, a show that took you through the music and stories of the Hawaiian Islands. As I listened, I would imagine one day getting to go there, but to my ten-year-old self, it seemed an impossible dream.
This memory has remained so vivid to me, and I have recalled it countless times over the years. I am happy to report that sometimes the impossible dreams of our childhood do in fact come true. As I write this blog, I am sitting in the Denver Airport waiting to board our flight to Hawaii. We will be spending the next two weeks Island hopping between Kauai and Maui. I say waiting, waiting because our flight is delayed for a technical issue, hopefully one that has nothing to do with the guidance system as I really want to get where we are meant to be. If not, I fear I will have the wrong wardrobe packed. Though this is not my first trip to Hawaii; Deb, my daughters, and I made the trip in 2008, it will be looked forward to no less than my first one. This time, my wife and I are traveling with two dear friends and looking forward to a shared experience as we explore the attractions and enticements of the Islands. There will no doubt be several Mai Tai and other fruit laden cocktails mixed in with hikes, waterfalls, and dinners on the beach.
Travel has always been an integral part of who I am. It started all those years ago as I poured over my National Geographics and listened to radio programs like Hawaii Calls. During my college years It grew into trips outside my home state. Eventually, it took me both north and south of the border and even across the ocean. It has introduced me to new friends and new places. It has allowed me to experience the cultures of people very unlike me and my travels have created memories everywhere I went.
It was just a radio program that planted the seed, but now, all these years later, Hawaii actually is calling and by the way, we just got the call to board our plane.
19 days, 15 hours, or as my grandson Jackson would say, 19 more sleeps. That’s what the widget on my phone is telling me as it counts down to our Hawaii trip. It has kept me optimistic through these cold dreary days of winter as we prepare a little more each day for our departure and greatly anticipated trip to the Islands. As much as I can’t wait to trade emails and meetings for sand and sun, the anticipation of the trip and the excitement it generates will not be overlooked. Just as joy is in the journey, anticipation is that joy.
Anticipation:the act of looking forward. especially : pleasurable expectation. They looked forward with anticipation to their arrival. Carley Simon felt strong enough about anticipation to write a song about it. My intent is to convince you that it’s the anticipation of things that brings joy to the waiting.
I am, as my readers know, a very visual person. From the moment we began our planning I was already there. I could see the aqua blue water, the lush tropical jungles, the palm trees swaying in the breeze. Hell, I could feel the sand between my toes. The fact that there was still better than six months to wait only enhanced the anticipation and that only heightened my awareness and spiked the excitement. The first part of my trip had begun, the anticipation of what it could be was setting in. I knew that anticipation would make the wait bearable.
Life is a constant process of anticipation. The anticipation of that surprise birthday party you just know they are planning. Meeting that special someone on a first date. A family wedding with all it’s planning and tension. The first day on a new job or just that first cup of coffee in the morning. My wife conditioned me to that last one and now I wake up dreaming of it. If you aren’t recognizing and savoring those moments of anticipation, well you just aren’t living. Just as the story is read between the lines, true joy of living is between those moments of anticipation. Anticipation is the hopefulness that allows us to tackle each brand new day, each brand new opportunity, life’s next adventure.
I will be brief today as I believe I have made my point. To truly enjoy the next adventure, one must embrace the anticipation that comes before. I will look at my cell phone tomorrow and the days remaining will be down to eighteen, eighteen more days of anticipation. I will trade waiting and impatience for that anticipation any day. Afterall, why hurry the process of getting there when all it will do is start the countdown of the days I will be there. Hawaii awaits me, what awaits you?
My wife has lovingly referred to it as my tour. There was the Wisconsin tour, the Mississippi tour, and now the Iowa tour. Lest you get excited, there were never amps to be lugged about, press agents, or even screaming fans, no, it was my tax gig. For 23 years I have held sway in over 30 cities in three states as I taught tax law and planning to my faithful tax planning students. I hopefully educated them on at least several new tax codes, gave them some hot planning tips for managing their clients and employees, and maybe even provided a little entertainment mixed in with the lecture. Along the way, I visited multiple casinos, far too many hotels, and even learned a little Cajun. I visited at least half a dozen universities and witnessed the aftermath of two hurricanes, several tornadoes, and multiple blizzards. I met over 1500 tax planners, EA’s, CPA’s and attorneys and made friends with most of them. Today, as I sit in Ohare International Airport, I thought it appropriate to jot down a few passing thoughts as this phase of my life comes to a close.
I just finished an in-person presentation in Sioux City, a pretty little city tucked neatly in the corner of three states; Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which in its early years, served as the railhead for some historic cattle drives. It is not my true final gig as I have one more in-person to be held in Ankeny, Ia, and then one more on-line performance in a couple weeks. When that last one concludes, it will be in fact my very last one ever. The groupies say that I will be back, but I am no Brett Favre or Tom Brady. I have been saying it was my last year for the last six years, and this time it really is. I know that a year from now, I will miss the stage, I am after all a true ham when you give me the mic, but I won’t miss all the late-night drives, many done in rain or snow, the prep work, and the nervousness the nights before and the mornings of. I may appear cool, calm, and collected, but anyone who tells you they don’t sweat a little as they take the stage, is, shall we say, bullshitting.
I started this little career back in the year 2000, when the owner of the firm I was working for, turned down the request to be the speaker for these tax schools. He instead sent one of my mentors, Phil Harris, to hit me up for the job. I still remember a nervous Phil sitting down across from me and making the most tenuous job offer ever. It didn’t help much when he started out with “you aren’t my first choice.” He went on to tell me he would offer me half what he had intended and just a two-hour slot. I, being full of myself, needing the revenue, and just plain hopeful that I would impress him, accepted the job. Two hours turned into a half day, and by year two, I was the entire second day of a two-day conference. Along the way we built a two-way trust between Phil and I, and we became the two-man show known as Tax Insight. Phil gave them the theory and the law; I gave them the planning and the practicality. We wowed our crowd with famous hits like, The TCJA, Qualified Charitable Deductions for Everyone, and the ever-popularPassive Activities and You.
Six years ago, as I was ready to hand over the mic to younger talent, Phil became ill and within a year had passed away. Thus began my run of one more year’s. I was devastated by Phil’s passing and knew I had to stay on with the transition, year one, and then the attempted sale, year two, gifting to Iowa State University, year three, Covid-19 forcing us to move on-line, year four and five, but as year six approached I had to redraw the line in the sand, With that decision, year six would be, with acquiescence to my wife, the farewell tour. We even entertained making up shirts with the names of all those cities our tour had passed through, but saner minds prevailed, and the shirt idea was nixed.
It has been, despite my whining here and there, a spectacularly great decision. I learned much along the way; taxes, business planning, the histories of people, places, and things, and even some odd tidbits, like always make sure you know where the wipers and light switches are on your rental car especially when driving through Mississippi in the dark. As I leave, I want to thank my co-workers who unbegrudgingly filled in for me back at the office while I galivanted around the countryside, my boss who not only put Phil onto me, but gave me the time off to do it, and especially to my wife, Deb, who supported me, cheered me on, and eventually even became my paid handler, coincidentally the best I ever had.
But all things do come to an end, and this will be my swan song. I am extremely proud of the work I have done and will be forever grateful for the experience. If there is a lesson here for my readers, never be afraid to take the chance. You just might surprise yourself as to what you can accomplish and where the decision might lead.
The day after Thanksgiving, our tradition is to cut our Christmas tree. Yesterday was no exception other than the fact that my younger daughter and her husband would be unable to share in the festivities due to Covid-19, the virus hell bent of ruining our family traditions. John and I would be tasked with cutting their tree.
The day started out beautiful, sunshine and temps in the upper 40’s. Perfect weather to cut a fresh tree, which coincidentally was what half the population of the state had decided to do and at the same tree farm we had chosen. As was the tradition, we would meet our daughters and their families out at the tree farm for a day of bonding over picking out and cutting our three trees. The men folk, John and I, damn you Eli, were well aware of the painstaking process that lay ahead of us as we marched back and forth, checking out at least a hundred trees before the women folk, Bailey and my wife, would settle on the very best tree ever! All that remained was to cut them down, at ground level, in the muddy ground. The first tree fought a little bit before John was able to saw through. Tree number two, Kathryn and Eli’s actually went quite well, but then came the tree Deb had chosen for our house. This should have been my warning of things to come. With two people pulling on the tree as I attempted to get my saw to cut without binding up, we eventually got it to succumb to my efforts, but not before we cracked a nice chunk out of the trunk. No problem I told Deb, the skirt will cover our damage.
After standing in line with the mobs that like us, felt yesterday was THEE day to cut a tree, we got our tree back to the loading barn, violently shook free of loose needles, bound up tighter than an Egyptian mummy, purchased and paid for with a small loan we took out at the bank ….. have you bought a Christmas tree recently? And it didn’t even come with lights and decorations! We were now ready to pull up the car to load up our tree for the ride home. Fifteen minutes later after waiting in the line of cars loading their trees, John and I managed to jam two of the trees into the back of my Jeep with the third tree tied to the back. As my grandson and I climbed into the car for the drive home, it became apparent that a seven foot tree in a six foot bed, would be sharing the space between us. Just one more minor inconvenience. This too will pass.
An hour later, after dropping the first tree at Bailey and John’s house, and the second tree at Kathryn and Eli’s place, Deb and I arrived home with our “best tree ever”. Into the house and into the stand, I wish! After three unsuccessful tries at centering the tree in the stand, we finally got the beast secured. Leveling and centering came next and thanks to my wife’s keen eyeballing abilities, we eventually reached perfection, some twenty minutes and several gymnastic maneuvers later. Next step, throw on the lights. starting at the top, and after too many times to count of circling the tree, (this step might be what inspired Brenda Lee to write “Rock Around the Christmas Tree”) we ran out of lights two feet from the bottom of the tree. This is where the math you’ll never use should have been used…… pi x diameter = circumference, average circumference x number of times around the tree = the number feet of lights you’ll need, which apparently was short by 100 more bulbs. But wait, we had an unused box of exactly 100 ‘white’ light bulbs. Saved….NOT! This is where one learns that there are many shades of white lights, none of which matched our already strung white lights.
One hour later, Deb has returned from Target with the light supplies needed to finish our assault on the Christmas tree. Would these be the right white? Close enough, the tree is strung and lit, Deb now begins the final Battle of the Tree, while I retire to the coach, content to watch my first Christmas movie. Things are going well, Deb has half the ornaments on the tree when, out of the corner of my eye, I simultaneously hear Deb scream and the tree cant drunkenly towards the front door. As the tree tilts further toward Deb, I snag the backside of the tree and haul it back up. Close call, but after some tinkering with the anchors and Deb sternly scolding the tree, we have it standing upright. All that leveling and centering is far less important now as Deb wants this battle over. Establishing that the tree now seems stable, we will settle for the leaning tower of Christmas and move on.
We settle in for a quiet night of sleep planning on dreaming of the beauty of the tree that awaits us tomorrow morning. 7:00 am comes quickly and we rise, vision of tree grandeur dancing in our heads. As we enter the living room, ready to turn on the Christmas lights, there lays our tree, yes, I said lays not stands our tree. Our tree lays draped like a drunken sailor across the chair it took out on its way to the floor. Christmas balls are strewn in a dizzying array across our living room floor.
I turn to my wife, anticipating either tears or a string of curses, but to my relief, she is laughing. As we survey the scene of the wreck, we decide we will not be defeated by this tree. We resurrect the tree, replace the stand, straighten the lights and start replacing the bulbs. In order to thwart any further escape attempts, we hog tie it securely to the stair rail and dare it to try to get loose from that.
In good news from the front, the tree is still standing. We have faced the enemy and he is ours. Maybe let’s get a smaller tree next year.
As I write this piece, Christmas music is playing in the background. For those of you who are now questioning my authority to be playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving has even arrived, will be quite upset to know that I started it this year on November 1st, literally the first day I could find a station putting it out there. And…..I am not ashamed!
There is no better season than Christmas in my book. We have just come off a very mean spirited election season, plenty of blame on both sides. I for one am desperate for some cheer and Christmas brings that to me each and every year. It is a chance to be reminded that people matter more than things. It is a season for giving and for receiving and the best gift one can give or get is the sense that we can all, for at least a couple of months, take the time to care for each other and to spread a bit of joy even where there is little to be found. It is a season of hope buoyed by the Spirit that lives more generously in its traditions. Christmas is a chance for a reset.
During Christmas, the memories of my childhood come floating back. The first Christmas I have memories of happened when I was maybe six or seven years old, and yet all these years later, lots of years later, they are still vivid. I can recall getting my Christmas bag of peanuts and carrots as we left church Christmas Eve, a simple reward for the Christmas pageant we had just pulled off in angelic perfection despite a year of less than angelic behavior. Of getting dad to hurry us all home to open the presents beneath the tree. Of finding that tin tab garage set complete with its lever for the car elevator. I am sure the five Christmases that came before were also full of traditions, but memories of them unfortunately weren’t recorded in my childhood brain. When I think about my first Christmas memories, I also recall the first Christmas celebrated with my wife in our tiny little house on Ring Street. That first Christmas it was just Deb and I and Huckleby, our cat. Then I think of the first Christmas for each of my daughters. I know it’s just a fact of life that they too will have no memories of that first one or much of any before they were old enough to start the act of remembering. I will promise myself to ask them to share their first memory of Christmas and I suspect it won’t match mine. But then it is their memory to recall in the way it comes back to them. We all have memories of our Christmases, and at this time of year we should take time to recall the best of them and then let them inspire us to spread the good cheer of Christmas wherever the opportunity presents itself.
Christmas music sets the tone for me. It lifts my spirits, renews my faith in mankind’s ability to care for each other, and rekindles those traditions my family share, the ones we have created, and the ones we will create. This Friday, in the rain, snow, sleet, or I hope, sunshine, you will find my family cutting our traditional tree(s). I will string indoor and outdoor lights that will cut out shortly after I plug in the last strand. My wife and I will set aside enough time to watch as many Christmas movies as possible. Christmas eve, I will sing my favorite Christmas carols and then return home to wait for the arrival of my two grandchildren. I will wait till they are fast asleep and then creep down the hall to place the Santa gifts beneath the tree. And then, Christmas morning I will sit back and watch the chaos erupt as the presents are exchanged and opened with wrapping paper discarded and covering the room like a blanket of Christmas morning snow. I will soak in each and everyone of these traditions throughout the season, and if I am lucky, maybe another great story will emerge,
This Christmas season take a pledge to make it the best one yet. Reach out to family and friends and even, and maybe especially, to a stranger. The season of Christmas is a reminder to share; share joy and peace and self. My Christmas music has been playing since November 1st and will continue until someone convinces me the season is over. But I will tell you, I won’t be convinced easily.
So if you haven’t yet turned on the music, stop being the grinch, find a Christmas station, and go Rock Around the Christmas Tree. Brenda Lee is waiting to get you started.
Disclaimer, I intend no offense to Catholics or the many saints that exist, but did you realize that there is a saint for almost every purpose. Did you know that Saint Alexander of Comana is the patron saint of charcoal burners. That will come in handy next time I am forced to grill. Meanwhile Amand would be the patron saint of bartenders, another one of my many occupations. Anthony the Abbot would be the patron saint of gravediggers. And let us not forget the patron saint of women seeking husbands, Anthony of Padua. Shouldn’t that one have been a female? And those are just the patron saints that start with the letter A. If you want to check out the complete list for yourself, go to: https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/24191/documents/2019/11/Patron%20Saints%202.pdf
This morning our church was celebrating All Saints weekend and the conversation about saints came up. We were asked to consider the people in our lives that have passed on and though too many came to mind, I found myself thinking of my brother. He was only seven when he died. I was only eight. We were thick as thieves in our short lives to that point but we had already survived a lifetime of hijinks. There was no dare that he wouldn’t throw down and there was no challenge I didn’t accept. “I bet you can’t jump from that rock to this one.” I bet you’re too scared to jump off the hay loft.” And then there was the “I dare you to jump from that fence post to this one.” Though most of them resulted in various injuries, that last one was way too close to serious, not that mom or dad ever found out thanks to the unwritten code that we just didn’t tell on each other, ever! We clearly needed a patron saint of our own, like maybe Cajetan, the patron saint of gamblers.
Looking back and thinking about the impact on my life, I am nominating my brother for the patron saint of risk takers and I am thanking him for impressing on me the value of taking a risk. Without his encouragement, er goading, would I have grown up to accept and deal with the risks in life that gave me the opportunities to succeed, or the ability to take chances when they took me to the next level? Or for that matter, to have and have benefited from the experiences of my life? Without the willingness to take acceptable risks, would I have ever climbed a mountain or jumped from a plane? That last one definitely traces back to the leaps we took from the top of the hay mow. In short, life might have been far less exciting without the occasional walk on the edge.
Don’t get me wrong. There are risks we should never take, especially when they might impact others. But if it’s an acceptable risk, if we understand what we control and that within that element of control, we can build in the safety net we need, maybe then we might be willing to take the leap. One of the strongest traits of a leader is the willingness to take the risk that is necessary to advance the cause. Without risk takers imagine all the inventions, all the historic events, businesses, and all of the discoveries never made. Would we have ever walked on the moon or would we just be earthbound wondering what was out there? What would the world be like without risk takers?
Today I thought about my brother who all those years ago dared me to take the chance. For that he is MY patron saint.
Sharing our childhood home with my grandparents created so many endearing memories, most of them the sights and scents of my mom and dad, and my grandmother canning in our tiny farmhouse kitchen. There was the hundreds of mason jars lined up on the table, the big blue canning kettle and the steam rising off the boiling water ready to seal the fruits and vegetables into those mason jars where they would slowly disappear from our fruit cellar as the long winter gave way to spring and our garden thawed out, readying itself for the next growing season. Every once in awhile something brings that memory flooding back. In those moments, I can still remember the smells wafting from the kitchen all the way to my upstairs bedroom, that aromatic mixture of pickled corn and beets, dill pickles and relish, fruits and ah yes, the apple sauce. Oh that glorious mixture of apples and cinnamon. That recipe so perfected by my dad.
When canning came to an end each fall, and all the canning equipment had been stowed away, we would stack the shelves of our basement fruit cellar with enough canned vegetables and fruit to last us through the winter. We were self sufficient and I always remember mom and dad’s pride as they recorded the inventory. Nothing in our garden had gone to waste. As the winter wore on, each meal would be augmented with something from the cellar, fresh, aromatic, and delicious. But my favorite was always the apple sauce. We would have it on ice cream. We would warm it up and put it in a bowl with a little splash of cream, or as my grandfather liked it, spread across a warm slice of grandmas’ homemade bread. There just wasn’t anything it didn’t go well with.
Recently, after trips to every apple orchard pumpkin patch in the area, with grandchildren in tow, my daughter handed me a pint of the golden nectar. She has been working on it for the past several years and she just might have perfected it. Somehow, through experimentation, old recipes scratched out on weathered notecards, and of course hours of shared applesauce sessions at her grandfather’s side, Bailey has come as close as humanly possible to my dad’s apple sauce recipe. It now sits proudly on my counter awaiting the moment I crack the seal and carefully ration out my first serving.
Where my wife and I have never seemed to successfully carry on the tradition, my daughters have prevailed. They have become the gardeners, the chefs, and yes the canners I never was. The art had skipped a generation but thanks to my daughter, I now have a pint of homemade, ready to savor, dad’s special recipe, apple sauce, and along with it, a chance to bask in the memories it has evoked. Memories of being that eight year old kid, sneaking down the stairs , and sneaking a peak of my dad as he worked side by side with my mom as they canned more than just food for the winter, but memories for a life time.
You’ll have to excuse me now, I have a bowl of warm applesauce and cream waiting on my evaluation.
The time is just a few minutes after 3:00 am. John is already up and carbo loading on a breakfast of pancakes and syrup. In a little more than an hour he will be starting off on what will be a 240-mile trek by bike across Wisconsin. The ride will start here in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and work its way southeast across the state eventually ending on the waterfront in downtown Milwaukee. He will be accompanied by 700 fellow bike riders, some as lone riders like John while others will ride for teams of several riders. The trek will take them through nearly 70 miles of gravel trail and tunnels, with another 170 miles on backroads as they rise and fall over 6500 feet of total elevation. While the ride starts with hundreds of riders, only about 160 will cover the entire 240 miles in a single day. John has trained all year for this ride, but today will be his distance record as he joins the group to cover it in a single day.
I will be driving the sag wagon for John’s trip, accompanied by my daughter Bailey who is John’s spouse. Our job will be to meet him at the designated checkpoints along the way where we will refresh his water bottles and provide him with the snacks and food he has planned out for each stop. This honor had fallen to my younger daughter, Kathryn, last year, but is mine to experience this year. I am honored to be on his sag crew and a part of his journey.
It is now 4:30 am and we are with John as he awaits the start and continues to check and recheck everything on his bike. The start is only minutes away now and bikers are coming from every direction to find their starting positions. The start area is marked off in intervals that closely mimic the starting paces the riders intend to keep. The faster pace riders are placed near the beginning, while slower starters will take up positions further back in line. The last thing any rider wants is to be involved in a collision within the first mile of the ride due to an uneven start. John will take a position in the top third of the riders with a chosen pace around 15 mph. My first impression is of how focused John is. If he is to be successful, he must maintain a sustainable pace, pay attention to his times as he has planned them out, and be able to break the ride into segments. He will likely be on the bike for up to 17 hours and he has to find ways of avoiding thinking about how much he still has left, as opposed to focusing on the segments as he finishes one and begins the next. Only if he thinks of them as a bunch of shorter trips, will the totality of the trip not take its toll on his emotional energy.
It’s 5:00 am, the start! John gives us a cursory glance and a wave, and he is off into the dark. By the time Bailey and I have made our way back to the hotel, the app on her phone shows John already 6 miles out. Sparta is our first check point some 30 miles away. We decide we better forego breakfast and get on the road to meet him. It’s amazing how this feels like a sacrifice for us and then we remember, John’s on the bike, we are in a car. Way too easy to lose perspective. We vow to toughen up, but not without a cup of coffee to go.
The weather last night was dotted with torrential downpours. We are worried as John approaches the Sparta Elroy trail, as to the condition of the gravel bed. How messed up will the tunnel surfaces be. One of those tunnels is nearly a mile in length and there are no lights. The riders will depend on the collective light cast by their bike lights. As John prepares to leave this first pit stop, he expresses concerns about switching from pavement to the gravel trails but grabs fresh water and a couple bananas and heads back out. He will repeat this action up to ten more times throughout the day. At least the rain, forecast to be off and on all day, has so far held off. We pick John up as the trail crosses through the next three villages. He does not stop at any of these, but I can feel the relief in Bailey as she waves him through. Each crossing shows he is riding strong and has chopped off another ten miles here and another fifteen miles there. His next planned stop will be Elroy.
We are there waiting in Elroy. It is amazingly only 9:45 in the morning. It seems so much later but then we remind ourselves that John has now been riding for almost five hours. Again, with the perspective! This is the point where he will switch from the Sparta Elroy trail to the 400 Trail as it winds its way down to Reedsburg. As it turns out, we were able to pass John a slice of pizza and pudding cup at the old train depot in Kendall. He warned us that he may not stop at Elroy and as he approaches us on the trail, he gives a thumbs up and rides straight through. I guess we catch him at Reedsburg.
We wait at the depot in Reedsburg and eventually we start seeing riders we know have been coming through the previous checkpoints around the same time as John. Bailey’s app says that he is about 2 miles out and so we wait. Then suddenly we see him making the corner leading into town and the end of the 400 Trail. He reaches the depot covered in mud, gravel, and grease. His black bike is barely recognizable, but John just wants a quick refuel on some snacks and heads back out. We will meet him in Wisconsin Dells where he will take ten minutes to wolf down a burger and fries that we are to pick up while we wait. The good news, he is off the gravel trails for the next few hours and the sun is out. The bad news, the Baraboo Ridge lies dead ahead and that means the hills have begun.
The stop in Wisconsin Dells goes well and Bailey and I hide our shame as we finish off our McDonalds burger, fries, and a shake, oh the humanity! John wants to get right back out so his hamburger will wait. Fries and a pudding cup are all he takes time for, and he is off for the climb over the ridge. Once he clears the ridge, it will be mostly downhill to the ferry crossing at Merrimac. As Wisconsin Dells was designated as the halfway point, over 400 riders have now disappeared from the ride. But John and about 160 others will trek on. As we wait for the ferry to complete its trip across and back on the river, John gets a well-deserved half hour rest. But time can become his enemy if he is to finish by 10:00 pm in Milwaukee. The ferry barely drops the gate and John and about 30 riders are headed down the road.
As nice as the sunshine was at the ferry crossing, the blackening skies on the other side of the river bode nothing but bad news. John had barely reached the next village at Lodi when the skies let loose. The rain came in torrents. Bailey and I are on the road when the storm hit and are barely able to keep driving. We catch ourselves complaining about the rain when the reality hits us that John is somehow continuing to ride in this. We know that because we are tracking his progress on the app. He has slowed considerably but he is still moving south. We stop complaining and once again regain the perspective. We say a silent prayer and wish him God speed.
We reach the next checkpoint at Bristol where a group of friends and family will await John’s pass through at the Sassy Cow Creamery. John is looking forward to seeing his children at this stop. Jackson and Adela have made posters and will be there to cheer him on to the finish some 90 miles ahead. This will be his encouragement for the final push. The problem is the rain. It is coming down so hard that we can barely see across the street. But then we all catch a break. The rain lets up just long enough for us to spot John’s light blinking through the gloom. It is around 3:30 as he crests the hill and we all clang bells and rush out to welcome him to this briefest of stops. Hugs from Jackson and Adela, encouragement from the friends and family that are there, and John gets back on the bike and heads on down the road. As the rain starts back up, we can just catch a glimpse of the red light on the back of his bike fading into the distance. I will forever hold that image of that solitary rider disappearing into the gloom.
This is where I left the sag wagon. I needed to drive my wife and our grandkids to the hotel in Milwaukee where we would wait for John to finish the ride. Bailey would see him through the next two stops at Waterloo and Lake Mills. At Lake Mills she would wave John through as he had to enter gravel trails once more for 25 more miles on the Glacial Drumlin trail to Milwaukee. The next time she would see him would be the finish line in Milwaukee. As we found out later, this was one of the worst legs of the trip if not thee worst. The trail was littered with tree branches and water running in the ruts. This leg alone would do in the casual rider, but John must push through this ever mindful of the distance remaining and the approaching darkness.
The call came in from Bailey at 9:30. She was at the finish line and John was 9 miles out. The goal of finishing before 10:00 was in jeopardy but he was pushing as hard as he could. As the minutes ticked down, we waited at the finish line, Jackson and Adela with their posters, and the rest of us with fingers crossed. At 10:00 the app said 1 mile out. At 10:05 we saw bike lights crossing the avenue three blocks down and at 10:06, to the screams of “you made it”, and 17 hours after leaving Lacrosse, John finished the ride. I should add this note. At that 1 mile out mark, John had called Bailey and said I need a hamburger when I come in. My wife immediately headed to the restaurant only to find out the grill had been shut down for the night. Upon hearing the story and seeing John’s children waiting, the chef said I am going to fire up the grill and make him the perfect hamburger, which in John’s case is plain, no condiments just the meat. The least we can do after 240 miles.
I would never have fully understood this ride or my sons-in-law’s obsession had I not been able to be even a small part of it on his sag crew. My deep respect for what he accomplished goes without saying. You are the toughest guy I know. Now get on that bike and start training for next year.