Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ski Stories From Yesterday

We had several steep little hills on our home farm, perfect for sledding and skiing, especially skiing. My dad made my first pair of skis out of barrel staves, the curved slats from wooden barrels that were about three feet long. He nailed a thin strip of leather onto each stave for my rubber boots. I was maybe four or five years old, so I didn’t mind much that my barrel stave skis were clumsy and performed poorly on hills. They served just fine on the level, sort of like snowshoes.

When I was seven or eight, my grandfather Witt made for me my second pair of skis from two five-foot strips of birch wood that he steamed over a teakettle to bend up the front ends. He also nailed a strip of leather across the middle of each of them to accommodate my four-buckle rubber boots. They were wider than barrel staves, and with the turned up ends I could sail down the hills as well as any kid with “store-bought” skis. Unfortunately, the skis that grandpa made did not have grooves cut in the bottom to keep them going straight. If the snow was packed, I would as likely go sideways as straight ahead—an added benefit I pointed out to my friends who had “better” skis.

By the time I was ten, I received a pair of factory-made skis for Christmas. They were seven feet long, still with but one strip of leather to hold my now six-buckle rubber boots, and with two grooves on the bottom of each for superior control and steering. My dad bought them at Hotz’s Hardware in Wild Rose—each ski somewhere along the way had lost its mate. One ski was black, the other brown. Dad painted the brown one black so they, with some minor differences, became a pair. With my new skis, I skied to school, skied a trap line each morning, skied to neighbors, and of course skied at skiing parties the neighborhood kids organized. Somewhere in my shed at the farm I still have one of these old skis. I broke its mate when I hit a stone, or maybe when I got tangled up in a wire fence I tried to cross. The remaining ski, once more alone, has many stories to tell.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: As we grow older we tend to forget things that happened and remember things that didn’t.

January 6, 2011, 5:30 p.m. Lacrosse Library Friends dinner meeting.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Memories

Some Christmas memories:

I remember Christmas morning with a stack of presents under the tree that couldn’t be opened until the morning milking was done.

I remember receiving socks and mittens that my grandmother knitted and a new pair of skates, the kind that clamped on the bottom of my shoes and were tightened with a key.

I remember oyster stew for supper on Christmas Eve, every year—a tradition in the family that went back for several generations. We continue to eat oyster stew on Christmas Eve today.

I remember Christmas dinner, with aunts, uncles and cousins, and a table spread with food like I only saw when the threshing crews came.

I remember walking a mile to the neighbor’s with a small present and a freshly baked pie, because we knew the neighbor’s wife had passed away and he and his daughter were alone on Christmas day.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL. Any Christmas stories to share?

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: It often takes only a little more effort to move something from good to great.


January 6, 2011, 5:30 p.m. Lacrosse Library Friends dinner meeting.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Country School Christrmas Program

Practicing for the Christmas program at our country school began shortly after Thanksgiving break. It was serious business as the school Christmas program was one of the main social events of the year in our central Wisconsin farm community. Everyone attended, parents, relatives, and neighbors, no matter if they had children attending the school or not. Every student performed on the stage, from the youngest first grader, to the oldest, eighth grader.

I remember my first program; I was five years old in first grade, all decked out in a new flannel shirt and newer bib overalls, and scared out of my wits. The school room, lighted with two gasoline lamps, and overheated with a big wood burning stove, was filled with people—standing room only.

It was my turn to “say my piece” a little ditty about winter, as I recall. I had memorized it and memorized it again. I recited it to our cows, and to the chickens when I helped with chores. No complaints. I recited it to my mother who nodded her approval—I did not share it with my twin brothers. What did they know about good performance, they were only three years old?

I did what Miss Piechowski told me: stand up straight, keep my hands out of pockets, use my outside voice—and stare at the stovepipe in the back of room. That was my secret weapon to avoid forgetting my lines when my fellow students crossed their eyes and stuck out their tongues, trying to unnerve me so I would.

It worked. I remembered. I said my piece. Everyone clapped. And I have been searching for stovepipes to stare at ever since.

CHECK THIS OUT: Want to learn more about fictional Ames County, Wisconsin? Go to my website,, and learn about my four novels, all based in this special county. The first is The Travels of Increase Joseph and the most recent is Cranberry Red.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: (From an old country school reader): All that you do, do with all your might. Things done by half, are never done right.

December 13, 11:00 to 2:00 p.m. Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts, Westby. Book signing for Barns of Wisconsin, Horse Drawn Days, and Cranberry Red. (December 4 appearance canceled because of snow.)

December 16, 7:00 p.m. Stoughton Library. (Previous week’s program canceled because of weather).

January 6, 2011, 5:30 p.m. Lacrosse Library Friends dinner meeting.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Wish Book

It was truly a wish book. The days after Thanksgiving my brothers and I waited patiently for its arrival in our rural mailbox. The book was of course the Sears, Roebuck Christmas Catalog, first published in 1933.

There was no other book like for it, especially for farm kids who lived miles from a city and probably had never been in a department store. The wish book contained page after page of toys, everything from Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys to dolls, books, BB guns, and board games of every type.

My brothers and I took turns paging through the catalog, making our choices for Christmas presents. What we hoped Santa would bring. My mother said we could pick out one toy from the catalog, and one other practical thing such as a sweater, a pair of mittens, or maybe a winter cap with fancy ear flaps.

One Christmas I chose a book called FUN FOR BOYS, edited by William Allan Brooks. I must have gotten it in about 1944 and it still has an important place on my bookshelf. I remember how thrilled I was on Christmas morning to tear open the package with my special book and read through its Table of Contents: “The Secrets of Cartooning,” “How to Identify Aircraft,” (German, Japanese and U.S. as we were in the midst of World War II), “Building Model Planes,” “How to Train Your Dog,” “How to Handle a Rope Like a Cowboy,” “Building a Powerful Physique,” and “The Fundamentals of Jiu-Jitsu” (As taught to marines, soldiers and G-Men).

The final chapter included eight pages of recommended books for boys beginning with THE DEERSLAYER by James Fennimore Cooper, including A SON OF THE MIDDLE BORDER by Hamlin Garland (a Wisconsin author), THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN both by Mark Twain, ADVENTURES OF BUFFALO BILL by William F. Cody, EARLY MOON by Carl Sandburg and many more.

I spent many hours poring over this special book—I still find it interesting today, more than 66 years later.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: The best thing you can do when it’s snowing is to let it snow.

CHECK THIS OUT: Listen to an online interview about my new novel, CRANBERRY RED. Go to:

WUWM: Lake Effect - Cranberry Red


December 9, 7:00 p.m. Stoughton Library.

December 11, 10 to 2:00 p.m. Fireside Books, West Bend.

December 13, 11:00 to 2:00 p.m. Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts, Westby. Book signing for Barns of Wisconsin, Horse Drawn Days, and Cranberry Red. (December 4 appearance canceled because of snow)