Tuesday, June 14, 2011


We spent the winter after our marriage in New Mexico. It was for work but it felt like adventure. Everything was new.

We learned about Hatch chilies for one thing. It maybe sounds a small thing but it signifies that we were exposed to a whole different culture. The Southwest desert was compelling, colorful and infinitely interesting in every way to this couple with deep Midwest roots.

We came back in the spring to a new location. Al's career moved him around and this was one of those times.

There weren't many rental options in the small town. There were few apartments. Houses were out of the question. A young couple then didn't dream of owning a home right off.

"Better than nothing," we said, renting a trailer home to make do while the rental search continued.

The first summer was a wild season with many tornado warnings. I was uneasy in the trailer. Tornado sirens sounded frequently. There wasn't a nearby shelter to head for.

Rain made a heavy drumbeat on the trailer roof. It sounded eerily like hail. Even the gentlest of rains could sound ominous on that roof. We would think we had a gullywasher only to find it had been hardly more than showers.

Fishing, boating and work friends saved us from a none too sterling start. A trailer court wasn't our idea of a first home. The locals we met weren't especially friendly. I missed the shopping and interests of bigger places.

Early in the spring we used the lengthening daylight to fish from shore in the evening. Many came to try for pan fish at this popular spot where the river, which flowed through town, formed a lake.

Al enjoyed getting in a few practice casts before the fish opener. The fish opener was always in May. It coincided with Mother's Day weekend. Until then it was illegal to catch the game fish - walleye, muskie, pike - for which Minnesota is known.

Although I didn't fish from shore I enjoyed the mild sun, the river, keeping Al company and being with others also enjoying the start to spring.

After the fish opener we had the boat in use all summer long. We were fortunate in living in lake country. There were several great area lakes from which to choose.

One of the lakes we particularly liked had June roses growing on the gravel road to the boat ramp. The lake had a reedy shoreline. There was great serenity to the lake which made it different from some of the others, such as the lake closer to town that was our swimming beach.

In this town, and the next places we lived, I came to know some very special elderly women. Meeting senior mentors was one of the rewards of our mobile career life.

Being in a cramped trailer (it measured 10 x 55 feet), we spent as little time in it as possible. We couldn't always be fishing. Al missed a place to put in a garden.

There was no Craigslist for launching a query about garden rental. I imagine we found our garden via a bulletin board at the local store or through some small printed sign noticed when driving by.

This is how we were led to Isabelle. She had garden space for us on her property. She was in her seventies or eighties. She was a widow. She wore her white hair in a bun atop her head as her generation did then.

She was born in Scotland. She came to this country as a war bride. I suppose it was the first world war although I didn't think to ask.

We found we went to the same church, a nice bit of common ground when you trade information as you break the ice.

From our experience of being new in town, feeling measured up by some of the locals, I wondered how she was received all those years ago when she came here so young and full of love.

People in small towns know the same families over several generations. Someone new can be considered a calculated risk.

When you know practically everyone you can't help but notice the faces you don't know. The unknowns are curiosities. It's part of the way of a small town to watch and puzzle newcomers out until they're a proven pattern or they show they can fit in.

I wondered if Isabelle had difficulty in settling in. The handsome soldier in uniform - who did he become when he came home? Did she ever sigh inwardly at how romance can sweep you off your feet to put you in a totally foreign place where you then spend the rest of your life?

Did the strangeness of life in America recede over time as she got busy in her church, raised her children and brought zucchini and garden mums to her neighbors? Or, after awhile, did the pride of being different take precedence over the desire to blend in and be conventional?

The Bridges of Madison County hadn't yet come along to address or at least suggest answers to these questions. My experience was limited enough at the time to not think much about it.

It did dawn that there must have been some bravery on Isabelle's part to make life work here. Certainly gardening was one of the tools she used to make it home.

One thing Isabelle said registered with me. She said she hated to listen to the news. Whether on the radio or TV the news upset her. "The news is all so bad," she said. "I don't want to hear it anymore."

"That’s the world, you have to take it as it is” I said to myself, thinking that here was a narrow view. "You can't close yourself off from the world" is what I almost told her.

There was a strong wish to counter her comment. Her sweeping indictment against the news sounded unfair to me. There's something to be said about paying attention to someone without blurting out your mind's words. If I said anything I picked the words a little more carefully.

These days, when the world appears to be in crisis with every new headline, I think of Isabelle.

I can imagine saying to her, if we were to stand again in the garden where I've come to pick our Swiss chard or carrots or tomatoes, “I’m with you, girl. I don’t like listening to the news either. It's gotten so bad.”

Today at the store the newspaper grabbed on the way to the cash register was the first item rung up by the young cashier.

He was friendly. He made some comment about the news I'd find inside the paper. Without giving much thought to it I found myself practically echoing Isabelle.

"There's no good news in there," I said. "We have to make our own good news because it's sure not going to be found in there."

"The Twins won," he ventured. I laughed, inwardly pleased that here was someone who aimed to see the glass half full.

"And we have two Minnesotans running for president," he added, pressing his advantage on the good news theme.

"Of course, that can be good news or bad news depending on whether they're your candidates," he clarified, an example of Minnesota nice if ever there was one (sounding impartial may be dull but it can save a lot of ruffled feelings or worse).

"But they're Minnesotans," he emphasized, as if that was all the good news you needed in one day.

It was a pleasure to hear this young man talk up the tenor of the news. Habit had let me speak with disenchantment of it. He had the young person's optimism to see it in a different light.

The few remarks with the cashier left me trying to recall that visit with Isabelle, the visit of the "bad news."

I trust I did for her what this pleasant cashier did for me. He bolstered my attitude and readjusted my day.

As she lamented the state of the world I can only hope I came with a response as helpful and pleasant as his. There was a need for comfort, I believe this now, in the view she shared with me.

Ro Giencke - June 14, 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer Things

It's nice to be back to summer things. Summer is when I best like to read. I like to read outside. This year again a stack of books and magazines has been gathered for just such reading leisure.

Tuesday's 103 degrees, which made us the hot spot of the nation, and beat Death Valley that day by six degrees, wasn't a good time to be out reading. Same could be said of today, some forty degrees cooler and considerably windy.

Yesterday was busy with the errands that can fill a day. I got outside finally last night to weed around the mailbox.

The mild air and low sun were pleasant. You think of all the time in the winter you're inside because of the cold or the darkness by suppertime.

It's joy to be outside, even on hands and knees, as you reach to pull quack grass that threatens to overrun your hostas.

The white lilacs are fragrant as they grow haphazardly in the shade. Insufficient sunlight may be the reason for their small blooms. Or perhaps they're a species content to stay more petite. They put their effort into lavishing us with intense scent.

I picked a bouquet of these white lilacs for our table. I brought in some irises too. Irises were picked from the garden for my brother's wedding many years ago.

I brought the irises into the house tonight forgetting (at the time) that it was their anniversary. Irises to me will always be their flower. What we choose as background and setting for the I Dos we say indeed do become lasting symbols of our vows to committed love.

It was a late season for lilacs. Even with the slow start they're almost done blooming. Or enough so to say the lilac show is over. Some hang on as if wanting to see what comes after. It's the peonies with their claim to early June.

Their flamboyant colors collect fans as devoted as those to roses. Visit the peony walk at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum when the peonies are in bloom and you understand the draw.

My new favorite flower at the Arboretum are the coral bells. They're very pretty. I like their tall spiky cheerful note of color. Where they edge the pathways they were what I noticed first.

Azaleas in corals and pinks are bright patches in the Arboretum woods. The late-summer flowers, replacing the tulips in their yellow, red and orange color arrangements, were being put in while we were there.

It was beautiful in the Arboretum as always. It's been interesting to follow the progression of growth and change from early this spring.

All things have their time and season. This must have been a thought worked out in some garden. The truth in this gives each of us chances to pause in the moment and enjoy as we take it all in.

Every trip to the Arboretum I learn some new plant, or what I've come to know is reinforced. It's a good feeling to know you can learn in small ways.

Minnehaha Falls in south Minneapolis was as tumultuous this weekend as we've ever seen it. The fellow next to us, learning over the balustrade as we were, to better see the spectacle of the falls, mentioned that his parents met in Minnehaha Park in the 1920s.

He pointed to the grassy upstream bank of Minnehaha Creek. That's where they met he said.

His dad was a soldier. His mom had been told by her parents not to speak to soldiers. Maybe she didn't speak to him. Maybe she only smiled. But the rest of the story speaks for itself. I enjoyed hearing about this.

Every couple has special stories that go on.

Ro Giencke - June 9, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Hjemkomst - One Man's Dream

It was through friends that we learned about Kathryn, North Dakota. Once visited we were ready to see it again.

The first trip was made on the strength of photos this active couple showed us of the little white Lutheran Church and the beautiful surrounding bluffs of the Sheyenne River Valley. The twisting roads through a quiet and timeless land of hills and vistas make this scenic stretch a real getaway.

We spent the next day in Fargo. We intended to do some sightseeing. The sunshine which made the drive along the Sheyenne River the day before so pleasant was gone. Rain started the day and it never let up or not by much.

Between rain and wind it wasn't going to suited for outside activities. We needed to pick our choices carefully. The more time inside at our places of interest the better.

Don't ever underestimate word of mouth to make something known. As with Kathryn, the visit to the Hjemkomst Center was a direct result of another recommendation. A friend had been there, enjoyed it and happened to mention it as we visited.

The Hjemkomst Center is on the Moorhead side of the Red River. That puts it in Minnesota. In this flat agricultural valley of the Red River, prone to flooding, recent springs have been tense. Residents on both sides of the swollen Red swing into action preparing millions of sandbags to save their towns in what has become their annual rite of spring.

They were spared this year because weeks of chilly temperatures allowed snowpack to melt gradually. During the time we spent in this metropolitan area along the Red we thought about what it takes to live where you're up against nature year after year.

As we drove the leafy residential streets of Fargo, admiring blocks of venerable architecture, we sometimes caught glimpses of two white peaks cresting the treetops on the northeast horizon. The white double peaks stood out in luminous comparison to the drab grayness of the day.

More than once, as they came into view, they reminded me of the outline of the Brooklyn Bridge. Did they build a bridge here that duplicates the Brooklyn Bridge I asked myself, even as I knew I was seeing the waterproof canvas that protects the full-scale Viking ship we were headed to see.
The Hjemkomst, which is its name, has become a Moorhead drawing card.

The high tent-like cover indeed gives a sense of a bridge floating high above the city or even the mast of a ship sailing the prairie. The imagery to the landscape that his ship gives would have tickled Robert Asp.

Robert Asp was the man who built the Viking replica ship the Hjemkomst. He was the one with a dream. A Moorhead teacher and guidance counselor, he came up with the idea forty years ago to construct by hand the ship of his Norse forefathers.

From its beginnings the Hjemkomst was a labor of love. Oak trees from along the Red River were carefully selected. An old potato warehouse in nearby Hawley was found as a place to put the ship together. The warehouse became known as the Hawley shipyards.

The local potato and sugar beet farmers, many of them descendants of Norwegian immigrants as was Robert Asp , as well as many other supporters in the Fargo-Moorhead area, took pride and interest in the work underway.

In that sea of grass, and those chessboard-flat fields of the Red River Valley, it wasn't difficult to believe that a ship could rise from Robert Asp's dreams and sail away.

Robert Asp was diagnosed with leukemia at the onset of construction. it didn't deter his dreams or distract from progress on the construction of the ship. His family and friends entered the dream with him.

It was christened the Hjemkomst, which means Homecoming, upon completion. Now it was ready for its sea test.

TV coverage recorded the momentous journey as the Hjemkomst was transported to Duluth. The ship was launched in Duluth harbor. It was an exhilerating maiden voyage on Lake Superior for Asp and his crew. For the ailing Asp, the honorary captain, it was his shining hour.

The builder of the Hjemkomst died four months later. He had worked nine years on the project. To fulfill his dream to sail it to Norway the project took on an even more earnest tone. Family, friends and the community rallied to fulfill his dream.

New vision and the help of experienced Norwegian sailors steered the way. Eric Rudstrom, one of two Norwegians added to the crew, was named skipper. In May 1982 the Hjemkomst crew felt sufficiently trained to make the Atlantic sailing to Norway. It was time to let the Hjemkomst return to the land of Asp's heritage.

The ship left Duluth in May 1982. There was a 28-day voyage across the Great Lakes. Cheering crowds and welcoming dignitaries met the ship at stops at Detroit and Rochester, New York. At Albany, New York, the Hjemkomst sailed down the Hudson River to New York City.

There was no turning back now (except for one crew member who, realizing the dangers in the Atlantic undertaking, chose to leave after they arrived in New York).

Three days out to sea a terrific storm had the crew scrambling. The ship, sturdily built as it was, was pitched heavily about by gales and waves. The crew had another thirty days at sea before the ship came into Bergen harbor, arriving on a Saturday in the middle of July.

The smell of land greeting them, while still not within sight of land, raised their spirits tremendously. They had done it. They had sailed the Hjemkomst across the Atlantic back to Norway.

At the Hjemkomst Center we joined the tour group a minute or two late. We were, as my dad would say, the cow's tail to the little bunch being shepherded around by a volunteer. He was taking the group to
the replica Norwegian stave church, also part of the Hjemkomst Center, when we caught up with them.

The stave church, built in the late 1990s, is a replica of a basilica church from southern Norway from the 1100s (by which time the Catholic religion prevailed in the land of the Vikings).
The smell of the wood and the sturdy construction makes you think of the endurance of things - of faith for one thing, but of all the things in life we put our hopes in, and our hands to, as important to us.

At the end of the tour Al and I went back to see the short video on the Hjemkomst which is shown. Late for the tour we had missed the earlier film showing. But first we simply walked around the ship, as did others. We gazed high into the mast with the tent above it between ship and open sky.

You can't help but be in awe of the spirit of the Vikings and the spirit of the man, Robert Asp, who had a dream.

One of the volunteers pointed out the dragon head which was a feature of Viking ships. The sea monster, or dragon head, at the front of the ship (there's a nautical term for the front and I think it's prow) literally put the fear of the Lord into the populaces that the Vikings raided when their ships sailed their coasts.

"A little boy, here on a field trip, asked why the dragon's ear is missing," the volunteer said. My eye went to the missing ear. I hadn't noticed its absence before she called attention to it.

The young, with their alert curiosity, don't miss a trick. The schoolboy, pointing out the missing ear, made this volunteer realize it could be part of the education on the Hjemkomst. "The ear came off in the storm," she explained. "You'll see the storm in the movie."

As we filed into the theater room, and the movie was about to begin, she told us, "I've seen this five times and I still don't see it with dry eyes."

I could see what she means. You get misty-eyed. A dream achieved inevitably brings tears of happiness. Incredibly sad moments bring tears too. This little film has footage to cover both the high and low points but it's the high points, like the ship's high canvas tent seen over the treetops, that remain as the central message of the video.

Robert Asp was a man with a dream. He was fortunate enough to have ones who loved him who stepped into his dream to make it his. And theirs as well.

Ro Giencke - June 4, 2011