Russ Ringsak

Of Owls and The Moon

January 12, 2005

The deep cold is still with us up here. On Christmas Day it snowed big slow flakes, which floated down more than fell. They were about a foot apart and you could pick out individuals and track their flight. The lightest breath of breeze between the house and pines caused them to move sideways, sometimes even rising; they looked like parachutes. Hard to reconcile their peaceful and languid downward journeys with what it must have been like for the 101st Airborne at Normandy, but it still made you think of that. In spite of yourself.

They fell most of the day, so far apart that at the end of the drop there was still no layer on the ground. They landed and mostly vanished into the cover of yard grass. It was like a sparse rain falling on a desert and leaving no dampness.

We had a second strange fall on New Year’s Day, this time the flakes close together and purposeful, but not exactly snow. Too dry for sleet and too hard for snow, small pellets of crystal ice that built up to almost two inches, and when you walked on it you got the sensation of corn meal underfoot. It wouldn’t compact. It would move aside, making a noise both crunchy and slippery. Inside under the metal barn roof it was less noisy than rain; sounded more like fine dry sand blowing in.

The next morning all footprints from the day before were cast where they should have been, including those of three deer and the neighbor’s cat — I had wondered if that sneaky old bastard was still around — but the snow was solid like plaster. Looked and felt like the landscape had been troweled over. It had an asphalt surface texture, not in the least slippery, and it was about as hard. You couldn’t leave a footprint there if you were Shaquille O’Neal. It was white, looked smooth like any other snow, but it just wasn’t accepting any new footprints. It's still exactly the same now, a week later, because it has been unremittingly wicked cold ever since. And this could be all the snow we’re going to get this winter, the way things have been going, so it’s a good thing it’s hanging on.

None of this is waa-waa-waa. It’s not bad weather. It’s not a problem. It’s just interesting. A person shouldn’t use a word like ‘wicked’ about it.

***

I used the time to read three books, each of them a jewel: Eats, Shoots and Leaves; a Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynn Truss; Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond; and The Birth of Plenty, by William Goldstein. All are well researched and highly entertaining, and the third one should flatly be required reading for everybody. It opens a whole new vista onto the world as it now sits.

***

It was an easy trip up to Duluth, once the rental truck got fixed. They were busy in the shop there and didn’t notice that the previous driver had ripped the seven-pin electrical line right off the tractor, and then hung it on the rack in a way that the damage wasn’t obvious. They had probably driven away from a trailer and forgotten to disconnect that line, and then were too shy to tell the mechanics.

A marvelous place, Duluth. The most underrated city in the nation. Burly, dramatic, historic, funky and even artsy, if you wish. Incredible museums here. It’s the world’s largest and farthest inland seaport; with the end of the shipping season soon upon them, ore boats were gliding in and out through the harbor channel like kids at a drive-in on Saturday night. (Do kids still do that?) The fabulous old lift bridge was rising majestically and falling ponderously all day and night, answering the calls. Twelve to fifteen of the big fellows, lying up in this harbor for the winter. The locks over at Sault St. Marie, on the eastern end of Lake Superior, are supposed to reopen on the 25th of March. And ‘big fellows’ is an understatement; some of the boats can carry 70,000 tons. That’s 140,000,000 pounds, or 2,500 tractor-trailer loads.

Steep hills, deep water, a lake you can’t see across, gigantic old locomotives, trestles a hundred feet in the air, hard winters; it’s a city at a larger scale than your ordinary city. Every time you go there you think you might move there someday. Not everyone thinks that, but a lot of us do.

They have a music station at the college here that plays more and better blues than anybody in the country, and a big bluesfest here in the summertime. Enough right there to make a person like myself want to move there. There’s also a four-mile boardwalk nature trail along the lakeshore that leads you out to a place where right now a lot of Great Gray Owls are hanging out; owls as big as coyotes, and even more fun to watch. Owls coming down from Canada, where they have apparently cleaned the place out of country rodents; or possibly to get away from Mad Rabbit disease, who knows. There are hundreds, they say, between Duluth and Two Harbors. These owls will drive a black bear off. They can hear a mouse move under a foot of snow. They sit low in small trees and wait and then dive right in. You can walk within fifty feet of them. They have heads the size of volleyballs and big yellow eyes, and they seem to be all business. These owls rock.

***

We did the show and I drove back Saturday night, and the next day, last Sunday, I was in a two-car suburban garage with about ten others of my ilk. There was crockpot venison and spicy seafood gumbo on the workbench, salsa and chips and a little whiskey on a side table. Beer in a cooler. A television. We were all longtime Vikings observers and about half were actual ticket-buying fans. Unlike the national media, none of us were obsessed with Randy Moss.

It’s known around the division that Packers fans line up and moon the opponents’ bus when it leaves the stadium after a game; not moon charades but actual full, bare moons, no matter how cold it is. So when Randy did his quaint little pantomime moon after scoring his second touchdown some of us laughed and others said things like, “C’mon Randy, enough already,” and “The guy never lets up, does he? It’s always somethin.'” One said, “I’m all for it. Those goons have it coming.” I had the feeling the pro-and-con split in the room was fairly even, but it was not a big deal and was quickly forgotten. We were more concerned about whether the Vikes could keep the 14-point lead for another ten minutes, given Brett Favre’s history of comebacks.

But when the wise old seasoned football analysts — Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmie Johnson — all went ballistic about the indignity of it shortly thereafter, and about the desecration of the sanctified game of football, flopping around all excited, acting like Muppets or Sesame Street characters in full panic — Yackety yackety, Omygosh, how utterly awful, O how can we let innocent people view such vulgarity, What a disgrace to his team, The league has got to put a stop to this, What a black eye for the NFL, He just does not get it, He’s never gotten it, He never will get it — arms waving around in their stylish custom-made suits, their tasteful neckties flying like silks in a storm, all of them a-twitter in their moral outrage, each trying to out-platitude the other; well of course the garage was quickly galvanized into one mind and we were all hollering names at them: Stuff it, you jackasses! You morons! Hypocrites! Give us a break, you sorry bunch of clowns! You sound like a bunch of old hens! Cackle cackle! Braaaak-braaaaak-braaaaak! GO MOSS!! YA RANDY!!!

The next day someone said to me, “Y’know, I guess it’s all about himself, but I’ve been in those stands and I’ve seen all the gross signs and the godawful language they use. And as far as I’m concerned, Randy expressed my sentiments perfectly. I want to think he did that for all of us.”

And from what I’ve heard, Green Bay fans are tame compared to the barbarism they’ll get next week in Philadelphia, where the eyes of the sporting nation will be on young Mr. Moss. Most of them will be fervently wishing for his comeuppance, no doubt. But not me. In the battle of naughty humor against the combined forces of drunken hooliganism and high-minded morality, I’m siding with our Vikings.

***

On the subject of forbidden giggles, one of the grandsons, eight years old, told his mom they were using code words for the bad words now, like saying “ship” for the S word and so forth. “And for the E word, we say even,” he said.

“The E word? What’s the E word?”

“C’mon. You know.”

“I thought I knew ‘em all, but I don’t know the E word.”

“Sure you do — I’ve heard you say it.”

“So what is it, then?”

“Mom. It’s effin.'”

***

The views of this trucker are not necessarily the official position of A Prairie Home Companion or of Minnesota Public Radio or of any of their affiliates or contributors. Please feel free to contact the author at R.Ringsak@visi.com.

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