Sunday, February 27, 2011 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
In 1978 women had been working at Iron Range mines for just a few years. The region hurtled out of a decade of relative prosperity after the great taconite experiment had proven wise. This was the year Lona Minne, a 35-year-old township clerk from Stuntz Township, was elected as the first woman to represent the Iron Range in the legislature.
Minne, now Lona Schreiber, is remarried and lives in Brooklyn Park. She spoke to me last weekend from her place south of Hibbing, the town that now includes Stuntz. She recalled her first election, a five-way DFL primary including incumbent Rep. John Spanish and current Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam), then a teacher at Hibbing High School, who has represented neighboring District 3A since 2006. Schreiber said her gender wasn’t an overt part of the campaign, at least not at first.
“I tried to downplay it,” said Schreiber. “There was a screening by some feminist groups and I don’t know that I scored all that highly. I couldn’t be radical. Once I was elected the [Equal Rights Amendment] was a big deal along with a number of other issues, such as comparable pay for comparable work. The librarian in Hibbing with a college degree was making less than the guy riding the garbage truck and it wasn’t fair.”
She said her early years in the legislature provided an unexpected opportunity to make a difference for women, particularly on equal pay, which she was proud to do. Being the first woman from the Range was a much bigger deal among metro lawmakers than it was on the Range, she said. Nevertheless, critics in town let her know that they thought this married mother should be home in Hibbing, not pursuing the grueling legislative schedule in St. Paul. Her first term included an even DFL/GOP split and six special sessions.
“I felt such guilt,” she said. “I would bake and cook for the kids all the time when I was home, but I could only do so much. It was very difficult to balance.”
The prosperity seen at the start of Schreiber’s term would soon end. Schreiber would serve throughout the 1980s, watching Butler Taconite close to the west of her District 5B and mines across the region shed thousands of jobs.
“I remember all the parents and others looking for work for family members,” she recalled. “That was upsetting.”
She said some opportunists would pitch expensive solutions to the Range’s economic problems, which usually delivered more profits for them than real jobs for Rangers.
“We would have to say, ‘the candyman is coming.’ We would have to be the gatekeepers on this,” she said.
Schreiber described how home values plummeted on the Iron Range through the decade. “A lot of folks found they owed more on their mortgages than the houses were worth on paper.” The similarities to the housing crisis in the recent economic drop were not lost on her.
“I think the Range has experienced economic booms and busts for so long that I don’t think there’s a resigned attitude when people lose jobs, rather a resilience and toughness that I don’t observe in the metro area,” said Schreiber. “My observation is that in this last bad slump the Range didn’t experience the same downturn. I think the Range has an inborn ability to weather some of these bad financial problems.
“I’m very optimistic about the Range,” she said. “I wish things were better, but if more of us former Rangers decide to move back we can help the economy.”
Rep. Carly Melin’s victory in this month’s special election to replace former Rep. and current IRRRB commissioner Tony Sertich hearkened some of Lona Minne’s 1978 win. Like Schreiber, Melin told me that her gender was a bigger point of discussion outside the Iron Range than it was here.
“Maybe there is still some sexism here but we’ve come a long way since Lona was in office, since [the Eveleth Mines case],” said Melin. “We’ve come far. Now we can show the metro area some of this progress.”
Lona Minne may have piloted a difficult path in 1978, an unknown journey of whispers and economic hardship. But thanks to her story Melin made only a small amount of history when she was sworn in last Tuesday. She became the first state representative sworn in at Hibbing City Hall and the second of what will become many female lawmakers from the heart of the Iron Range.
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”
I couldn't fit all of my conversations with Schreiber and Melin into a short column like mine, so here is some bonus content:.
In describing a recent tour of Hibbing Taconite with IRRRB and other House members, Melin sees some of the same encouraging signs as Schreiber.Other notes:
“It was good to see they’ve hired a lot of younger people, a lot of the drivers of the big Cats are women,” said Melin. “We’re going through tough economic times but hearing some of the numbers is good. There’s hope that things aren’t as bad as the 1980s and that things are getting better.”
Like most matters of sociology Iron Rangers talk about matters of gender politics and social progress in hastened terms, they way you’d describe a rash. For better or worse the Range demonstrates progress in its own time. Maybe the challenges of living and working here have always required more attention.
When asked, Schreiber said she only had one piece of advice for Melin as she starts her new job, and it has nothing to do with gender.
Answer all your constituent mail,” said Schreiber. “Don’t forget the folks at home. Always answer the letters and phone calls. That’s more important than almost anything else.”
- Schreiber said that her primary campaign didn't include much talk about gender but that some underground negativity emerged after she won the primary. Most of this came in the form of anonymous letters.
- Though there was no Republican running that year, Rep. Spanish ran a write-in campaign against Minne after losing badly in the primary.
- At one point Christian fundamentalists with the then-emerging "born again" movement organized a meeting to "testify" against Minne and pray for her defeat in 1978. The talk centered mostly on her being a mother who was not home with her kids.
- Melin said that gender politics in her 2011 race weren't much of a factor, nor have they been a big part of her life. "I come from a family where women have been making big decisions for generations."
Friday, February 25, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Some of the first deadlines for the contests are coming up soon. For instance, if you have a poem or a short story sitting around that you'd like to see published we genuinely want to see it. Especially from you, Mr. or Ms. Frustrated Professional Seeking Creative Outlet Who Reads This Blog! We always get lots of entries and they're all welcome, but we're really trying to encourage more from the Upper Midwest and Minnesota in particular. Good stories and poems always have a chance. Check out the rules. The deadline is Tuesday, March 1.
March 1 is also the deadline for our first ever Cover Art/Button Image contest. Artists and photographers from the seven-county region of northeastern Minnesota are invited to create the 2011 Dylan Days image for Bob Dylan's 70th birthday year. Find out more.
Friday, February 25, 2011 By Aaron Brown
For diehard fans, here's how I would have laid this out. We plant seeds, grow plants and eat some. Shoveling is hard. Some things don't grow. But it all has some larger meaning that correlates with something with which you would identify.
I'm back on the job next week.
Friday, February 25, 2011 By Aaron Brown
THANKS POLITICIANS for spending our money, burning our food and crushing our cars. West End Auto.
Oddly specific. Highly intriguing.
Thursday, February 24, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Oh, it's gonna need some legislation to go into effect, of course. I wonder if any Range lobbyists will be hired? Is that something that happens? I heard that somewhere. Anyway, if it's good for farriers it's good for the Range. That's what I always say.
By the by, this is the cleaner and more plausible of the two projects given IRRRB land last night. At least life isn't boring.
Thursday, February 24, 2011 By Aaron Brown
This week saw two important developments regarding Excelsior Energy, which had proposed building a coal gasification power plant on the Iron Range but has encountered numerous problems along the way, most of them existential.
Excelsior had received $9.5 million from the people of the Iron Range in 2001 and 2003, many millions more since from the state and federal governments, and sweetheart legislation mandating purchase of its proposed electricity. None of that has lead to anything but more proposals, including new ones this week. The company itself is a collection of current and former energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and other speculators. They have yet to produce a job, a kilowatt or a clear path toward doing either, but they lumber on, living off political patronage which seems to know no bounds.
The first development is legislative. Sen. David Tomassoni and others have authored a bipartisan bill (SF 417) further relaxing some of the language from an earlier Excelsior-friendly bill. Rep. David Dill and others are carrying a similar bipartisan bill (HR 618) in the House. Essentially, the changes would allow Excelsior to build a cheaper natural gas power plant and still be considered "innovative" and, thus, deserving of all the favored status it has received thus far and is due to receive into the future.
The second development, tangentially related, is that the IRRRB in its first meeting of the year authorized the transfer of Hibbing land next to the Kitzville location to Excelsior for one of its three proposed Range plant sites (the primary site has been near Taconite in Itasca County, its secondary sit was considered Hoyt Lakes). At the meeting company officials declared that they'd like to build at least two natural gas plants at two of these three sites and convert to clean coal when costs would allow. Each plant would produce 600 mW of power, 1,200 in total. That's a substantial amount of electricity. No customer is yet identified. The costs of "clean coal" will be prohibitive for a decade at least, if not forever.
Almost eight years ago the state legislature gave Excelsior its life breath by mandating that Xcel Energy purchase energy from an "innovative energy project" that would use "clean coal" to be located on the Iron Range. This was put through after Excelsior had proposed the Mesaba Energy Project, a clean coal initiative, using loans from the people of the Iron Range to draw up the legislation and the most expensive colorful drawings you can imagine. After a patrol of Excelsior lobbyists flooded the chambers of the House and Senate in one year the bill passed and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it.
What this new bill would do is allow Excelsior to retain its power of eminent domain at any of these sites, without a certificate of need and with its preferential treatment in energy negotiations. This even though natural gas is, by most standards, a fairly traditional method of producing electricity.
In other words, if the company manages to use its highly prized federal loan credits as leverage to partner with an existing company, the people of the Iron Range would have essentially built a significant portion of the project without retaining any ownership. Ideally, the IRRRB loans would be paid back, but only if the rosiest of scenarios were to befall Excelsior, probably involving a buy-out. Half the time loans like that are forgiven, regardless of the amount. If anything goes wrong, and that is the statistical likelihood, the company will declare bankruptcy after drawing down millions from the people. Yes, there might be jobs ... maybe, probably not ... but if so they will have been created at astronomical cost-per-job. It would have been better to drop the money from a plane flying along the iron formation.
The architect of this project's legislative goals is Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm). Without Tomassoni this project might not have received the original IRRRB loans, certainly could not have passed the legislation in 2004 and 2005, and wouldn't even be in consideration now. He's twisted the arms of state officials and his Iron Range legislative colleagues. This project appears to have been Tomassoni's legislative priority for almost a decade. His continued deference to the whims of one single private developer is damning political behavior that I cannot abide, nor should his constituents. Several others have helped, most notably Sens. Tom Bakk and Tom Saxhaug. Rep. Dill has carried the most water in the House, but he had help or at least non-intervention from others as well. Only my friend Rep. Tom Anzelc has raised public opposition and questions (full disclosure: I run his campaigns and, yes, that's partly why). Former lawmakers and lobbyists continue working backstage to prop this thing up. All of this must end for us to move on to more fruitful endeavors.
You have to understand that this project only exists because some were too polite, ignorant or misinformed at the beginning to ask questions. As a 21-year-old reporter I didn't understand it myself. Once it was underway no one knew how to stop it. Now this company owes the people so much money no one knows what to do. I don't normally like to criticize unless I can offer an alternative. In this case I just don't know the right play. It would appear Commissioner Sertich at the IRRRB doesn't either. Stop giving them time and money is the best I've got, and it isn't enough.
With each passing year I develop more inner-peace. This project doesn't keep me up at night or cause me to go on spitting rants the way it once did. I don't take the wasted time and money as personally as I have in the past. But one aspect of this project is very personal to me and I'll share it with you.
Right now, in Taconite, in Coleraine, in Hibbing, in Nashwauk, in Hoyt Lakes and other places, there are good, hard working people who read the papers this morning and are hoping that this project saves their schools, preserving their towns as they know them for a new generation. They are hoping beyond hope, grasping for the only product Excelsior Energy makes in any quantity: promises.
At the same time I know there are professionals in the energy industry, others in the inner workings of the real power structure, a network that includes some on the Range and many beyond its borders. These people know in their hearts that this project is a ridiculous joke that will go nowhere. They know that Excelsior is an opportunistic speculation company, waiting for any reason to actually exist, with only a gambler's chance of delivering what it proposes.
The powerful are laughing at us. We are the joke. David Tomasoni is the guy who walks into a bar. Tom Saxhaug and Tom Bakk are the guys who walk in with him. The Range media is typing away to the tune of "Hey, Hey, the Gang's All Here." Most of the Iron Range DFL delegation and some in the Republican leadership in the House and Senate are spinning plates in the background. The failure of the Iron Range is the punchline.
I'm not laughing. It's not funny.
Thursday, February 24, 2011 By Aaron Brown
We used to make pasties as a fundraiser for my high school band. They'd have all the kids work overnight on a weekend making hundreds of them to fill orders. I guess we'd have to call those Cherry pasties now, not Cornish.
Pasties are a staple around northern Minnesota's Iron Range owing to the region's mining past. Many Cornish miners immigrated to U.S. mining regions in the late 1800s, bringing with them the tradition of the pasty. I could sure as hell go for a pasty right now. I wonder how many Weight Watchers points are in a pasty? Considering that you could probably heat a small cabin with a slow-burning pasty, I probably don't want to know.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011 By Aaron Brown
The green areas are places where high speed internet options are widely available. The less green you see, the fewer options and lower internet availability. You might know that I hype high speed internet as a potential economic development tool for northern Minnesota all the time. And while this map does account for the cable and DSL options available in regional cities like Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia, it also shows that for those like me who live on the outskirts of the cities or out into the township have few options for high speed internet. Neither, for that matter, does most of the West or Appalachia.
Why does this matter? Well, if you care why Chip Cravaack beat Jim Oberstar last November, it matters. If you care why the region's economy never seems to be especially good or particularly bad, it matters.
Paul Waldman at the American Prospect makes an interesting observation about this map.
You'll note the irony that at the moment, Democrats are working to get broadband to every area of the country, yet the places where there are lots of Democrats already have it. Republicans aren't favorably inclined, yet the places where there are lots of Republicans are drastically underserved. Welcome to American politics in the 21st century.No, the internet does not make you a Democrat. That's not the point. The point is that attitudes that drive support, both political and capital, of high speed internet seems to be related to some aspect of political orientation in our modern times. It's like looking at church attendance or gun ownership. Trendlines are clear, and it doesn't really seem to matter what's in anyone's economic or political interests; people vote the way that feels right for their attitude.
Let's talk about Range townships and towns again.
The townships are to the Range what the suburbs are to the Twin Cities. If you have a little bit of money and you want to raise a family someplace nice, you try to go to the country if you can. Frankly, that's what I'm doing. The towns have most of the population and many positives, but also have decaying housing stock and increasing financial problems. The population in the towns is plummeting; the population in the townships is skyrocketing. (Towns have lost roughly 40 percent since 1980, Townships have doubled or tripled). One could say, "stop that." But people aren't going to stop it without reason. In some ways, developing the townships as retirement, vacation and retreat "neighborhoods," could allow the cities to do what they need to do: rebuild and reinvent themselves in a new model, much the way a big city might after suburban flight. The cities need to be more appealing than the country to young families and right now that is not happening on the Iron Range.
Remember when I mentioned the Cravaack/Oberstar MN-8 Congressional race? The stunner where an unknown conservative Republican upset the powerful longtime incumbent Democrat? Look at MN-8 on this map. Look at WI-7 in northern Wisconsin, where Republican Sean Duffy took a similar longtime Democratic seat, or MI-1 in the U.P. where the GOP's Dan Benishek did the same. The lack of high speed internet didn't make these guys members of Congress, but the attitudes that has kept the whole Lake Superior region from breaking away from a natural resources-only/culturally-exclusive economic model are part and parcel.
This is not a cause and effect relationship, rather a trend to observe. The market for high speed internet in northern Minnesota may not be grandma and grandpa in their old mining house, but rather the grandsons and granddaughters that moved away, their spouses, their friends from other places. If this group moves back to the Range to live, work and create, they'll bring economic prosperity and diversification with them. If they stay away, then diversification is nothing more than a rhetorical fantasy.Whether or not they are Democrats or Republicans is immaterial, for this decade's purposes anyway.
It's increasingly obvious that no progress in this nation is possible until our two cultures start talking to one another. This will require them to both know how to use more than the "forward" button on their e-mail. They'll need Skype. And have you tried to Skype in the townships? Try it. You'll see.
(h/t Andrew Sullivan)
Wednesday, February 23, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Iron Range Radio Documentary Debuts on 91.7 FM
“Ranger in My Heart” Seeks the Region’s People, Past and Present
Community radio station 91.7 KAXE presents the debut of a new, hour-long audio documentary that tries to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an Iron Ranger?” Award-winning producer Milt Lee visits with young folks and old-timers, retired miners and rock musicians, born-and-bred Rangers and “packsackers” to seek the essence of this special and significant region.
Ranger in My Heart debuts Thurs., Feb. 24, at 8 a.m. with additional broadcasts Fri., Feb. 25 at 6 p.m., Sat., Feb. 26 at noon, and Sun., Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. KAXE is heard across the Range at 91.7 FM, in Bemidji at 105.3 FM, and in Brainerd at 89.9 FM. The program will also be streamed live and archived at the station’s website, www.kaxe.org.
Milt Lee is a radio and film producer who grew up in southeastern South Dakota. His wife, Jamie, grew up on the Iron Range. Like most husbands, Milt had always wondered what made Jamie tick. At the same time, KAXE’s parent organization Northern Community Radio was interested in a documentary project about the Iron Range. The convergence of these two interests is the inspiration for Ranger in My Heart.
Milt takes an outsider’s look at the history, people, natural environment, attitudes, and culture of the Iron Range. The documentary weaves together interviews, music and sounds gathered around the Range. His interviews include local history sources like Dan Bergan and Aaron Brown as well as prominent area musicians like Matt Ray, Rich Mattson, and Aurora Baer. A musician himself, Milt finds that he can interpret something about the soul of a people through the music they’re making.
Milt Lee has been producing documentaries for public radio since 1992. With his writer and wife, Jamie Lee, they have done over 70 long form documentaries. Winners of 6 Golden Reels, the Lees continue to explore the inner workings of grassroots people leading regular lives and discovering the true wealth of America.
KAXE’s parent organization, Northern Community Radio, builds community in northern Minnesota through radio programming, cultural events and interactive media. Ranger in My Heart is produced and broadcast with support from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, approved by the state’s voters in November 2008.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011 By Aaron Brown
News today also came down that House Speaker Kurt Zellers appointed Melin to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. State. Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker) stepped down to avoid conflict and to make room for the new Range legislator. This was a classy move by Howes. The IRRRB now consists of eight DFLers and five Republicans; still the closest divide in party affiliation on the board in recent memory. Melin's House 5B predecessor Tony Sertich is now the agency's commissioner.
Monday, February 21, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Carly Melin to Take Oath of Office for the Minnesota House of Representatives at Hibbing City Hall on Tuesday, February 22nd at NOON.To my knowledge this will be the first time a state representative is sworn in on Iron Range terra ferma. (Anyone else have a precedent on that?) I'm in favor of this. This is not just a smart political move by Melin, but an important piece of symbolism.
Hibbing- Carly Melin will be sworn into the Office of Minnesota House of Representatives this Tuesday, February 22nd. The swearing in ceremony will be at noon at the Hibbing City Hall in the Council Chambers. The oath of office will be administered by the Honorable Gary J. Pagliaccetti, who has served as an Iron Range District Court Judge for over 20 years.
Melin said: "I am honored to take my oath of office right here in Hibbing. While I could have been sworn in in St. Paul, I wanted to be surrounded by members of my district when I pledge to serve them with honor and dignity. When I take my oath, I will be surrounded by citizens of Chisholm, Hibbing, Floodwood, Meadowlands, and folks are far South as Fredenberg Township. When I go to St. Paul I will be representing the people of Northern Minnesota, and that's why it's important for me to be sworn into office in the Northland."
All members of the community are welcome and encouraged to attend. There will be cake and coffee following the swearing in.
In fact, all state representatives should be sworn on the Iron Range. One at a time. And before they are sworn in they should be made to wait in the basement of the Mountain Iron Public Library when they've turned down the heat to save money. And there should be an old woman down there praying in Croatian. The only words she speaks in English should be "dialysis" and "Lipitor." And also, yes, there should be cake and coffee.
Watch problems solve themselves after that.
Monday, February 21, 2011 By Aaron Brown
I do not know what this means. I only know that it is awesome.
Monday, February 21, 2011 By Aaron Brown
As I wrote last week, Almanac is the brass ring of Minnesota-based TV shows. My dad drove me to St. Paul and we waited in the green room, which is really just the TPT lunch room. I got antsy and talked my way into the studio early. Dad got to see the chortling class prepare for the panel discussion next to a giant "Dragon Tales" poster. I got to see the run-through.
After years of watching the show repeat a comfortable Friday night formula it was reassuring to watch the program operate much as you'd expect. Almanac is like wearing an old pair of slippers while walking down the hall where you hang the family pictures, each year's school photo hidden behind the new one. The people at Almanac were kind to me. Naturally there's the thrill and drama of live TV, but it all seemed pretty understated. Everyone seemed calm and experienced. Many mildly amusing things took place, and the people there seemed genuine in their mild amusement. I didn't hear any cuss words. I don't know why I thought I might.
Gov. Mark Dayton was on the show. He has to be the least assuming governor in the nation. He walked in with one young aide who waited by the door. Dayton shook hands with Cathy Wurzer and Eric Eskola and then sat off in the peanut gallery wearing what I assume was the same anxious expression I had before he was called to stage. I always think of Dayton as the kind of guy who could dig a tunnel with a spoon over a 30 year span. Then one day he's gone and people realize, holy crap, he was digging a tunnel with a spoon this whole time. I mean this as a compliment.
My segment went alright for the time we had. Like my recent MPR interview, also with Cathy Wurzer, it's hard to cover a broad topic in five minutes but I crowbarred a couple moderately amusing/thoughtful tidbits into the conversation. I also unflinchingly stated that my next book will be a novel. Ooooo. Had to go there. I've been turning over two different stories in my head for a couple years now. It's time to go back down to the fiction mines.
Meantime, the family and I had an excellent visit with my dad and stepmom in South St. Paul. It was the boys' first visit to the Twin Cities and they were impressed with the sites and traffic of the city. We drove in through St. Paul. The gang was mostly speechless as we crossed into the city. An evening of spoilage at grandpa and grandma's place took place. The next day we went to a place called Adventure Peak at Edinborough Park in Edina. It's an indoor .... well, park I guess, but that doesn't do it justice. It's a climbing, sliding, bouncing, tunneling, ball-throwing, cart-riding, seething mass of humanity and humanity's parents. It's run by the city of Edina. There is no outside signage; like an exclusive night club you know about it because you know about it.
I could say something about how unfair it is that Edina's tax base can provide this service to its children while schools and towns on the Range must scrape to provide basic education and library services to its children. I could, but the slides were cool and it's best not to involve the kids in grownup disputes. You know what I'm saying.
Back to Adventure Peak. Our country-raised boys were overwhelmed. The several hundred kids in this thing didn't care if you were a grown up, a kid or a punching bag. It was all the same to them. If you were slower they climbed over you. If you stopped they pushed you to the side. We had met up with some friends and relatives to go there, so there were seven adults watching our three boys and baby niece and we still couldn't keep track of them.
At one point we lost Doug, who is 3, for a few minutes. Turns out he was trapped in the tree climb, pinned down by the successive stomping of a thousand little shoes clambering over him. Using his own guile he managed to escape into a tunnel, weeping. We spotted him that way from the ground. I actually had to enlist the aid of a suburban mom guide to rescue him. It was like Apocalypse Now. By the time we got to Doug he had learned the ways of the tunnels and could spirit through them quickly like the Viet Cong. By the time we left the boys had the look of battle hardened soldiers who would never be able to work a desk job. To a man, they all said they wanted to come back some day.
On the way home we drove north through Minneapolis but the Doug and George were asleep before they could see the really big skyscrapers. Henry nodded off as soon as they were in the rear view mirror.
Sunday, February 20, 2011 By Aaron Brown
When a mining town disappears
By Aaron J. Brown
When you think of a website you don’t imagine permanence. You imagine something fleeting, changing, soon to be buried by the past. My first website was on the old GeoCities network, which Yahoo closed down just a couple years ago. I remember reading the Jesse Ventura for Governor website in 1998 at college in Iowa, the message boards raw with a heretofore unimaginable energy of online youth and passion. A few years later that website was gone, wiped clean. All that remains of Gov. Ventura now is the official record, AP stories and a faint notion that something odd happened back then. Not even a decade has passed.
This week I saw a website that might challenge your assumptions about the medium. Its artistic subject winks at the very nature of permanence, for it is a website about a mining town that closed with its mine.
The Canadian Film Board recently released a web project called “Welcome to Pine Point” (http://pinepoint.nfb.ca) by the Goggles, a Vancouver creative team consisting of Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons. They present what is essentially a documentary in an interactive web format, told from the point of view of Simons who as a youth hockey player once visited Pine Point in the Northwest Territories.
The city was meticulously planned as a modern center for family life when it was plopped next to a zinc mine in the late 1960s. By the late 1980s after a full generation of human life the mine closed and the residents of Pine Point in the Northwest Territory scrubbed their small city from the face of the earth.
Though “Welcome to Pine Point” should be viewed on its own merits, a few specific ideas from the film reminded me of issues here on the Iron Range, a mining region luckier in fate and location.
The people of Pine Point and the government of Canada recognized that with no mine and no employment, leaving a city there was only a recipe for crime and social problems. They willingly abandoned their town even though doing so broke their hearts. Pine Point now exists as a fond memory, forever remembered at its best moments. As the authors state, no one had to watch the downtown become replaced with fast food restaurants, or the school shrink into irrelevance over a period of years.
One thing about watching the Iron Range go through its ups and downs is that because we’ve never died, and because some semblance of a future always remains, we are unable to walk away in the same way. The collision between our nostalgia and our problems creates great friction, slowing our progress.
The experience of creating, then destroying a town in just one generation also provided another unexpected gift, almost photographic memory of the town’s past by its former residents. One man, racked by illness in middle age, dedicates his life documenting the existence of Pine Point for its former citizens on a simple website. It was this website and its contents that inspired The Goggles to create the resulting project. Looking at the pictures of people displaying their fresh caught fish and adult beverages, sporting sideburns and thick red moustaches, big ‘80s hair and hard hats from the mine, you can’t help but recognize an element of our past, too. There, by the grace of God, we go too.
It’s perhaps fitting that this extraordinary online project is best viewed on a high speed internet connection. Northern Minnesota struggles not only with internet speeds, especially in rural areas, but corresponding internet usage and economic integration. “Welcome to Pine Point” is a cautionary tale, not because it is a story of an abandoned mining town, but because this version of the story is very difficult for most people in our mining region to see in the first place.
Nevertheless, you should check out this extraordinary project, yes for the incredible storytelling, but also for the reminder that nostalgia is a powerful force.
Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”
Below is the trailer for "Welcome to Pine Point."
Friday, February 18, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Tomorrow morning you can catch my weekly essay on "Between You and Me" on 91.7 KAXE. This is the annual "hot stove league" show, sports talk (primarily baseball) in the dead of winter, hosted by Scott Hall and Fred Friedman. I'll be using the occasion to further brag about my fantasy football championship this year in the form of a commentary on our modern times.
You can catch "Between You and Me" Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon on 91.7 FM in northern Minnesota or streaming live online all over the world at www.kaxe.org. If you haven't yet, be sure to pledge whatever you can to KAXE's spring fundraiser. KAXE is a vital independent public media source in northern Minnesota and a big part of my writing platform. If you read this blog, please support KAXE.
Thursday, February 17, 2011 By Aaron Brown
For a Minnesota regional author, Almanac is the regional Ed Sullivan show, the regional big leagues, the regional Broadway. In short, this could be my big regional break. If this goes well my region increases. River Falls, Wisconsin, I'll be coming for you next. Madison. Fargo. Sioux Falls. In my most indulgent moments thought-dreams turn to Omaha and Des Moines. I hope you'll tune in.
The trip leaves me anxious for other reasons. As part of the occasion my wife Christina and I will be taking our three boys on their first journey to the Twin Cities to visit my dad and stepmom in South St. Paul. Henry, 5, Doug and George, both 3, have never been farther away than Duluth, which as far as they know is the largest city in the world.
When I told Henry, 5, that we'd be going to a big city, his response was, "Big like Grand Rapids or Hibbing?"
"Bigger," I said.
"Does it have a water tower?"
Our boys are rowdy and tend not to travel well, so this will be a challenge. But I just can't wait to see their faces in the rear view mirror when we hit the six lane by Forest Lake, watching the buildings grow taller than anything they've ever seen.
On Friday I pilot our minivan into the new world.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 By Aaron Brown
I spoke with Rep.-elect Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) this morning on her way to St. Paul. She'll spend the rest of this week setting up her new office and learning her committee assignments. She confirmed that she'll be in the office triplex with Reps. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) and Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam) sharing the services of one legislative aide, an administrative professional who will more than earn her pay this session.
Melin said she believes she'll be sworn in on Monday before next week's business, walking onto the House floor as a member for the first time Tuesday. Today she told Politics in Minnesota she'll be seeking seats on the Capital Investment and Jobs and Economic Development committees.
Meantime, feast your eyes. The House 5B Special Election graphic I hastily assembled a month ago (above right) is hereby retired. To answer your question: Yes, that is an eagle wearing a hard hat holding a lunch box that reads "MN House 5B." And this is how journalism is going to be for a couple decades. You're welcome and I'm sorry.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Melin defeated Republican Paul Jacobson, a Hibbing juvenile counselor and minister, with 60 percent of the vote. Jacobson carried more than 35 percent. Independence Party candidate Cynthia Kafut-Hagen, a former DFLer with a fairly progressive platform, carried about 4 percent.
Melin replaces former Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm), who resigned last month to become commissioner of Iron Range Resources. Sertich had been House Majority Leader until the DFL lost the House last November. Melin had interned for Sertich before passing the bar last year. She becomes just the second woman elected from the taconite-producing Iron Range since the first, Rep. Lona Minne in the 1980s. She joins Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River) as the second woman in the legally-defined Iron Range delegation.
Rep.-elect Melin (DFL-Hibbing) will be sworn in at the legislature this week, joining a contentious session after Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal this morning. She'll likely take Sertich's former office next to Reps. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) and Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township), two full blooded Iron Rangers of the Perpich era.
District 5B, a traditional DFL bastion including Hibbing, Chisholm and the bog townships between there and Duluth, normally doesn't draw this much attention. For the first time in the modern era, however, the state GOP spent a yet undetermined amount of money on a barrage of district-wide mailers attacking a DFL candidate on the Range. I would venture that, between this outside Republican money and what Melin raised in response, this campaign will end up costing $60,000 or more, a huge figure for Range elections.
So what are the lessons? In no particular order:
- Melin is a
goodgreat candidate. She was accused of residency problems, that she was a puppet of old DFL powers, that she wasn't well known enough to beat known candidates. My knowledge of her prior to this campaign came from the fact that I used to work with her dad. I wasn't sure what to think either. But over the course of this short but very intense campaign I saw Carly not only call the shots on her campaign, but process the vast amount of "free advice" that gets dumped into campaigns like this into a working strategy and consistent message. She worked hard. She demonstrated knowledge and poise. She'll have to demonstrate that she can work independently of other Range legislators as well as she works with them, but I suspect she will.
- Campaign organization remains key. The Melin campaign, led by Iron Range political fireballer Jason Metsa, had a great plan, focused on direct mail and voter ID. It was this approach that probably allowed them to keep DFLers and D-leaning independents from jumping ship or staying home amid the negative ad blitz.
- The Iron Range is becoming less of a DFL fortress. The days of 80 percent wins for Range lawmakers are probably gone. High 50s and mid 60s are now more likely.
- Nevertheless, the Range remains a strong DFL area. Republicans will be able to play here in some local elections and choice legislative races but the DFL, especially when they run good candidates, will continue to have advantages here for some time.
- Retirements and new lines in 2012 could bring enormous changes to local leadership. Melin will be well positioned to become the next generation leader of the Range delegation. She's now modeled a winning strategy for other young progressives in the region and she'll be an integral part of this region's political structure into the near future.
On that note, Jacobson and Kafut-Hagen deserve acknowledgment for the races they ran, too. Jacobson, who was a better candidate than even his own party might have given him credit, was a gentleman during the campaign even if he didn't renounce the worst of the GOP mailers. He was caught in a tough spot. Jacobson had improved both his message and his presentation style from his November campaign against Sertich and might have done better under different circumstances. Kafut-Hagen jumped out of the DFL race and into the IP early on, but is a tireless advocate for important issues in Hibbing.
Chris Saunders produced another map of the district showing the blue/red splits. That's Hibbing in the top left. Downtown Floodwood in the bottom left went for Melin while the areas around Floodwood were Jacobson's only wins of the night.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 By Aaron Brown
8:59: MinnesotaBrown projects DFLer Carly Melin to win District 5B House race with just under 60 percent.
8:51: Large, important bird has told me Melin wins Fredenberg. It's all over.
8:50: Napkin math time. Might have big announcement soon.
8:45: Jacobson wins first precinct in Halden, 18-16 (votes), but that's not enough. Loses Alborn, McDavitt and other lowland townships. Fredenberg can't save him now.
8:38: Melin wins Solway, Balkan. More shortly...
8:33: The night is trending toward Carly Melin. Paul Jacobson still has some conservative townships left to report, but probably not enough to close the gap. He needed to keep in close in Hibbing but Melin has held the DFL line there. Waiting on a couple more key precincts to make projection.
8:27: So many numbers. Haven't got them all below yet, but Melin HQ spotters report more than 50 percent in with Carly Melin running at 60 percent. That includes most of Hibbing and Chisholm.
8:25: Hit refresh to see updates. They'll be coming fast and furious through the 8 p.m. hour.
8: 21: The voters of House District 5B have elected their next representative. The polls have closed and tonight we wait for their verdict. I'll be live blogging until such time as it is safe to declare a winner. I am hearing of higher than expected turnout, which necessitated copy ballots and hand counting in townships like Cherry, Grand Lake and Fredenberg. Those may take a while. Some early Hibbing numbers are in.
Numbers below are unofficial. More at the Secretary of State's site. Precinct results here.
Melin 59; Jacobson 17; Kafut-Hagen 1
Melin 143; Jacobson 64; Kafut-Hagen 4
Melin 150; Jacobson 86; Kafut-Hagen 6
Melin 628; Jacobson 255; Kafut-Hagen 37; Absentees to count 80
Melin 52; Jacobson 13; Kafut-Hagen 1
Melin 27; Jacobson 27; Kafut-Hagen 0
Melin 16; Jacobson 18; Kafut-Hagen2
Melin 109; Jacobson 26; Kafut-Hagen 9
Melin 107; Jacobson 87; Kafut-Hagen37
Melin 263; Jacobson 137; Kafut-Hagen 22
Melin 125; Jacobson 72; Kafut-Hagen 11
Melin 122; Jacobson 72; Kafut-Hagen 6
Melin 347; Jacobson 229; Kafut-Hagen 30
Melin 394; Jacobson 288; Kafut-Hagen 32
McDavitt Township (Zim!)
Melin 79; Jacobson 40; Kafut-Hagen 1
Melin 161; Jacobson 96; Kafut-Hagen 8
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 By Aaron Brown
MinnesotaBrown is a blog about place: specifically about the Iron Range, though generally about the idea of loving a place even though it frustrates you and has a limited functional economy. I write about modern life on the Iron Range and share this work with a community of online readers in and beyond northern Minnesota.
My book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range" won a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award in 2009 and has led to speaking appearances all over the state. I continue my ongoing quest to tell the story of the Range in a way that matters to folks beyond the confines of the Taconite Tax Relief Area. Upcoming projects include fiction and a possible radio show/podcast.
My work appears regularly in places like the Hibbing Daily Tribune, KAXE-Northern Community Radio, MinnPost and Minnesota Public Radio. I am active in the occasional Iron Range political campaign and (Bob) Dylan Days in the singer/songwriter's hometown of Hibbing. I help raise three boys in the woods of Itasca County on a hill overlooking a northern forest and a lake. At night I can see the lights of Nashwauk over the tree tops, the steam cloud over Keewatin Taconite and the dim glow of Hibbing on the horizon. Where I live and what I do allows me to observe this world and occasionally participate in its drama. It's an honor and a responsibility I take seriously, with jokes.
You can subscribe to this site using the RSS feed through a reader, which is how I read most things on the internet now. You can also subscribe by e-mail. You can follow the blog on Facebook using Networked Blogs, a simple app that you can add to your Facebook account. And, of course, you can find out about blog updates and read some bonus commentary at my Twitter feed, @minnesotabrown.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 By Aaron Brown
This special election, which included a packed DFL primary, has been conducted in about five weeks, consumed as much local and state political spending as a suburban swing district, and as Grandpa Simpson might say, sure did "angry up the blood."
The most notable thing about the House 5B election that to me was how this was the first Iron Range election in my 15 years of local campaign participation and observation that became "state-itized." The candidates were local, and may have started out with an all-local approach, but as the state Republican and then the state DFL parties ramped up their outside efforts the whole thing now has the feel of something a little alien to what most Range political observers would recognize. I'm not going to offer a prediction, other than to say that this is a heavily DFL district in which the Republican party spent tens of thousands of dollars on mailers in the belief that this wasn't the case.
Look for the big Hibbing P10 and Hibbing P11 precincts to be somewhat close. If Melin holds off Jacobson here she'll have won Hibbing. Look for Jacobson to win Fredenberg Township in the south which usually reports very early. If he doesn't, or if it's close, look for a big night for Melin. If Jacobson sweeps these precincts brew a pot of coffee.
Below, images from the two leading candidates' Facebook pages:
I'll be reporting returns from MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters in Balsam Township tonight. Like primary night I'll have access to a network of poll watchers who will report back on key precincts, giving us a clear sense of who won rather early in the evening.
Monday, February 14, 2011 By Aaron Brown
This is the third time I've been featured on MPR's commentary page. This week is MPR's big fundraiser so after you've joined or renewed with KAXE, the independent public station that I call home, consider what you can do for MPR, which has the best greater Minnesota news coverage of any statewide organization.
Sunday, February 13, 2011 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
The winter presses on, a dry, cold march through snow to the oil tank to see if we’ll make it another couple months without ordering fuel from town. Looks OK, but that’s assuming. Nothing new to this equation on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, not in our adaptation to weather or to the economy which endures in permanent February.
Iron Range taconite production recovered in 2010, ending shy of its peak numbers from 2008 just after the recession started. The taconite plants on the Range, ore dump salvaging Magnetation and the value-added producer Mesabi Nugget are expected to produce as much as 39 million tons in 2011, according to reports last month.
Keewatin Taconite is getting green lights during the middle stages of its permitting process on opening a new production line, which would add 3.6 million tons of capacity. Essar Steel is still claiming principle production will begin on its new taconite mine on the west Range, the precursor to the long-awaited steel plant. Magnetation is aiming to expand its ore extraction from the west Range dumps of Itasca County.
In short, 2011 is hunky dory on the Iron Range, except of course that we'll shed public sector jobs and our schools are entering something close to a fiscal crisis. This will create something of a middling, treading water feel that will keep real growth from happening until the taconite industry stumbles again.
It is imperative that every level of government, the private sector and, particularly, people on the street consider these next five years of utmost importance for the diversification and expansion of the Iron Range's economic base. No, not the end of mining, the start of something else. The economic conditions in big cities or suburbs aren't that great either. Why not live and create in a place with heart, history and interesting weather?
There are those who say that the Iron Range doesn't want to change, doesn't want to invite new people here or accept new ideas. I invite those of that belief to defend your reasoning. The slow death of a region is nothing pretty to watch. I do not intend to participate in such an endeavor.
Any approach that fails to welcome many new people doing many different kinds of jobs is a doomed policy. The Iron Range obituary was written long ago. It is only through the guile of our people, the occasional effectiveness of our leaders, and dumb luck that this obituary has not yet been printed. If we don’t live every moment trying to prove it wrong, to rewrite its saddest passages, we don’t really live.
To miss this opportunity would dishonor the true value of this place and its people, who in the midst of chasing the obvious – iron ore – found the sacred: the upward social mobility afforded new generations by great education, hard work and cooperation among the many for the cause of all.
A heartfelt welcome to a good year for iron mining. Welcome to the possibility of related new industry on the Range. Welcome to the loggers and welcome to the tourists.
Welcome also to inventors and thinkers, theologians and architects, writers and poets, artists and software designers. Welcome to a future that is not simple or obvious.
And to all those who defy this welcome, who lock the doors and peer out the windows, a warning. The future does not care about your reasons. The future did not mind the deepness of the ore reserve or the hardness of taconite. The future did not care that our recent ancestors spoke foreign tongues, holding no land or title. The future happened regardless and here we stand. Welcome. Welcome.
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at MinnesotaBrown.com or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”
Saturday, February 12, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Saturday, February 12, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Hello, my name is Cynthia Kafut-Hagen I am a candidate for House District 5B. I am running because I believe that the people should have a voice at the capital. I care about what people tell me. I have a clean slate and owe no one. These are some of the issues that people want me to work on.
Supporting a balanced approach to solving our State's budget crisis
By a balanced approach I mean we have to raise revenue and make cuts. On the revenue side, I believe we need to look at a small increase in sales tax, and let cities and rural government raise levy’s to help themselves.
We need to look at wasteful spending, and governing boards that are not doing their jobs. Our workers have the answers for safely cutting costs. They are doing the job. Top-level management needs to defer to them, so they can come together with the best possible solution.
Right now the cuts at the capital by the Republican Party are again targeting our hard working public employees: our teachers, fire and police departments, and public works. These people provide services that we all take for granted, and we need to support them.
Addressing health care needs of all, including mental health
The whole health care system is being overhauled in this country. We need to keep Minnesota at the forefront as the leading example of what is the best in health care.
Mental health is a part of this. It needs to be addressed. People are dying everyday, because of lack of access to quality mental health care. Depression kills; bi-polar kills. We can do better then that.
Rising costs need to be reigned in. When hard working families can’t pay for immunizations and dental care for their kids, something’s wrong with our system, and we need to fix it. I will work for that.
Bringing living wage jobs to the area
Jobs are important to everyone. The new mining initiatives will bring solid employment to the district. I support a thriving mining community on the Iron Range. It is a big part of who we are. We also need to keep our mining resources here, which would produce spin off jobs, including manufacturing.
To help our small businesses, the government along with the IRRRB should be looking at health care and retirement issues. Finding a way to bring these benefits to small businesses would allow them to pay a higher wage, thus helping everyone.
Education as a priority
Working with Northland Foundation’s KIDS PLUS in Chisholm, and MN Reading Corps at Keewatin Elementary, I had the opportunity to see education on a front line basis. Despite the continuing cuts in our district, staff is still finding a way to make our schools succeed. We need to reprioritize and remember that we are nothing without our education. Nothing is more important than our kids
We need to support birth to kindergarten intervention, education, and programs. When money is spent on children in their earliest years, they have a greater chance for educational success. Take reading for example, MN Reading Corps data shows, you learn to read until 3rd grade, and after 3rd grade you read to learn. Not having those skills at a young age is one of the causes of the achievement gap.
I also support Gov. Dayton’s initiative to reestablish the governor’s counsel on Early Childhood Education, which would include all day every day kindergarten.
Please get out and vote for me, Cynthia Kafut-Hagen on Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Friday, February 11, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Naturally, I'll be on my soapbox telling stories as I usually do, but that's really secondary. Whether it's "Between You and Me" specifically or KAXE generally, the message is the same. There is nothing quite like KAXE-Northern Community Radio anywhere else. It's got a diverse range of personalities, programming and music that reflect the unique nature of northern Minnesota and its people. And it operates primarily with member donations. Take a listen and, if you can afford anything at all, do your part to help keep KAXE going.
KAXE is not only a vitally important source of information for me, it's a warm and friendly home for my writing and work in media. If you read this blog, including my coverage of the 5B special and other Range political stories, know that it's my work with KAXE that makes some of that possible. Please support them if you at all able.
"Between You and Me" airs from 10 a.m. to noon on 91.7 FM in northern Minnesota and streams live all over the world at www.kaxe.org.
Thursday, February 10, 2011 By Aaron Brown
“Given Hibbing City Clerk Pat Garrity’s vocal political support for Democrat Carly Melin, I believe it is only appropriate that he recuse himself from administering the February 15th special election. To avoid any appearance of impropriety and to ensure election integrity, it is essential that this Melin supporter step aside as city clerk for Tuesday’s election in favor of a non-partisan city official. The voters of House District 5B deserve no less.”
Considering that Garrity has a impeccable record of election integrity, including times he's overseen his own elections, some of which he lost, I don't get the basis here.
I've got to tell you something. I used to cover Hibbing city government as a reporter and newspaper editor. So did my wife before I was at the paper. In this house we talk a lot of politics and know a lot of politicians. Many of them are utterly useless; all of them are flawed in some way. Pat Garrity may have human flaws, but he is also one of very, very few politicians on the Iron Range whose integrity we trust to the ends of the earth.
Pat Garrity grew up poorer than most on an Iron Range landscape where people were already pretty poor. He's since dedicated his life to his family and his community, despite the hard times. He risked and lost a good job in the private sector to speak out for the public good in the taconite tax debate decades ago. He's got his political opinions, of course, but he has never deviated from conducting fair and unbiased elections in the city of Hibbing. Just last night, after the 5B forum, he was telling me his plans to ensure that the polling stations had enough ballots and how the results would be processed according to law. He was thinking about proper logistics and fairness, even as people argued politics all around us. Then today, this. Every city clerk in the state has political opinions; they're politicians. But there are noble practitioners of politics like Pat Garrity and then there are the other kind.
Tony Sutton has long forgotten the people of his hometown, if he even thinks of it that way. His involvement in this election seems like some sort of weird grudge, a bloodsport that serves neither the people of 5B nor the Republican candidate Paul Jacobson. Jacobson, to his credit, has been trying to run an issues-based campaign with grassroots support, only to repeatedly watch the state GOP stomp through town stealing attention and probably costing him votes.
So, Tony Sutton, I hope this is all some kind of joke, some kind of Andy Kaufman theater you're conducting down there. I hope this isn't a serious attempt to understand the Iron Range or win an election here. Because, if it is, I think there will soon be a host of disappointed Iron Range Republicans asking you to recluse yourself from your job, too.
UPDATE: Pat Garrity defends himself honorably in today's Hibbing Daily Tribune (link; subscription only). Meantime, Let Freedom Ring hits Garrity and me together in a post from last night. I now share the opinion from the second comment here. This is no longer about winning 5B for the state GOP, it's about delegitimizing Tuesday's vote specifically and the Iron Range generally.
Thursday, February 10, 2011 By Aaron Brown
I recorded the first part of the debate but then the battery died on the Flip Cam and I missed the last three questions and closing statements. This was, you know, the part of the debate where the previous day's national controversy over a nasty state GOP mailing bubbled into the night's most pointed disagreement. I've got everything except for that. (sigh). WDIO's story probably best demonstrated the exchange. I'll post a few of the videos later. I'll try to get a complete recording from the students at the college to post tomorrow or over the weekend. Sorry for the delay. For all my technology addiction I make a poor AV Club nerd sometimes.
I'd describe the candidates as prepared and cordial. The audience was respectful and seemed very interested in what the candidates had to say. My students did an excellent job putting the forum together and keeping order in the busy hall. I don't know what will happen on Tuesday, but we pulled off a good debate, anyway.
Northland's News Center has embed capabilities, so here's their piece:
(Disclosure: I am co-advisor of HCC's Student Senate and consulted with students in the organization of this debate).
Wednesday, February 09, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Love reads rough:
The 2011 Hibbing Winter Frolic Medallion Mystery
Winter’s the name. Sal Winter. Hibbing is my town.
It was the kind of January you only read about in Dante, so cold it’s hot with the devil’s touch. I winced as the radiators clattered to life in my office on the roof of the Androy Hotel. I was warm with whiskey and steam heat even though my heart beat with the cool, dull rhythm of a man with no future. Now was the “me” of my discontent.
The New Year had come but not quick enough. What started as a lark, the last 12 months latched like an albatross around my neck. Sal Winter, private eye, still single after all these years. My inability to commit sent my girl Mystery packing and I was back here, on the couch, watching the spiders weave webs on the walls that read “Lonely” in spider talk.
Just then the stairs outside the door started grumbling with the sort of protest you usually only hear when you compare a gal to her mother. I knew from the groaning that the portly mayor, Preston T. Sneed, was testing the mettle of those wooden steps.
Sneed burst into the room the way your foot bursts into a child’s sock. Not fast, but eventually, with effort. Huffing like the wolf in the story of the 3,000 Little Pigs, he was the color purple.
“Winter,” he wheezed. “We’ve got a problem. (wheeze) The Winter Frolic (wheeze) Medallion (wheeze) has gone missing and (wheeze) we need your help.”
It was just like last year, only this time the beautiful woman who sought my aid was, in fact, a 300-pound politician who smelled like hot sticks at the deer shack. Anyone wearing a Winter Frolic button who found the translucent medallion outdoors on public land would win a prize. They could, if we found it in time.
This was going to be a long week.
“Oh, Mystery, if only you were here,” I thought to myself.
My girl, or my ex-girl, Mystery was the divorcee who sought my help and won my heart last year when the medallion was nabbed by a rogue Parks and Rec board member. The resulting scandal led to the election of Mayor Preston T. Sneed, a gargantuan man with a reinforced scooter and a t-shirt that read “Also, Progress.” Now, the medallion was gone again and Sneed had poured himself into one of my chairs like the blue liquid in one of those adult diaper commercials, wicked into the fibers and locked tight.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“This,” said Sneed, handing me a picture postcard of George Washington crossing the Delaware on the front.
“Where’d you find this?”
“In the medallion vault beneath city hall,” said Sneed, whose odor suddenly changed from beef to cheese. “I thought we stopped this from ever happening!”
I ignored his outburst. It was his rather substantial derriere on the line, not mine. My heart was flatter than the clear, translucent medallion located outdoors on public land in Hibbing. That kind of hurt doesn’t get fixed in an election.
At Hibbing City Hall the trouble was thicker than the mayor’s torso, which itself was rounder than the clock at the top of the building, which, further, was more pointed than this description. Officials were atwitter over the missing Winter Frolic medallion, nabbed from the expensive new vault beneath the storied city hall built by the Oliver Mining Company years ago. By tradition, a person wearing a Winter Frolic button who found this medallion outdoors on public land would win a monetary prize. Mayor Preston T. Sneed was holding court in his office as city leaders gathered around to admire the problem.
“What’s this deal about the postcard,” said one belligerent city father. “The one with Washington.”
“I hear that Washington is just a deeper clue,” said some guy with a moustache. “It seems this whole enterprise is just a clue wrapped within an enigma. I’d rather focus on something that matters, like the news of the day. For instance, have you heard about the outrage in …”
The man trailed on. Me, Sal Winter, I was still missing Mystery, the beautiful woman who left when I wouldn’t settle down on her terms. If I could do three things over again in my life, the first two would both involve decisions made shortly after automobile accidents, the third would be never letting Mystery walk away after our last fight.
“If you can’t settle down for me, then who?” she had said to me. I didn’t have a good answer. There was no one else but her, but no one but I knew the life of a private eye in a mining town where there were always problems with medallions and the human heart, and also mining. This was a town where things moved and they never move back the way they were, not even for Carnegie.
“Winter, Winter!” bellowed Sneed. “Wake up, man. What do you make of this?”
He jabbed the postcard at me the way he normally approached a plate of bacon.
There were numbers on the back of that postcard. Important numbers, with a decimal.
“Well, look at the back of this postcard,” I said, finally engaging the private detective portion of my brain, a corner of the brain where sadness meets an angry fist. “There are numbers. Look here, you see 551.555.”
The postcard was the only clue so far in the case of the missing Winter Frolic Medallion. The person who found this medallion would win a prize and glory, or they would if some no-good hadn’t stolen it, providing this necessary conceit.
“That sounds like a bunch of gibberish,” said Mayor Preston T. Sneed, the portly leader of our town, elected as a medallion reformer.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. Those numbers seemed important, or at least orderly.
It was a clue, and if it bore fruit a person wearing a Frolic button could find the medallion outdoors on public land for a monetary prize. If only a clue could solve my love of Mystery, the gal who left me cold after I clammed up about the future.
Unless it had?
I check out a lot of books at the Hibbing Public Library every year, titles about pistols, scotch and male menopause, but that’s neither here nor there. They all have numbers on the back, much like the numbers found on our clue in the case of the missing Winter Frolic Medallion. Something about those numbers seemed familiar, like an old friend who you haven’t seen in a long time but who still remembers how you look naked, or at least how you used to look naked, which is probably for the best.
“Mr. Mayor, didn’t we have a big snowstorm last night?”
Sneed peered around at heaps of snow. A plow scuttled by on 21st Street for effect.
“Yes, Mr. Winter. There was a snow emergency. Where were you?”
“I was in my office, wrestling demons,” I said. “But I now suspect that the thief was at the library before the snowstorm and then dropped this card in the vault when he or she lifted the medallion.”
There was only one way to know for sure. I fled the mayor’s spacious office, flew down the stairs and out the door. The library was just across the street. Maybe there would be another clue there.
Entering the library, I approached the front desk. Then I saw her, filing archaic index cards into the catalogue of my desire. Her hair was pulled back and she was wearing glasses, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“Mystery!” I called out. “You work at the library now?”
She looked surprised at first, glancing down at her delicate feet, which looked like two doves who really loved each other.
“Yes, Sal. After we broke up I didn’t want to face the prospect of dating again, so I committed myself to a life of reading and sorting books. I’m an intellectual now.”
“That sounds like rationalizing,” I said. “The Mystery I know understood that a woman can have a self-realized identity separate from that of her husband or life partner. Even if her husband is a stubborn old lug like, well … me.”
She looked up at me, eyes welling with tears. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying, Sal?”
“I think so. Mystery, will you marry me?”
“Oh, yes, Sal! There’s just one thing. I stole the medallion last night, got upset and chucked it out in front of the library before the snowstorm. What should we do?”
There was only one thing to do.
“Mystery, I’m so glad to have you back and share my life with you, but you stole the medallion and hid it by the library. They’re going to throw the book at you. If you’re lucky, only one book.”
“I know, Sal. I’m sorry. I thought maybe taking the medallion would lead you back to me. I was a fool.”
“No, you were no fool. I was a fool for not marrying you right the first time.”
Just then Mayor Sneed walked over, pausing dramatically to catch his breathe halfway up the front steps of city hall. He scratched the underside of his belly hoping no one would see, but everyone did. He began to speak.
“The medallion was found and the good citizens who helped find it will be rewarded. It seems to me that there is no crime here, except the crime of love. And in this, we are all guilty, some more than others.
The mayor’s pardon was as generous as his portion of gravy at that night’s celebration dinner.
As for me and Mystery, we’re doing fine. We got married at the courthouse and bought a house downtown, a nice little two bedroom with a yard and a future. I hardly ever sleep at the office anymore. Sometimes I watch her sleep and ask myself, between her angel breaths, how did I get so lucky? But then I also wonder, how did Mystery get into the vault?
TO BE CONTINUED IN 2012.
The medallion was hidden on the south lawn of the Hibbing Public Library a few feet from one of those trees. I chucked it over there a few weeks ago and was worried because a little medallion nubbin was poking out. Then about a foot of snow fell the next few days. It's been that kind of winter.