The Closet Reclamation Project - part 1

When Indiana Jones goes DIY

I knew it was there.
The "secret closet" was hidden behind mouthwash-blue paneling from an era of Mary Tyler Moore, Disco and Ford Mavericks.
I'd heard the rumors of the former storage space for years, and a closer look at the room showed there was a mystery wall space not accounted for.
My wife grew up in our circa 1917 Danish farmhouse, and remembers the lost cubby was "icky and dark" thirty years ago, back when it was her childhood room. That's when her Father decided to abandon the closet for a paneling job.
I had to see it. I had to be Indiana Jones for just a spell and peak into this time capsule, right down the hall.
Since our closet space was minimal, the "lost closet" could help our storage problems.
The paneling came off easily, and behind it was a spider web-laden broken plaster room about three feet deep and wide, with items on the floor and even a few hangers on the rod.
On the floor was a Milwaukee Brewer baseball card (pitcher Skip Lockwood) and a bright orange "tray" of sorts, dusty and textured.
"Hey, that's the piece for my 'Don't Spill the Beans' game!" My wife exclaimed, seeming to have really missed the item. "I wondered where that ended up."
The Closet Reclamation Project was successful all around: We gained much needed extra storage space in the Guest Room and it forced me to cover the wall in cool car siding wood, and even better, a mystery was finally solved.
She said there's another lost storage area above the stairs, this one larger and even "grosser," she warned.
I'm wondering if I'll need a whip and a fedora.


Requiem for Harvey

My good friend the Rev. Harvey Stower died today, Sept.29, at the age of 65.
I want to tell you why he mattered, and what he meant to many of us.

Harvey was a State Legislator for eight years, and ran for Congress in 1994. I had met him two years prior, as a I began working for a local radio station where he lived. Harvey introduced himself to me at a political function, and had the kind of hand that seemed well suited for shaking. It was solid, sinewy and honest - not unlike Harvey himself. He immediately took me under his wing, introducing me to every local politico, regardless of party or affiliation.
Rep. Stower not only brought me quickly "into the circle," he made me part of his circle.
Over the years, Harvey and I became quite close. He eventually moved back to Amery, Wisconsin, and became the Mayor, serving for over a decade.
But Harvey was more than just a "politician," he was the kind of guy that you just had to know. He was a minister, a father, a husband, a volunteer, a fan of all kinds of music, books and movies. He was so well-rounded and full of life that even when his life was upside down, he would ask how YOU were, or your family, career or a mutual friend. But it was Harvey we all worried about: His wife, Marilyn, had died last year after a long battle with cancer, and within a few months, one of his daughters developed cancer so quickly it was shocking. Then Harvey's diabetes caught up with him, leading to months of hospital and nursing home stays, eventually leading to partial amputations.
His hands stayed sinewy but strong. His manners, concerns and attention were always for the Common Good. He was a dyed-in-the wool Democrat, but very conservative on some principles for his region, but true to his religious convictions all the way, and yet a borderline Yellow Dog as well. But Harvey was a true Progressive in the great Bob LaFollette tradition, and cited his ideology often. Yet photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy's were always prominent in his home and office.
I would always look forward to his calls, as he would invite me over "for coffee." We shared a taste in strong java, mine a little whiter with milk, but stronger than necessary.
"You know, there's no such thing as bad coffee," he said once, stoically. "But I sure like the good stuff!"
He would occasionally ask me to stop at the coffee shop or the market and get a bag of Starbucks or other quality beans - almost salivating when I pulled up to his door.
Then we would talk. As I perused his amazing collection of records, books and films, he would always have a few set aside for me to borrow. They were usually old VHS copies of rare films not likely in any other store. I would always have too much to view, but I always made sure I returned the "borrows." I knew he had more plans for them with other friends.
And what "other friends" he had! Several times while sitting in his living room, he would receive calls from Madison or DC. I was there when the Assembly Majority leader called and asked Harvey about the so-called "TABOR" bill (Nicknamed for the "Taxpayers Bill of Rights.")
I laughed when he asked me - while he was chatting with the Leader - what I thought.
I was proud to tell him I had just interviewed the opposing party's main proponent - Rep. Jeff Wood - a few nights prior at a Republican Party gathering.
I told him I thought Rep. Wood was "clueless" on the impact, and that it "was a good idea wrapped up in bad numbers."
Harvey and the Madison lawmaker listened closely as I told of our very public conversation at the party gathering, how Wood had no idea of the real impact to local government would be, without indexing for inflation or local growth. That the cost of pavement alone would eat up any savings and start to put municipalities, counties and other units way behind in road maintenance. I said Wood seemed to be acutely uncomfortable and out of place at the event.
"I think he just liked saying he was for it," I told Harvey.
"So there you have it," He told our Madison friend. "It sounds like we've got some room to work."
The final version of TABOR was watered down but luckily has some adjustments for inflation. However, local road maintenance is an even more expensive problem.
(Rep. Jeff Wood was ultimately kicked out of the Republican Party, and ran as an Independent. He won re-election, but has since fallen deep into a pit of DUI's drug use and disrespect in Madison. His fall is cited here.)
But Harvey was also the kind of guy who hated to talk about himself. This past winter, I went to his home for coffee, and told him I wanted to write "about HIM - About Harvey" after the Fates had dumped on his life so hard.
He smiled, and gave me a sort of timeline letter of those events: Marilyn's cancer and death, his daughter's zooming cancer and numerous operations. His own health issues and amputation.
But then he held up photos of his kids and grandchild.
"These keep me going," he said without a stutter or details.
I had gone too far. That was all he needed: Faith, family and friends.
"Now tell me what you think about the Supreme Court race," he asked without missing a beat. "I'm really worried about what they're going to do to Shirley (Chief Justice Abrahamson). "
Not long after, The Chief Justice held a fundraiser at a local restaurant, and even though it was closed for the season, they opened up just for the event. I'm not sure if it was Harvey who pulled the strings, but it might have been.
That's when I took this picture of him, with the Chief.

I felt bad in recent weeks, though. As I'd heard form a mutual friend that "Harvey mentioned your name. He said he wants to talk to you about something." I was at a function, and couldn't call at the time. Days turned to weeks, and I forgot to call.
Giant, huge regret here.
He was my biggest advocate, even lobbying a local news organization to hire me, in spite of hard economic times. My hiring was snipped by the final bean counter, and for the first time ever, I saw Harvey upset when he heard about the change of heart.
"They just made a huge mistake!" he said. "I'll keep trying."
He did keep trying, for years after that. He was like a parent or a grandparent. A mentor and Godfather all rolled up into a man who was more than just the Mayor, he was the best thing to ever happen to Amery, Wisconsin. The canvassing and advocacy he did for that city will be felt for ages to come.
Harvey played his cards well, and made sure you played yours, also.
Years ago, Harvey was the first person who ever encouraged ME to run for office. I took him to heart, and ran for County Board.
He even made a healthy donation to my campaign, and I had no idea what to do with it. "Gotta get the word out," he said. "Shake some hands. And Listen."
I lost by 14 votes.
Didn't shake enough hands.
He was right, as usual.
Thanks, Harvey. For letting me in and shaking mine that first time, 17 years ago.


Stepping on Kittens at the VMAs

I rarely watch MTV, since they don't seem to really have either music or videos. And I've never watched much of the VMA's (Video Music Awards) because of all the screaming and lack of proper attire, but you know what, I'm glad somebody was, and taped this moment.
Taylor Swift, who is arguably one of the cutest, most wholesome young talents in all of music, won the Best Female Video Award, and while giving her erstwhile "I wanna thank my Mom, Kindergarten teacher, parole agent, hairdressers, accountants, piano tuners, etc." acceptance speech (called "A-sept" by insiders) she was rudely interrupted by Kanye "I'm friggin KOHN -YAY!" West, who stole her microphone and her moment, saying Beyonce's video was "one of the best of all time!"
Boos of all sorts ensued, and West was escorted from the Area Code by security guys with names like Boscoe, Bullet and Buff.
Kanye is an over-rated, apparently drunkard punk, and still babbles in his blog about how hot Beyonce's vid is. So?
Maybe the bottle let him down, maybe his head swelled thirty times too big for his shoulders. Maybe he needs to spend some time in the corner with his face against the wall, after writing "I will not interrupt country musicians who win awards."
But it all ends well, as the video shows. Kudos to Beyonce, who later won a VMA for best video, and invited the fetching Ms. Swift - now wearing a red baby doll dress - back onstage to "get her moment."
I am now officially a Beyonce fan, and will heat my home next month with Kanye West discs, T-shirts, and all things "KOHN -YAY!"
Katy "kissed a girl" Perry had the quote of the day afterword, calling Kanye's actions the equivalent of "Stepping on a kitten!" I smell a duet with Beyonce, and K. Perry as a guest, maybe?
Hmm, they need a producer..."Hey, Kanye, you know anybody who can produce this dynamic trio? Kanye? You there, Kanye?"
"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. Did you want fries with that?"

MTV Video awards 2009: Kayne West jumps onstage as Taylor Swift accepts her award


Pinstriped Phavoritism?

It doesn't matter that he hasn't broke the Top 50 All Time, what matters is that Derek Jeter is the hittingest Yankee Ever. Again, showing how the MARKET is more important than the team, player or event.
Nothing against DJ, or certainly the Late Mr. Gehrig, but fellas, there's others - including a certain Mr. Rose - who've kicked this records arse.

Plated for Travel...

Why State's Righters are missing the points

I recall a recent local debate over the merits of enforcing tobacco sales to those under 18. The lengthy discussion touched on issues of parental control, responsibility, individual choice and whether we should entrust teenage retail clerks with the job of “gatekeepers” for society’s evil habits.

I agree it is a noble cause, keeping kids from “cancer sticks.” But it seems ludicrous for government to bet their budgets on people smoking forever to balance their books with related tax increases.

While fining someone up to $500 (add another $189 for court costs) for selling a pack of smokes seems reasonable to some, I would remind them that retail workers are truly the lowest paid workers in America today; they are the primary reason for minimum wage laws.

Again, we’re relying on the poor to feed the tax coffers, whether through smoking heaters or selling them to the wrong people.

But I am a man from another era; a time when fake ID’s were easy to make, finding buddies to buy a case of beer cost $5 extra, and driving into Wisconsin on your 18th birthday to buy booze was a rite of passage - and a test of your car’s rear shocks.

Wisconsin was a haven for booze commerce due to its lower drinking age and ridiculous drivers licenses, which looked like glorified library cards.

Today’s Wisconsin driver licenses are routinely six to eight years old. At my last renewal, I paid my fee and instead of receiving a new, high-tech, state-of-the-art hologram license, the DMV sent me a sticker for the corner, stating it now expires four years later than what it reads.

There’s a bargain.

As a recovering bartender, I saw first-hand the difficulty in discerning “real” from “fake” identification.

I challenge any local law enforcement officer to describe a Delaware driver license. Or Missouri, Kansas, Alaska, Rhode Island.

The problem is that drivers’ licenses have become little self-esteem enhancers for the states. No two states’ licenses are even close to similar.

There are few standards on what we consider the “universal” ID, short of a passport. Driver licenses are it.

Retailers, bartenders and other business firms are not afraid to use their “right of refusal” for anything they deem suspicious.

Apparently, being from another state in the Union is suspect.

While many people are still convinced that the Patriot Act is the biggest threat to our liberties in all our lifetimes, the concept of “state’s rights” has been taken to an extreme for years.

Did you know Minnesota law enforcement does not legally need to respect a Wisconsin temporary vehicle tag? I’ve talked with several officers who assured me that they do, but don’t need to. How kind.

Sure, you can pay taxes in their state, work in one and live in the other, but God forbid you drive a vehicle there until the plates come in the mail.

States have become oblivious to the meaning of being an American. They treat it like some sort of generic, umbrella term.

Don't believe me? Cries of "Socialism" beginning to leave your lips? Then consider trailers in Michigan.

Several years ago when I licensed my vintage Shasta camper, I realized that under Wisconsin law, it DID NOT NEED a tag, since it was under 3,000 lbs. Confused, I called a State Patrol administrator, who said I "may want to consider it, if I was planning on leaving the state," he said.

Hmmm, not realizing what was going on, I inquired to the Michigan State Police, who confirmed that yes, non-licensed trailers would be ticketed in that state, but that some confusion existed.

OK, where's my State's Righters now? Is it bad enough that a car with Arizona tags can have jet black window tint, but not Minnesota or Wisconsin cars? Or that my camper only needs a plate so I can hit the UP for a spell?

The same thing applies to driver’s licenses.

I firmly believe Americans have a right to a nationally sanctioned identifier; a piece of plastic that protects my rights no matter which bridge I cross over the Mississippi, or state border I traverse.

It is time for a national driver’s license, or something like it. Same size, embossing, type of picture, hologram, maybe a “secret tag” or barcode that easily identifies the ID as real, legit and legal - here’s a patriotic concept – and as a derned American.

States could have a little spot in the corner for their logo or seal so they feel good. But the ID would essentially be the same no matter if it were issued in Madison, Montpelier, Sacramento or Raleigh.

This would overcome much of the national obsession with age-related violations, virtually eliminate fake ID’s, and help with homeland security.

Civil rights groups and state’s rights extremists will hate this idea. But it makes sense and could help guarantee the rights of Americans to engage in interstate commerce, and would help law enforcement with state-to-state record sharing, which is spotty.

With three-fourths of all U.S. states facing serious red ink, it might be time to consolidate forces on ID production, both to save money and to protect individual freedom.

It might also make it easier for those 16-year-old gatekeepers to see whether your kid is buying a pack of Camels.

And it might make me visit Michigan again.

The 'Great Sconnie Commuter Secret

...and other reasons we will be watching the Stillwater Bridge lawsuit results.

Yes, it's true. We have a lack of quality jobs in Western Wisconsin. Maybe it's because of our affection for anything "Big Time" - a former local Mayor once declared a city holiday when a McDonalds opened in his river town eight years ago - or maybe it's because the State of Minnesota has decided that the World We Pay Attention To ends at the St. Croix River. Or maybe there's just not enough of us to justify working, living wages (Polk County's unemployment rates are traditionally among the highest in the Midwest.)
Regardless of why, until the recent housing meltdown/collapse, parts of the region (St. Croix County, specifically) were among the fastest growing areas in the Midwest, and ranked pretty high, nationally, as well.

Hence the long, drawn out fight for a new Stillwater Bridge (aka "The St. Croix River Crossing Project") which officially goes back nearly SIXTY years!
In an interview several years ago, current District 30 legislator Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson) made her pitch for the new bridge, and brought up how some of the first correspondence on the need for a replacement to the venerable Lift Bridge would be needed soon.
"That first letter to the State Highway Commissioner was written the month I was born, April 1951!" She said without battling an eyelash on the obvious mathematical-age-determining-formula she handed me.
"And now I'm bombarded with AARP literature!"
Rep. Rhoades has joined forces with all Western Wisconsin legislators, and numerous Minnesotans, of all flavors, ages and parties in pushing for a new bridge, yesterday.
Several false starts along the way have seen the costs of the project mushroom from "several million dollars" in the early Sixties, to reports of almost $700 million today. But the real "fly in the ointment" in the past decade-and-a-half was a successful Sierra Club/National Park Service lawsuit in 1996 that sent the whole project back to Zero.
That lawsuit forced the creation of a group of so-called "Stakeholders" - ranging from local and state governments from both sides of the river, to environmental and transportation groups, as well as DNR and National Parks Service interests (The St. Croix Riverway is a Scenic National Riverway) to weigh-in on the most recent incarnation of a bridge, approved in a memorandum of Understanding by the Feds in
The NPS changed their tunes, and approved the most recent designs. Because of that, it has been pretty much the "Sierra Club against the World" in the latest lawsuit, which claims the most recent draft design is no real improvement over previous versions.
After several delays, that lawsuit comes to a head in the coming weeks in a Federal Courtroom in Minneapolis, and there seems to be little doubt by most of the players that some sort of bridge will come out of Chief Judge Michael Davis' summary judgement.
"The biggest issue now will be money," stated Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R- River Falls) at a recent Wisconsin Towns Association meeting. "We're staring at a lot of red ink in the (Wisconsin) state budget, and Minnesota isn't much better off."
A number of local elected officials were disappointed the Bridge Project did not qualify for economic stimulus cash, since it is still at least three years away from having ground broken - even if the latest Sierra Club lawsuit collapses.
But much of the design and prep work has already been completed or is ready to roll, since the various stages of Environmental Impact Studies have made their way sluggishly while the lawsuit spooled up and moved eventually into a courtroom.
The need for a new bridge may have waned somewhat in the past year with the "cooled" Western Wisconsin housing build-up, but the region will no doubt continue to be a growing metropolitan player, as the tired and aging Lift Bridge sputters like a 50s Buick - classic in design, but woefully behind the times in modern terms.
History played a role in the Stakeholders Group, with several historians and preservation players pushing for and winning approval for a sort of "bike and hike retirement" for the old bridge.
The near-final plan would save the rare, classic lifter, and turn it into a silent sports icon if the new bridge is built, and part of a grandiose bike and hike trail that runs the old alignment from downtown Stillwater across to Houlton and downstream to the new bridge and into Oak Park Heights.
That brought quite a few historians on board, and also some of the very people who fought so hard to kill the project previously.
While the monetary costs continue to spiral up - more than doubling since the original Sierra Club/NPS lawsuit was filed - the cost in environmental damage is also noteworthy: Hundreds of thousands of idling, creeping car and trucks every year.
The volume of vehicles continuing to make their way through St. Croix County and into downtown Stillwater and back again each day continues to grow, sometimes pausing for half-an-hour at a time to wait for river traffic or obsolete engineering repairs or upgrades. Those repairs can cause legendary congestion or detours, since there are only a few nearby crossing alternatives: Hudson, Osceola and St. Croix Falls.
And while the Twin Cities suburban ring inches west to Big Lake, St. Cloud and the like, the Metropolitan Council has only recently begun to take the western Wisconsin region into their future plans. meaning commuter trains and rail alternatives are decades away from fruition.
But the Western Wisconsin Commuter Secret - previously only relayed by realtors and commuters with a few to many 'Leinies' under their belts means the 'Sconnie growth should continue.
That secret? The sun is always to our backs.
Don't tell 'em, I told you.


Vintage Camper Showcase #20

"It's a boat, no a plane, no, it's a, a Spartan camper?"

"Yes. Virginia, the Spartan Manufacturing Company briefly considered using their fancy travel trailers in a different mode altogether in 1954, as a houseboat!
If you can find one of these rarities, you've just paid for your kids' college, and maybe a few nights at the Hilton, to boot! The unusual house boat was only in production for about an hour or two before they realized how 'out of their element' they were. No word on how many were made, or if they were even sold to the general public. But this fancy example did indeed float, as this RV/MH Museum lost photo proves. I can't imagine not having a diving board, though.
At least you don't have to worry about leveling the rig!"