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Archive for December, 2008

One of the most memorable Christmas’s of my life to-date, was observed in the middle of a cotton field a long time ago.

Following is that story, written and posted while with my eldest son and his family at their home in North Carolina, for this Christmas.

Carissa and Mandy, you might want to keep a tissue or two nearby…

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The day Miss Annie Ruth (and most of her family) and I first met, at her home located in the middle of a cotton field on a plantation in north central, Mississippi, was an early August, 105-degree, hot, humid, steamy day, almost thirty years ago.

I was serving as one of the volunteer bus drivers of a Wisconsin-Mississippi charitable group, which was returning several children to their homes in the Mississippi delta after spending approximately three weeks living with host families in Wisconsin, a cultural exchange program which began in 1968.

This was my first visit to Mississippi as a volunteer with this group, one which would lead me to make over 100 mission trips back to the state, during the next thirty years.

Before sharing the story of Christmas, some background information needs to be provided.

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Miss Annie.

Miss Annie Ruth, who is black, grew up on cotton plantations, such as the one she lived on when I first met her. They had always been her home.

During her early years, she and her siblings knew well the feel of a ‘chopping hoe,’ in their hands, which she and so many others would use throughout the hot, humid summer months while chopping weeds in the rows of cotton.

Chopping cotton was hard, miserable work, from sun up to sun down, in the hot summer sun and humidity.

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Many of Annie’s family, including Grandmother (now deceased).

Later in the fall, when it was picking time, she would move down the long rows of fluffy white cotton, plucking the balls of white fluff from the plant, putting them into the long gathering bag, which she pulled behind her.

When the cotton is ready to pick, the cotton plant is sprayed with a chemical to kill it. When it dies, the plant becomes hard, and the boll shell pieces which hold the cotton, also harden, and have sharp edges. When picked by hand, the bolls pick away at the fingers as they make contact, and cause the fingers to become bloody during the picking process.

During modern day mechanical picking, a spinning wheel festooned with metal tabs, much like nails, spins at high speed on each side of the plant as the picking machine moves down the rows. The hardened bolls are tough, though, and do not give up the cotton fluffs easily, usually resulting in the fields being picked twice to get as much of a cotton yield as possible.

When Miss Annie was growing up, many plantations found it cheaper to use field laborers to pick the field rather than buying expensive mechanical pickers. For Miss Annie, chopping weeds and picking in the cotton fields, made for a very long, hard childhood.

The home where Miss Annie was living when I first met her, was a small, four-room, share-croppers shack, actually sitting out in a cotton field. Living there, were Annie, her mother, four of her daughters, Linda, Gloria, Gwen and Janice, a son, Jerry, and and seven of the daughters children, a total of 14 people in all.

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My car parked in Annie’s driveway, many years ago.

The shack consisted of two large bedrooms in the front of the shack, heated by a common, double-faced fireplace and chimney, in the wall between the two rooms. In the back, was a small bedroom, and the fourth room was a small kitchen, containing a small round table with one chair, a small dish cabinet and an old, wood-burning cook stove.

In all four of the rooms of the shack, the walls and ceilings were completely black, covered with smoke and soot from the fireplace and wood stove. In the kitchen, the walls and ceiling were covered with cardboard, which was stapled on the walls, as a coating.

The hand-made fireplace heating the two large rooms, did not have a good draw, and consequently, the winds blowing over the home, much of the time, blew the wood smoke back down into the two rooms, thus causing the blackened walls and ceiling.

The home also did not have any insulation in the walls, ceilings or under the floors. There were numerous small openings in the walls and floors where the wind just whistled right in.

The roof of the shack was covered with pieces of old corrugated metal, containing many small nail holes and tears which virtually leaked like a sieve whenever it rained. Unfortunately, the wood roof support structure was too weak for anyone to safely climb on the roof to plug up the holes with tar. So, the leaks remained, and allowed rain water to come through onto those below, year after year.

The home electrical system consisted of a single 20-amp circuit breaker, which provided a ceiling lamp hanging in the center of each room, and one wall plug-in outlet for the entire home.

Oh yes. There was no running water there.

Drinking water had to be toted a quarter of a mile from another share-croppers shack.

Lining the outside, rear wall of the home, were several old, 55-gal. drums and water stock tanks, which would catch water when it rained and ran off the roof (that water which didn’t leak through the roof, that is), which was used by the family to bathe in, and for washing clothes, using an old, wringer-style washing machine (brought down on an earlier mission trip, donated by a Wisconsin family) which sat on the front porch.

The “bathroom/toilet” consisted of a small, hand-made structure, with an open back, located at the rear of the property. A real outdoor “outhouse,” in every sense of the word, but very functional at the same time.

There were a couple of large cottonwood trees in the yard near the house, and a long, narrow ‘greens’ garden beside the driveway, coming in from the plantation road. I always wondered what the greens tasted like in the summer and fall, when the plantation cotton fields were aerial sprayed with fungicides and herbicides to kill critters lurking on the plants. What do you think the chances were that the house, yard and garden also got sprayed when the plane swept low over the fields?

Nailed up on one of the trees, was an old, drooping basketball hoop, in serious danger of falling to the ground if a basketball actually hit it one more time.

There were no bicycles or toys around, as other things had a higher priority for the family, like food, and clothing, and gas, to drive into town to the grocery store.

Although the family may have wanted for some material things, like a lot of families in the nation had in their homes, one thing they did not want for, is love for one another. That most important commodity was there in great abundance.

When Annie Ruth’s children were small, growing up, it was not unusually for the plantation foreman to come by during certain summer and fall days, and pick up many of the black children living in the share-croppers houses on the plantation, and haul them out to the fields in the morning.

The man would drive along the edge of the fields, in a straight line, stopping every so often, give them a can of soda and a candy bar, and tell them to stay put in that spot until he came back later to pick them up.

When all the children had been dropped off, within a short time, the sound of a small airplane engine could be heard. Very soon, the plane would swoop low, approaching the field, and then release whatever chemical was scheduled to be sprayed on the cotton plants on that day, making pass after pass, until the entire field had been sprayed. The plantation children may have been too small to wield a hoe in the fields to chop the weeds, but they were not too small to be used as field markers for the spray plane. Do you think the spray plane pilot was so skilled as to insure that the children at the edge of the field didn’t get any of the chemicals sprayed on them?

Still with me?

And now, for the Christmas experience…

As the Christmas season approached that fall almost 30 years ago, myself and 6-8 others were scheduled to make a week-long delivery trip to north central Mississippi, mainly in the delta area.

This was to be my first Christmas trip there, but there was a catch in my plans, compared with the other volunteers in our group. The rest of the folks were scheduled to leave southern Wisconsin, in two cars and a pickup truck, on Dec. 27th, arriving in the Mississippi delta the early afternoon of the 28th, staying and helping build on a new house, leaving Mississippi on New Years Day.

With the job I had at that time, I had to be back home on Dec. 30th, meaning I had to leave Mississippi on the 29th. Somehow.

With that in mind, I made arrangements to leave my home in Wisconsin on Christmas Day, by myself, and drive a fully-loaded, 22′ long U-Haul truck, carrying hundreds of boxes of donated clothing, bedding, quilts, used toys and other things, down to the delta, hopefully arriving the morning of Dec. 26th.

I would drive directly to the home of Miss Annie Ruth, near Itta Bena, Mississippi, where I would stay for two days, completely re-wiring the shack she and her family lived in. The other members of the trip would meet me at Miss Annie’s home on the early afternoon of Dec. 28th, and I would then join with them in delivering all of the donated items in other, nearby counties, and we would all help build a new home for a widow, so she could break away from another plantation setting.

The man driving the pickup truck, and I, would leave the group on Dec. 29th, and be back early on the morning of the 30th.

Okay.

Around midday on Christmas Day, I packed my duffel bag, sleeping bag, some tools and electrical supplies in the U-Haul truck, and left my home for Mississippi. The plan was to drive straight through, stopping only for fuel and the bathroom, arriving in Itta Bena sometime in the mid-morning of the next day.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

The trip south was going smoothly, until I was just north of St. Louis and hit FOG!

And I mean stuff so thick that you could almost cut it with a knife!

After a hundred or two miles of driving in that stuff, my neck muscles were so tight, I could hardly turn my head to either side.

And that led me to get tired earlier than I had anticipated.

So, just south of St. Louis, I made the first of two unscheduled sleep stops of two hours, in a truck stop parking lot.

When I woke up, I could hardly see the vehicle 15 feet away, but I had to get moving or I would never get there.

Down in Arkansas, I just couldn’t drive any more, so I pulled into a Rest Area there on I-55 and slept for another two hours. Then headed out again, and by mid-morning, just south of Memphis, I finally ran out of the fog, and in the early afternoon, finally pulled into Miss Annie Ruth’s driveway, out in the cotton field.

Although it was a chilly day outside, with a light drizzle coming down there when I arrived, Annie and her family, who all knew I was coming and why, were all glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms and hugs. It was good to finally arrive, and I was really beat from the trip down.

Three of the four rooms of the house were used as bedrooms. The one large front room, where the main entrance door was, contained five beds, and was where 10 of the family slept. The other large room had only two beds, one for Annie’s mother, and the other for Jerry, Annie’s son. In the third, smaller bedroom, slept the other two people living there.

Grandmother’s bed was beautiful! It was a full size, carved wood poster bed frame, where only grandmother slept. However, on this special occasion, Annie and Grandmother insisted that I sleep in this beautiful bed, and share the room with Jerry. Jerry’s brother, Neil, who would help do the re-wiring project with myself and Jerry, was living with another sister in nearby Itta Bena.

After visiting with the family a short while, I brought in my duffel, sleeping bag and pillow, and stowed it away next to Grandmother’s beautiful bed.

It was when I went next door into the other large bedroom, to visit some more with the family, that I experienced for the first time, the reason the walls and ceilings were coated black throughout the house.

The ill-blowing wind moving over the top of the house, pushed the rising smoke from the double-faced fireplace between the two large bedrooms right back down into the rooms, and BAM, I got “smoked” big time, in a hurry! My eyes stung and I couldn’t help but cough from what the smoke was doing to my lungs!

After a few minutes in the room, I begged to excuse myself to go outside so that I could clear my eyes and lungs of the heavy smoke. And as I was going out the door after that first blast, I couldn’t help but hear snickers and giggles from Annie’s family at my reaction to the fireplace smoke.

Their bodies, God Bless them, were accustomed to the smoke, but their Christmas guest from far away, was going to have some problems during the next two days of living and working there! I could only stand the smoke in the main room for more about 20 minutes at a time, without going outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Many, many trips did I make outside during those two days!

That afternoon, Jerry and Neil and I started stapling #12-2 w/ground Romex electrical wire directly on the walls and ceilings of the four rooms, to get the re-wiring product started. Of course, every 20 minutes or so, I would have to go outside for fresh air, while they continued working away, just fine with the smoke.

Jerry and I had a piece of tin across the fireplace in our big room, which although it blocked us from getting much heat in that room, it did greatly help keep most of the fireplace smoke from filling our room and our lungs, and I credit that tin with allowing me to survive sleeping through the night both nights without going outside for fresh air (and cold, damp) air.

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Miss Annie, her daughter, Gwen, and her son, Jerry, and several grandchildren, as seen recently in front of her current home. Gwen graduated from Mississippi Valley State University with classmate Jerry Rice of the SF 49ERS fame, and is a Supervisor on death row at the nearby State Prison.

The next morning, the boys and I continued stringing and stapling wire, installing plastic outlet and switch boxes right on the walls, which looked rather strange with the white-coated wire running this way and that on those blackened walls and ceiling.

By the end of the day, we had all the circuits run, over to the old circuit breaker, on the side of the large main room, in preparation for replacing it the next morning, with a 60 amp, used fuse box that had come out of a barn in Wisconsin, given to me by an electrician in my home town, to ‘recycle’ in Mississippi.

The new wiring set-up included a switch-controlled ceiling light and at least three outlets in each of the four rooms, as well as an outlet on the front porch, to plug in the wringer washing machine. Previously, there were small, light-use, brown extension cords running everywhere in the house, all originating from that one outlet in the main room.

During the day of the 27th, I observed at least two very memorable incidents, the first of which was when we were preparing to eat the noon lunch. Janice had cooked lunch on the wood cook stove, and called myself and all the grandchildren into the kitchen to eat at the table. There was only one kitchen chair in the house, and everyone insisted that I sit in it at the table when we ate.

So, at lunch, I sat there, in the only chair, while the grandchildren all stood around the the table and ate off a few old plates and pie tins with their fingers. There were only a couple of forks and spoons, and they again insisted that I have one of each, while the kids just used their hands.

That experience humbled and affected me deeply, being treated with such respect and dignity. The kids were laughing and joking with me while we ate, and it was a one of those moments I will never forget as long as I live. It was such a learning experience in human appreciation, hospitality extended to others and brotherly love in everyday action.

The other incident occurred during the middle of the afternoon then, when the kids were hungry for a snack of some kind, and Annie instructed them to go to the boxes in my room. I happened to be in there when it happened, and was mildly startled when four or five of them came hustling into the room, dived under my bed, and came out with two bushel-sized cardboard boxes, one filled with apples and the other with oranges, from which they each took one of each, before putting the boxes back in place under my bed, and then scampering out.

As I observed that happening, I was struck and impressed with how health-minded Annie was about the nutrition of her family, especially the grandchildren. From what I had observed in other towns and the homes of some of our black friends living in poverty and in material want in the delta, it was pretty commonplace for the children to be snacking on potato chips and candy bars for their snacks, bought from the nearest Double-Kwik or other convenience store.

During those two days of being with Annie and her family, I observed numerous examples of the children and grandchildren displaying sincere signs of respect to Annie and her mother. And although Grandmother was ailing when she was living there, it was expected that she would never live anywhere else; that Annie and her children and grandchildren would always provide a home and loving care for her, no matter what.

What a beautiful example of a family’s love for the eldest member.

The morning of the 28th, the boys and I installed the ‘new’ 60-amp fuse box and seated the meter in its socket again, and the new electrical system was complete, worked just fine and was ‘good to go’. Neil and Jerry were both pretty proud of their work, and the family praised them for making the home so much more brighter, with outlets in every room now.

The feelings I had then were many, including happiness at being able to help this beautiful family have a more comfortable home, and joy at having the privilege of witnessing such family love for each other, in what most people would describe as tragic living conditions.

For Annie and her family, it wasn’t what they didn’t have that was important to them, it was what they did have that was important in their lives. In my estimation, if any family in this world had their priorities straight, it was them.

After we finished the wiring project, I had the boys come out to the U-Haul truck with me, and we unloaded a number of boxes from the truck which they carried into the house, including some boxes of beautiful, hand-made quilts from Lutheran women in southwestern Wisconsin, a couple of boxes of toys, and a dozen boxes or so of good, used clothing.

As the boys carried the boxes in, I opened the cab door to start the truck up and warm up the engine before the others from Wisconsin arrived, and it was then that I happened to spot an old shoe box that I had stuck under my seat when we had loaded the truck from storage a few days prior to my leaving Wisconsin. I had forgotten about the box until that moment, as I hadn’t been in the cab since I had arrived two days ago.

I reached in and pulled out the shoe box, which looked very old, was discolored and wrapped tightly with some old twine, and walked back to the house. As I walked through the door, into the main room, Annie was sitting just inside, on the bed (hers) nearest to the door, listening to others in the room talk.

I held out the box, put it into Annie’s lap, and said, “Here, Annie, this is for you.”

She looked at the box, and then up at me, and said, “What’s this, Lance?”

I didn’t say anything, and a few seconds later, she untied the twine, removed the top of the shoe box and carefully set them off them both off to the side on the bed.

She reached into the box and took out one of several wrapped parcels of white tissue paper, and started carefully unwrapping it.

As she opened the paper and finally saw what was inside, she lowered her head, pressed the opened parcel against her chest and started moving forward and back, sobbing.

Everyone in the room stopped talking, and looked towards her.

As she wept, she reached out and gripped my arm firmly with her hand, and said, “You don’t know how long I have prayed for this. Oh, dear God, Thank you!”

Inside the box was a complete, 40-piece serving of an old, tarnished set of silverware, all carefully wrapped in tissue paper, which had probably came from an elderly, white-haired lady in Wisconsin, who likely had had the box stored on a basement or closet shelf for many years, and finally retrieved it and sent it to our storage center that it might be used by another, less privileged.

Someone’s cast-off had become another’s treasure.

Annie must have cried for at least five minutes, and, as I stood there beside her, tears flooded my eyes, too, as I held my lips tightly together, and did my best not to break down.

It was one final lesson for me on the really important things in life, given to me by that beautiful family.

It was an incredible Christmas, the likes of which I had not experienced before, nor since.

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The author and Miss Annie. This photo taken by Maggie, of Okay, Fine, Dammit, who also is a friend of Annie’s.

I stopped to see Annie and her family this past Thanksgiving Day evening, at her brick, three-bedroom home in Itta Bena, which her children purchased for her several years ago, so she could finally move out of that old, cramped, drafty house, she called home.

As she struggled for breath as we talked, I said another silent prayer for this beautiful friend, and couldn’t help but wonder how much of her breathing difficulty might have come from her life on the plantation during those thirty years she lived in that old share-croppers shack, in the middle of a cotton field.

I know what living there for only two days did to me, so long ago, one cotton field Christmas.

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TUESDAY MEME

I hardly ever do this, but I’m going to post this meme that I stole from Ree at The Hotfessional, who stole it from Jesse at DaysGoBy.

Things you’ve already done: bold
Things you want to do: italicize
Things you haven’t done and don’t want to – leave in plain font

1. Started your own blog. Yep.
2. Slept under the stars. Numerous times.
3. Played in a band.
4. Visited Hawaii.
5. Watched a meteor shower.
6. Given more than you can afford to charity. Most of my life.
7. Been to Disneyland/World.
8. Climbed a mountain. In wyoming.
9. Held a praying mantis.
10. Sang a solo. In high school.
11. Bunge jumped.
12. Visited Paris.
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea.
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch. Photography.
15. Adopted a child. Sort of, during many summers.
16. Had food poisoning. More than once, and it sucks!
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty.
18. Grown your own vegetables.
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France.
20. Slept on an overnight train.. From Moscow to Leningrad.
21. Had a pillow fight.. with my kids.
22. Hitch hiked.. Yep.
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill.. – Mental health is important, too.
24. Built a snow fort.. Lots of them.
25. Held a lamb.. Yep.
26. Gone skinny dipping..
27. Run a Marathon.
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice..
29. Seen a total eclipse.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset.. Lots of them.
31. Hit a home run.. Lots of them, too.
32. Been on a cruise.. Not yet.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person..
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors.. Visited the country, yes.
35. Seen an Amish community.. Yes, and have stayed with Amish friends in one.
36. Taught yourself a new language.. I’m working on it.
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied..
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person.
39. Gone rock climbing..
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David. No, but I have seen Rembrandts, Renoirs, and many other famous artists in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
41. Sung karaoke..
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt.. Many times.
43. Bought a stranger a meal in a restaurant..
44. Visited Africa..
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight.. Lots of times here on the Gulf Coast.
46. Been transported in an ambulance.. As a passenger – yes; as an attendent – many times.
47. Had your portrait painted.
48. Gone deep sea fishing.. Kinda – In Lake Michigan & Superior
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person.. No, but my youngest son has.
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris..
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling.. During college.
52. Kissed in the rain.. Oh yeah.
53. Played in the mud.. It’s been awhile.
54. Gone to a drive-in theater.. Many times.
55. Been in a movie.. Hasn’t everyone?
56. Visited the Great Wall of China.. Not yet.
57. Started a business..
58. Taken a martial arts class.
59. Visited Russia.. Oh yes.
60. Served at a soup kitchen.. Yup.
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies.
62. Gone whale watching..
63. Gotten flowers for no reason.. Yes.
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma..
65. Gone sky diving. Does photographing someone else skydiving count?
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp.. Not yet.
67. Bounced a check.. Oooops! Hasn’t everyone?
68. Flown in a helicopter..
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy..
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial..
71. Eaten Caviar.
72. Pieced a quilt.
73. Stood in Times Square.
74. Toured the Everglades.
75. Been fired from a job – Fired. Laid off.
76. Seen the Changing of the Guard in London.
77. Broken a bone... Several.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle.
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person.. It was incredible!
80. Published a book.. Working on it.
81. Visited the Vatican.. Youngest son has.
82. Bought a brand new car.. Several.
83. Walked in Jerusalem.
84. Had your picture in the newspaper.. Unfortunately.
85. Read the entire Bible.. Not yet, working on it.
86. Visited the White House..
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating..
88. Had chickenpox.. And Mumps & Measles.
89. Saved someone’s life.. Actually, yes.
90. Sat on a jury.. Twice
91. Met someone famous..
92. Joined a book club..
93. Lost a loved one.. Many.
94. Had a baby. No, but I have assisted several women in that process.
95. Seen the Alamo in person. Not yet.
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake.. Nope; seen it, though.
97. Been involved in a law suit..
98. Owned a cell phone..
99. Been stung by a bee.. Several times.

—- (Ree says:) This one was very travel oriented. Steal if you’d like. (and I agree with her).

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Author’s note: This post is the first of a several part series of stories about the author’s travel to the U.S.S.R. in April 1973, during the ‘Cold War,’ between the former ‘Soviet Union’ and the United States.

PART I: SCANDINAVIAN DELIGHT!

In the spring of 1973, just after I had graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus, I enrolled in a graduate course there called ‘Soviet History.’

At that time, the U.S. and the old Soviet Union were still involved in what was called, the “Cold War,” which had existed since World War II.

It was a time when U.S. President Richard Nixon was getting ready to visit the U.S.S.R. for the first time, in late April (and for you youngsters who might read this, that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

This was one of the most popular history courses at UW-P at that time, as the unique and attractive part of this particular course was, that it contained a three week ‘field trip’ to the U.S.S.R., which would take place in early April of that term. The cost for the trip was an amazing $600, which included air fare on Finn Air, hotels, ground transportation, tour guides, and regular meals. A veritable bargain of a world class trip!

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I had tried to register for this course for the two previous years there as an undergrad, but, because of its popularity, there was a waiting list of two years to get in it. Only 28 students were allowed to take the course each year, which was offered only in the spring semester.

The structure of the trip involved having all of the State Universities in Wisconsin coming together on that trip, with each campus having a quota on how many students and staff could participate.

There were a number of possible itineraries available for each campus to choose from, and as it worked out, our group of 28 students and two staff were paired up with the group of six from UW-Eau Claire, which included five students and one faculty member, who actually spoke Russian and had family in the U.S.S.R. Our combined group would visit Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and Odessa.

The course was set up so that all of the course requirements were completed prior to the trip, so that there were no pressures during the trip to keep up on any course assignments. That made the actual trip a lot more enjoyable to look forward to.

My packing list for the trip (besides personal clothing) included a number of items for personal use and for trading: 25 rolls of Kodachrome and Ecktachrome 36-exposure slide film; lots of batteries for my Canon FTQL SLR 35mm camera and flash, 4 cartons of Camel cigarettes (I have never smoked cigarettes), 6 cartoons of Wriggly gum, 2 commemorative cigarette lighters, 4 decks of playing cards, a small, folding, magnetic chess board, 4 rolls of t.p., several zip lock packets of laundry detergent powder, and a small length of strong nylon cord (to stretch in my hotel room to utilize as a clothes line to dry my clothes). Plus: diarrhea medicine, aspirin, and an English-Russian pocket dictionary.

I also decided to wear my red Eddie Bauer down winter jacket, as it would be cold in Leningrad and Moscow in April. This choice would subsequently create quite a bit of attention during the trip…

The State University system booked our flight with Finnair, because, in addition to the great price they provided on the flight cost, that airline agreed to provide two days stay for all of us in the capitol city of Helsinki, including all hotel, meals, ground transportation and tour fees. From Helsinki, we all would take tour buses from there over to the Soviet border, through customs, and from there, to the first city on our Soviet tour, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

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During the later part of January, all of February and March, I drove an hour one way to attend this class one evening each week, taking care of the pre-trip course requirements.

We learned about what to expect during the trip, and studied about various aspects of the Soviet Union, including its history, politics, economics, sociology, poetry and the arts. We also learned about what was permitted and not permitted in terms of the conduct of tourists visiting the U.S.S.R.

I did my best during those two and a half months of class time to learn as many Russian phrases as I could.

As the semester progressed, the students in the class got more and more excited about the upcoming trip, which, beside spending two days in Helsinki, would involve visiting the Soviet cities of Leningrad (now know as St. Petersburg), Moscow, Kiev and the Black Sea port of Odessa.

So, on the appointed day of our flight, all 170 some of us University of Wisconsin regional campus students and staff, met down in O’Hare Airport north of Chicago, in the International Terminal, and damned be him or her who forgot to bring their passport to the airport, because he or she wouldn’t be going on the trip without it!

The flight from Chicago to Helsinki took about 8 or 9 hours, and was a study in getting acquainted with as many of your fellow students during the flight as possible. OR, you could do like many of the students did and sleep, read, or try to watch the in-flight movie.

We finally arrived in Helsinki, early the next morning, to a very cold and snowy Scandinavian capitol city. After being bused to our hotel, we discovered that unfortunately, we would not be able to check in until several hours later.

Unfortunately, for this post, my original slides, numbering several hundred, are at my home far away, and not available to use herein. The beautiful images you will see herein have been borrowed from several internet sources, and I am grateful for their use. When you see them, try to imagine that they are in the winter with snow on the ground.

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The Farmers Market area in Helsinki. Try to imagine it with snow, though.

So, with our luggage piled high in one entire side of the rather small lobby, several of us decided to take off on a self-guided, walking tour of the nearby port area, which was only a few blocks away from our hotel.

With snow on the ground, and our breath blowing out of our noses and mouths like a bunch of cattle clomping along in a pasture, we made our way over to the port area, and discovered, despite the cold and snow, a rather large, busy, and colorful open farmer’s market bustling with activity.

The market area consisted of several dozen vendor tents and stands, where a number of kinds of early, colorful flowers, including lots of tulips, were on sale. There were also several stands full of fruit, vegetables and pastry items, which drew our noses in to investigate, with many yummy smells of freshly-baked bread, croissants and other delicacies drifting through the air.

An immediate, disturbing problem arose, however, which prevented any of us from purchasing any those delicious-smelling baked items: none of us had any Finish currency yet! And we were all afraid of paying in dollars, for fear of getting taken advantage of with the exchange rate.

So, we walked, saw, snapped numerous pictures of the port area, smelled the baked goodies, and eventually made our way back to our hotel, hoping to be able to check in to our rooms, and square away our gear.

After a lot of waiting around in the cramped, hotel lobby, we were finally assigned rooms. We picked up our luggage, road up the elevator, got into our rooms and unpacked. Seems like I also took a short nap, when all was settled.

During the next two days after our arrival, with coldish temperatures down in the 20s and 30s, and about 6″ of powdery snow on the ground, our group (including the 6 from UW-Eau Claire), toured around the modern, very westernized capitol city of Helsinki.

We also had the opportunity to go shopping at Stockmann’s, the largest department store in Europe, which had anything and everything you might ever want to shop for. Incredible store!

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Stockmann’s Department Store, the largest in Europe.

Among other attractions, we visited a very large Lutheran Church, a downtown high school and a glass/china factory. We also had time to wander about, and do some shopping near our hotel.

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Temppeliahkio Lutheran Rock Church (dome in center) in Helsinki.

The Finnish high school we visited was headquartered in a multi-story building located only a few blocks away from our hotel, and was an interesting contrast to what I was used to seeing in the high schools I was familiar with in Wisconsin.

The classes held from 15 to 25 students each, and were incredibly ‘lively’ for high school classes. The students were all very active during the classes, talkative, contributing, and noisy, but not in a disruptive manner. And strangely to us, many of the students kept coming and going from the classroom to somewhere else. The kids dressed all very different from each other; no uniforms at this school.

The huge, famous Lutheran Temppeliaukio ‘Rock’ Church was just amazing! The church itself was built upon open granite bedrock, with a beautiful, copper metal dome roof, which covered an open circular area of probably four acres. The beautiful granite bedrock was exposed along the walls and part of the floor, and lent such a distinct personality to the place. An incredible place to worship, and probably the most beautiful and unusual church I have ever seen.

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It was in the evenings of our stay in Helsinki in the hotel, after having our evening meal, that many of our students, including myself, came together and played the first of dozens of great card games in our rooms, during the tour! Much more so than in the classroom during the previous two and a half months, members of the group began their bonding process in earnest, a really neat thing to watch and experience.

As it turned out, I was the oldest member of the students in both groups, by about six years, and shortly after our arrival in Helsinki, I kind of unofficially became the leader of the group, and the one the other students came to to ask questions and advice of.

After a whirlwind two days of touring, shopping, taking pictures and playing cards, our combined travel group packed our bags, loaded up onto the bus, and headed for the 250-mile journey over into the Soviet Union, to the pre-Russian Revolution Soviet capitol of Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg.

Visiting Helsinki had been a grand start of this most-anticipated tour of the Soviet Union, and all of our group was looking forward to crossing the border and the experiencing that which lay ahead.

And that Cold War travel story will be the subject of NIGHT TRAIN FROM MOSCOW TO LENINGRAD, PART II: TRAVEL TO LENINGRAD: SOVIET WINDOW TO THE WEST.

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In the mid-1970’s, when I worked on a large cattle ranch in northern Wyoming, one of my job duties there was to guide out-of-state deer hunters for the last six weeks of the year.

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Mule deer bucks.

We would get hunters in from all over the United States, all wanting to shoot a big buck. And although we did have many large bucks living on the 18,000+acre ranch, we had a ton more does than bucks.

We had so many deer, in fact, that the browse line for the feeding deer on shrubs and small trees in the winter was about six feet off the ground. The deer herd on the ranch was estimated to be between 3000 and 5000 animals, of which 85% were whitetails, and the other 15% mule deer.

The hunters would usually drive in in vans and sedans, and occasionally, in a motor home. We would put many of them up in ranch buildings, including sometimes in old homestead buildings we had outfitted with hand-made bunk beds.

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Ripe Chokecherries!

My wife would cook breakfast for everyone, for a small charge, of course, and pack a brown bag for lunch. One of the best things she would serve for breakfast, besides bacon, sausages and eggs, was the chokecherry syrup we would make out of the chokecherries we would pick in the draws up behind the ranch buildings. You talk about a terrific flavor!

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One of the out-of-state groups of hunters I guided included a group from my home state, from near a place named Jefferson, in southern Wisconsin.

We were hunting up high one day, in the scrub oak and hardwood timber, hunting muleys which like to hang around up there, when one of the hunters asked me if I was a second generation family out there.

That question might have been posed because of my attire that day. That being: blue jeans, flannel shirt, down vest, large, dark green stetson hat, Puma hunting knife on my belt, and a healthy growth of a full,dark beard. Apparently, I had the look of a real Wyoming ranch guy then.

When the man asked me that question, I had to chuckle, and shake my head just a bit. I replied by telling him that, in fact, I had attend my first two years in college only 10 miles from where he lived in Wisconsin.

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Muleys.

The four of them laughed, shook their heads back, and said “You’ve got to be kidding us.”

A little while later, one of them shot a medium-size muley buck. As I got ready to dress the deer, one of the guys asked if it was OK for him to video tape me dressing the deer. I said, sure, no problem.

So, I went about the chore, and soon the critters entrails were on the ground, and all was done except for the blood remaining on my hands. I kind of looked around, as if to see if there was any snow or a water puddle around, so I could clean the blood from my hands.

One of the hunters said, “Now what are you going to do? How are you going to clean your hands off?” All the while, his buddy was still video taping.

“Well,” I said, “when neither snow nor water is around at a time like this, here’s what you do…”

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And with that, I proceeded to take my folding Puma hunting knife, reached down to the entrails and slit open the stomach. Then I reached in, grabbed a hand-full of bile, which had grass and sage tips in it, and a strong sage odor, and proceeded to rub it around my hands like if I had a hand-full of soap, and within a minute, the blood was gone.

As I was doing this, the fours hunters all gasped, and made sounds like: “auuuuugh” and such. And the poor guy with the video camera, quickly set the camcorder down on the ground and proceeded to lose his breakfast. Poor guy!

In a couple of minutes, the sage smell of the bile had disappeared. All four of the Wisconsin fellows eventually shot a buck.

Another hunter I guided that fall, was from the Chadron, Nebraska area, a really neat guy, named Bob. I guided Bob for two days, and he passed up several smaller whitetail bucks during the first day, in hopes of nailing a buck with with a large rack.

The second day out with Bob, we were hunting high up in a canyon area, where I positioned Bob at a spot where I thought he might get a
decent shot, if I could scare a sleeping buck out past him.

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About 45 minutes after placing Bob, I was walking around the top of the canyon, throwing rocks and anything else I could find, down off the rim into bunches of brush below, without much success. Finally, going around another point, I found an old beer can on the ground, and then pitched it over the rim, down into some large boulders and brush below, and immediately heard a branch breaking as a deer took off from where it had been sleeping below me.

I couldn’t see the deer, but about 30 seconds later, there was a loud ‘boom’ as Bob’s rifle fired, and a split second later, I heard a ‘thunk’ sound as the bullet from Bob’s gun slammed into the deer.

I hustled back across the rim area, above where I had placed Bob, looked down, and saw a smiling Bob down in the bottom of the canyon, standing beside a huge muley buck with a very large rack. That buck was the largest of any harvested during the three years I guided hunters there on the ranch.

After learning how I had kicked out the deer, Bob said we would have to call this fellow ‘The Beer Can Buck!’

The strangest and most humorous guiding episode I had with a hunter during those years, was when I was guiding a young hotshot from Pennsylvania, who worked in a sporting goods store and fancied himself a crack shot.

I don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Jake.

Just after daybreak on the morning I was to guide Jack, he came out of the bunk house carrying a very fancy rifle, with a big scope, with an extra clip of ammo. Strapped around his waste, he had a pistol belt, in the holster of which was a .357 caliber, six-shot pistol, with about 10 rounds tucked into the loops of the belt.

He was a picture to behold, that’s for sure, and as I saw him walk through the yard gate, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. He was a real dude.

We loaded into my ranch pickup truck, a half-ton, blue Dodge, and headed out from the buildings, on a truck trail about a hundred yards above and along the river, where I figured we might surprise a buck or two coming up from the river, heading towards a grassy bed in the high country for the day. My own rifle, a Sako Finnbear 7mm Remington Magnum, was hanging in the rifle rack behind the truck seat.

As we drove slowly along through the sage brush and small trees high above the river, my eyes scanned along the river to our left, as well as to the right, up towards the higher country.

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Hunting along the river.

When we were about 15 minutes out from the ranch buildings, I saw a movement far to my left, of a deer moving behind some brush. I stopped the truck, told Jake to ease out of his door to the side of the truck, and I eased out my door with my Zeiss binoculars in my hand, around to the rear of the truck, to meet Jake.

As we stood there silently, I watched the stand of brush through my binoculars, and about 45 seconds later, saw a smallish muley buck step out from the brush and stop.

I told Jake to rest his elbow up on the back of the truck box side, to help steady his aim, and take a look at the buck out there about a hundred yards or so, and see if it was a buck he wanted to take home.

Jake said quickly, “Yeah, he’s good enough, I’ll take him.”

As Jake concentrated on aiming his rifle, I continued to watch the deer through my binoculars. Unbeknown to me, when he was aiming, he abandoned the elbow rest I had told him to take over the back of the truck, and went to resting the fore stock of his rifle right on the side of the rear box of the truck.

A few seconds later, with the deer standing broadside to us, looking our way, Jake’s rifle fired. Strangely, I saw the bullet strike the ground about 30 yards in front of the deer.

I thought, “What the hell’s up with that!?” Looking over at Jake, as he was getting ready to shoot again, I saw that he had changed his rest position right down on the truck box. A split second later, as I looked at the inside of the truck box, I saw a small hole in the side of the box, and realized then that Jake had just shot a hole in the side of the truck! Damn, man!

Jake asked excitedly, “Did I hit him? Did I hit him?” I replied, “No, not yet. He’s still standing there.”

I quickly told Jake to step away from the truck and shoot again, which he did, and missed again. But this time, he also missed the truck, thank goodness!

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After that shot, the deer turned and walked a few yards away, and Jake, who was now very excited, shot again, and missed. With the deer still standing there, looking at us, he bolted another round into the chamber and fired once more, and missed again. And now his rifle clip was empty.

He reached into his pocket, bringing out another clip, and after finally getting the empty one out of the rifle, he jammed the new one home, worked the bolt and slid another shell into the chamber, firing a few seconds later. This time, he hit the deer in one of its hind legs, and the deer started to move back towards the river, from where it had just come.

Jake fired again as the deer moved towards the river, taking some hair off the neck. He fired two more times, in short order, with one more bullet striking the deer in a non-vital area, all while the deer kept moving away, down over the edge of the river bank.

With the deer now out of our sight, down by the river, Jake took off running towards the place where the deer had disappeared. He got over to the edge of the bank, overlooking the river, and went to fire another shot, but nothing happened, as the second clip was now empty, too.

He set the rifle down, looked back at me, and screamed, “I’m out of shells for my rifle!” Then he hurriedly pulled out his pistol and started blazing away at the deer.

By this time, I am dumbfounded, standing there shaking my head in disbelief, saying to myself, “You have got to be kidding me.”

I reached into the pickup, got my rifle from the gun rack, and walked the 40-50 yard distance over to the edge of the bank, where both the deer and Jake had disappeared, all the while, hearing Jake continuing to fire shot after shot from his pistol at the deer.

Arriving at the bank of the river, I saw Jake down at the river’s edge, just about into the water, pointing across the river about 40 yards away, at the small buck, which was still alive and attempting to climb up out of the shoreline and up over the bank, into the thick sage brush beyond it.

Looking down at Jake at the edge of the river, about 50 yards away from where I was standing, he looked up at me, and said frantically, “I’m out of bullets, what am I going to do? Don’t let him get away; can you shoot him?”

It was time to end this circus. I yelled down to him, “Move over to the left by the fence, and I’ll bring ’em down for you.”

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Jake moved to the left, while I took careful aim at the deer, which was now approximately 75-80 yards away from me, and fired one shot, which struck the buck in the neck, instantly ending his misery.

After my shot dropped the deer, Jake sat down on the river bank to calm down. I continued to stand where I was for about five minutes, making sure the deer was no longer moving.

I finally had Jake come back up to the flat above the river where I was, and then we walked over to where the truck was parked, and drove back past the ranch buildings, crossed over the bridge to the far side, and about 15 minutes later, we arrived near where the deer was lying.

Oh, Man! Was that deer ever shot up. Jake had apparently hit the deer several times with his pistol, including in both rear flanks, where most of the good meat was located, while shooting at it across the river. And, the rack on the deer wasn’t anything special, only a smallish, 3-points-on-a-side muley.

As I dressed the deer and loaded it into the back of the pick-up, Jake commented, “Gee, I thought that the buck was a lot bigger than it really is up close.”

When we returned back to the ranch, I transfered the carcass into Jake’s truck. While I was doing this, one of the guys at the ranch came out to talk with me, and asked what the hell had happened out there, as he had heard almost 30 shots fired out where we were that morning. I laughed and told him I would tell him the story later on.

I used to love to hunt, but haven’t done it for many, many years now, going on 30 years actually. I quit gun hunting about the time I started spending my hunting season down in Mississippi, helping families there in need. Most of my hunting these days is done with my Nikon digital SLR camera.

Much more satisfying than the old days.

I took a great deal of pride in having studied and learned the habits of deer over the years in the wild, and in being able to bring my hunters up on deer, so they would get at least one good shot at a buck.

One group of four, more elderly deer hunters from Minnesota arrived in a huge motor home for their hunt, and I saw right off the bat that they were a real partying bunch, more than dedicated hunters.

I took all four of them out the morning after they arrived and brought them up onto bucks four separate times that they could shoot at at a reasonable distance, and expect to hit. Apparently though, they were still very hung over from heavy drinking the previous evening, and they literally couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces.

After the fourth time of this happening, I was getting rather ticked. I took one of the fellows aside who I had developed a good report with, and advised him that I didn’t think his crew would be taking any deer home the kind of lousy shots they were. I asked him if he would like me to shoot with them from now on, when I brought them on to bucks, and he said that I probably better do that, for their sake.

So, from then on, every time I would get them into shooting range of a decent buck, I would pull my Sako and shoot, too, along with them. Every one of those times when I was “helping” them, the buck(s) went down with with a shot to the neck. Each time I would tell one of the fellows that I thought it was his shot that killed the buck. Then all the other fellows slapped him on the back and congratulated him for his good shot.

By the middle of the next day, when their tags were all filled up with nice bucks, the fellows were pretty happy! So happy, in fact, they spent all afternoon and evening drinking to their success and good shooting eyes. I wonder if they ever made it back to Minnesota alive…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

As Jake was getting ready to leave the ranch for Pennsylvania with his shot-up deer, he looked really disappointed, to say the least. I guess this was just a case of events turning out not quite as he had envisioned they would.

Well, life can be like that, can’t it?

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As Thanksgivings go, this one has been memorable, but kind of a blur.

Fast and furious, lots of people, faces, miles traveled, a little turkey, and catfish, and not much sleep.

For me, it all started Thanksgiving morning, when I left Long Beach, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, bound for I-55 north and the city of Grenada, which would begin the 25th annual Thanksgiving mission trip to north central Mississippi.

It would be there, in the parking lot of the local WalMart in Grenada, that I would meet six wonderful friends and fellow mission workers from southwestern Wisconsin, who had been driving all through the night to bring a large horse trailer and truck load of donated items to disadvantaged families in the Mississippi Delta, a Thanksgiving mission tradition that began some 25-30 years ago.

My longtime friend and fellow mission worker, Chuck, a Special Education Teacher from rural Mineral Point, who organized and led the Wisconsin mission crew, had called late Wednesday evening, at about 11:00pm, from Stoughton, Wisconsin, that the crew had just loaded the last of the donations and were heading down I-90 south towards Mississippi. On a normal trip down from there, team driving, re-fueling and restroom stops, would normally put them in Grenada around 1:00pm-2:00pm or so.

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Outside Lyndell’s home the Friday after Thanksgiving.

In southern Wisconsin, Chuck had recruited the mission trip workers, arranged for the trip vehicles and trailer, scheduled the loading events, obtained volunteers to help load and led the mission crew down I39 and I-55 to Mississippi over Thanksgiving, all as part of a mission effort to help others of SAMARITANS DEEDS MISSIONS, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

A number of the donations in the large trailer,  a number of used, reconditioned appliances,were donated by Bob’s Electric of Dodgeville, who has been supporting the mission for more than 15 years with the used appliances for disadvantaged Mississippi families. Also on board, were probably 100+ gallons of donated paint from a painter in my hometown, Tom, who I went to high school with.

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Truck and trailer which transported a large load of donated items from southern Wisconsin to north central Mississippi during Thanksgiving.

Shortly before 2:00pm, Chuck called and advised that they had sustained a couple of flat tired on the trailer, and were in Batesville at another WalMart having two new tires installed and would be down shortly.

Just before 3:00pm, the two vehicles pulled into the Grenada parking lot, and a brief reunion took place among old friends.

In the Wisconsin crew were Fritz, a longtime mission worker, who, with his son, owns a farm implement dealership in Mineral Point (The Farmers Implement Store). It was Fritz who donated the use of his pickup and passenger van for use during this trip, as he has so many times over the years, both to this group and so many others, one of the most kind and giving men I have ever met. Fritz is also well-known among our Mississippi coordinators as the purveyor and hander-out of fine Wisconsin cheeses, donated for the mission by superb Mineral point cheese makers, Tony and Julie Hook of the Hook Cheese Company.

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Fritz with some Hook cheddar cheese and his truck and trailer.

Also along was Jim, a soon-to-be retired, U.S. Mail Carrier, and licensed Wisconsin electrician, who also lives in my hometown, and with whom I have made Mississippi mission delivery/work trips with for at least fifteen years. Jim is one of the most resourceful people I have ever known, and can repair virtually anything.

Rev. Richard has been a Thanksgiving missions worker with this crew for the past 6-8 years, and ministers passionately to two Lutheran parishes in the Stoughton area, West Koshkonong Lutheran and nearby Rockdale Lutheran, who have supported the mission work of this group for many, many years.

Mark, who with his brother and father, own the Mitchell Hardware store in Mineral Point, has also been a hard-working, regular member on these Thanksgiving delivery/work trips for several years.

Also along, for the first time on one of our SAMARITANS DEEDS MISSIONS Thanksgiving mission trips, is one of Rev. Richard’s delightful Stoughton church lay-persons, Faith, who has two sisters, appropriately named Hope and Charity. Interestingly, Hope and her spouse, Jerry, are also members of the same little church my wife and I are members of, and coincidentally, Jerry and I are both volunteer Emergency Medical Technicians in our hometown EMS Unit. Small world.

Leaving Grenada shortly after 3:00pm, we headed for Greenwood, and the first delivery at the home of one of our mission coordinators there, named Sallie. After unloading the boxes we had for her, we visited with Sallie for a few minutes, and before leaving for our next stop in Itta Bena, Sallie presented us warm one of her delicious Sweet Potato pies, which we promised to consume later that night.

In Itta Bena, which is Choctow Indian translates into “Home in the woods,” we first stopped at the home of one of our longtime coordinators there, Mary Alice. She had family home for Thanksgiving, and there were people everywhere! After unloading her boxes and a used refrigerator and dryer, she invited us to partake of the large Thanksgiving dinner she had prepared for her family, and we were included as part of her family.

This was Thanksgiving dinner number one.

At about 5:30pm, after dark, after leaving Mary Alice’s, we journeyed several blocks away to the home of Annie Ruth’s, another of our longtime, Itta Bena mission coordinators.

It is always a treat and special affair to visit Annie’s. Our friendship goes back 30 years ago when I met her and her family on my very first mission trip to Mississippi. In countless trips since then, I have come to know and befriend her daughters and sons and have many special memories of our get-togethers and conversations. I had the privilege of spending one very special Christmas with Annie and her family, at their former home on a plantation outside of Itta Bena, which will be the subject of another post sometime.

Thursday evening, we were able to visit with her daughters, Janice, Gwen and Linda, who were home at the time. Gwen is a supervisor on death row at the state prison, where Linda also works. Gwen graduated from nearby Mississippi Valley State University, and is a confirmed 49s fan, where her famous college classmate, NFL Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice, played his college football. Of course, before leaving Annie’s, Fritz shared a couple of packages of Hook Wisconsin cheese with her.

Leaving Itta Bena, we traveled back through Greenwood, and from there south to the small town of Cruger, where we arrived at 6:30pm and visited with another one of our very special mission coordinators, Bobbie.

While we were unloading boxes there into the mission storage shed, Jim went to troubleshoot the electrical problem with the shed and within a few minutes, had the power and lights back on. It was good to see Bobbie again.

At that point, with the trailer and truck considerably lighter, we headed towards Lexington and almost our last stop of the evening, at the home of our longtime coordinator there, Lyndell, who would once again, serve as our trip host during this Thanksgiving.

I have known Lyndell for the past thirty years, during our missions work with a previous charitable organization, which is now dissolved. She is now our senior coordinator in Mississippi for our new charitable organization, Samaritans Deeds Missions. Her home is the hub of our annual Thanksgiving mission activities. She is a gracious and giving host, and mother to three children at home, named Mateus, Cynthia (“Mussie”) and Donnell. She also has eight grown children living in other states.

At 8:00pm, our little convoy pulled into her rural driveway, parked, and went inside for our second and last, Thanksgiving dinner. The only unloading there would be of bedding and duffel bags for those staying at Lyndell’s and the nearby home of her father, Lindbergh.

As we snacked and talked, we discussed our plans for the morning and the following day. In the morning we would unload the small remaining balance of donated items in the truck and trailer at Lyndell’s, where she would disperse them later to families in her surrounding community.

During the day Friday, three members of the crew would stay at Lyndell’s for the day and replace ceiling drywall in her living room and bathroom, while the other four of us, would journey south down to the Gulf Coast to my trailer home in Long Beach, where we would load up much of the tools and supplies I have been using in my two-year personal mission down here, that the Wisconsin crew would transport back and store for me back home until I would transition back myself later this winter, after my Hurricane Katrina recovery mission concluded on the Gulf Coast. We would arrive back at Lyndell’s Friday evening for a special culinary treat.

After eating at Lyndell’s, and establishing plans for Friday, Chuck and I set out for Black Hawk, some 17 miles to the north of Lexington, where we would spend the night in the former home of my old friend, Norman Cobbins, Sr., who passed on a couple of months ago at the age of 102. Norman has allowed our mission group to make use of his former family home for a number of years now, as a mission bunkhouse for visiting mission workers.

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The old family home of Norman and Willie, now serving as a mission bunkhouse.

Arriving at Black Hawk at about 10:30pm, Chuck set out in search of “my Mississippi son,” Reese, who had the key to the padlock on the old house. I went inside the newer Cobbins home, to visit with several of Norman and Willie’s children, who were home from out-of-state visiting their momma and siblings.

About 45 minutes later, I excused myself from the Cobbins home for the evening, and walked up to the old house, to find Chuck asleep on the old couch in the front room. After bringing in my suitcase and sleeping bag from the car, I arrange a place to sleep on one of the lower bunks, and went in to the kitchen for a little while, to sit down at the table there, sip on some diet Coke and make a few notes about the trip experience.

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My bed for two nights in the “Black Hawk Comfort Inn.”

About an hour later, I finally called it a night and slipped under the covers in my bunk. The 60’s temperature outside made for pleasant sleeping that night.

The house is very old, and slowly disentigrating, as the Mississippi weather and each passing year takes its toll on the structure. Some future day, we will need to secure another structure to use as a mission worker bunkhouse, or perhaps raise sufficient funds to building a functional structure.

Friday morning…

A few minutes before 7:00am, I awoke, as did Chuck shortly thereafter. We gathered our gear, loaded up and began the journey south towards Lexington.

The Cobbins farm in rural Black Hawk, located in southern Carroll County, sits approximately 3-4 miles back off the blacktop highway, in a heavily-wooded area, on a gravel road. The road off highway 17 back there, is one of those beautiful drives, especially at this time of the season.

When the road leaves hwy 17, it is in Holmes County, and after a short distance, it narrows somewhat and passes into Carroll County. The Carroll County road is a beautiful stretch. The roadway itself is cut down between the banks on either side, lined heavily with cedar and hardwood trees, the latter of which are exploding with fall colors of brilliant reds, yellows, oranges and shades in between. The road is narrow, and for much of the way from the county line over to the Cobbins farm, the trees form a virtual canopy over the road and the traveler passing along the road. Year round the drive through it is beautiful, but during the fall, today, it was magnificent!

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Country Road in Carroll County.

About 7:45am, Chuck and I arrived at Lyndell’s home, and after a small bit of good morning conversation, the crew started unloading the remaining donated boxes, appliances and cans of paint from the horse trailer into Lyndell’s little storage building. By Sunday evening, all of those things will have been distributed throughout the surrounding community.

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Chuck, Lindbergh and Fritz talk before breakfast.

Shortly after Chuck and I arrived, Lyndell’s father, Lindbergh, age 76, drove into the driveway in his 40-year old 1968 Chevrolet Model 10 pickup truck. What a truck and what a guy! Lindbergh lost his wife over 20 years ago, and lives alone in his small home just up the road. Alone, that is, except outside his back door, lives 10-12 cats, which he says hello to and feeds every morning.

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Lindbergh and his 40-year old Chevy pickup.

It is always a pleasure sitting and visiting a spell with Lindbergh. To Lyndell and her children, Lindbergh is always addressed as “Daddy.” Lindbergh is one of my favorite people to photograph.

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Lyndell’s father, Lindbergh, age 76 years old.

By 9:00am or so, the unloading was finished, and Lyndell was fast at work preparing a quick, hot breakfast consisting of fried, sliced weiners, grits and cheeseburgers garnished with more of that delicious Hook cheddar cheese. It was delicious!

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Lyndell cooking breakfast for the crew.

After breakfast, Fritz, Jim, Faith and myself left in two vehicles for Long Beach to pick up the load of my tools, equipment, etc. waiting there, and Chuck, Rev. Richard and Mark started working on replacing the ceiling drywall.

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New drywall on Lyndell’s living room ceiling.

In a nutshell, Friday was wet! It was raining when we left for the coast, all the way there, and all the way back.

When our travel crew was just north of Jackson on the return trip, at about 7:30pm, I called Lyndell and advised that she could start cooking catfish, we were almost there!

When we arrived, Lyndell was just putting the dishes on the table. Plates were piled high with steaming spaghetti, golden brown hush puppies, savory greens cooked with bacon, creamy coleslaw and, of course, lots of golden, pan-fried catfish! For dessert, there was sweet potato pie and pound cake.

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Hush puppies cooking on Lyndell’s stove.

Lyndell’s catfish supper is legend among our longtime mission workers from Wisconsin. Literally several hundred mission volunteers over the past two decades have enjoyed Lyndell’s special catfish suppers. If they remember nothing else from their trip experience (which doesn’t happen), they remember being her guest for catfish supper.

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Lyndell’s special pan fried catfish.

After supper, and evening conversation, Chuck and I again left for our overnight stay at the mission bunkhouse in rural Black Hawk. Upon arrival there, I installed a new, heavy duty hasp and padlock on the front door. Shortly thereafter, it was time to get some badly-needed sleep.

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Faith and Fritz eat catfish at Lyndell’s.

Saturday morning, Lyndell prepared another great breakfast for the crew, this one consisting of a fried pork casserole dish containing pork, chopped onions and peppers, and more of the delicious Hook cheddar, with toast and jam.

After breakfast, the crew worked on replacing old ceiling drywall in Cynthia’s bedroom, which was finished about 1:00pm.

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Mission crew works on replacing ceiling drywall in Cynthia’s bedroom. L-R: Rev. Richard, Chuck, Jim, Mark (measuring) and fritz.

Within an hour after that, it was time for the final mission trip crew group photo, hugs all around, and then, it was time to head home, the six Wisconsinites would head north, to their homes, and I would head south, back to the Gulf Coast, at least for now, to my work and personal mission.

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Thanksgiving 2008 SD Missions crew, Front (L-R): Faith, Fritz, Donnell, Mateus, Lance. Back: Chuck, Mark, Rev. Richard, Jim, Lyndell, Cynthia, Lindbergh, Kendall.

Goodbyes at this time of the trip are always a bit sad, as another Thanksgiving mission trip experience is about to come to a close.

The trip back down I-55 and US-49 was a bit lonely, driving along in the rain most of the way, after spending the previous 48 hours with my friends, but I made it back to the coast and Long Beach safely, but very tired. Sunday evening, I received an email from Chuck advising that the Wisconsin crew had also arrived back there to their homes safe and sound, to some snow blowing around.

Life goes on for us all, and hopefully, as a result of the way some folks chose to spend their Thanksgiving, far from family and home, life will be a bit more cheerful for some.

Speaking, I believe, for myself and my six Wisconsin friends, over the past 25 years, I have often been asked by others, “Don’t you miss your being with your family, being so far away from home at the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas and such?” My answer is always the same, “You don’t understand, I was with my family.”

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