Saturday Essay Posts

Attack on America

It’s Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, 10:30 a.m. I’m standing in my kitchen munching on an apple. Suddenly, a huge man who looks like the professional wrestler Razor Ramon comes thundering through the front door announcing that he is an employee of the Water and Gas Department and needs to read the meter.

Without asking for identification or taking any security precautions whatsoever, I show him to the basement stairway and resume chomping on my apple. Soon, my basement housemates greet Razor Ramon and he starts talking to them about how the country is at war.

“We’re at war, dude,” I hear him say. “Haven’t you turned on the TV or the radio yet?”

I turn on the television in the living room and see a huge cloud of smoke and debris where the World Trade Center once stood. The news anchor explains that two hijacked passenger jets smashed into the towers, causing them to collapse.

Glensheen Denies Occult Rituals of Disgraced Congdon Nephew

Last year the Minnesota historian Peter S. Svenson wrote an unpublished monograph, “The Forgotten Duluth Painter, Edward Alexander Congdon.” Svenson gave me the following information in an interview conducted on Halloween as luck would have it.

Edward Alexander (a nephew of Chester Congdon) lived at Glensheen, the historic Congdon estate. He hid slightly pointy ears with clever hair styling. But, enlisting in the armed forces to fight World War I, he suffered a military haircut. At Belleau Wood a German flame-thrower splashed liquid fire into his trench, and he escaped with his life unlike some of his fellows. But much of the skin had been burned off the top of his head, including his right ear and his eyebrows. Once healed, hair grew toward the back of his head, and the scar tissue of the high forehead became less noticeable with time. However, his eyebrows remained white scars, and the right ear had burned off down to the hole. Aleister Crowley said, “The effect of that, with his one remaining devil’s-ear, was striking.”

Edward Alexander remained overseas for a time after the war. He wandered the world using his unsettling appearance as currency in mediumistic parlors and spiritualist circles. He joined the Ordo Templi Orientis in England, and enjoyed esotericists he met in France. Then he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, mingling with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yeats. He painted, climbed the Eiger, and had lucid dreams of the dead. Returning stateside in 1923, he lived in the Glensheen attic, “like a bat,” Mrs. Congdon used to say.

Lake Superior Sea Monster: Three Fatal Encounters

Mouth of the Presque Isle River, Sept. 9, 1987

The cute falls and river here empty into Lake Superior like so many sites along the South Shore: sandy beach, smooth stones, jumbles of fallen half-drowned trees. Depth off shore reaches thirty feet with a sand lake floor that quickly turns to a rock shelf plunging 200 feet straight down.

Statement of first responder on presumed drowning death of Matthew Bruin, 19: “This is not the first drowning victim of the Presque Isle River. It’s important to remember while splashing around in this shallow area by the mouth, that the seabed quickly descends to a couple hundred feet. The warm river water flows over top of the colder lake water, making a conveyor belt to the deep. As the river water cools and sinks, it pulls people down. Sadly I think the victim’s body will never be recovered. People say, ‘It’s the Presque Isle monster’ or ‘it’s a sea serpent,’ but it is the lake itself, an impersonal force of nature that does not care if we live or die.”

Victim’s friend and witness, J.R. Sandvik: “I’m telling you he was pulled under by a large animal … I miss him … I miss you buddy.”

Time of Waiting

I remember her waiting up for my father
To come home from God knows where
In a yellow cab at 2:00 A.M.
And waiting for me in the school parking lot
In our old blue station wagon
When whatever it was I was practicing for
Ran late …

And I remember her waiting for me
At the airport when I got back from Japan,
Waiting for everything to be all right,
Waiting for her biopsy results.
Waiting.

— George Bilgere, “Waiting”
 

Waiting for Cancer

In 1956, in On the Origin of Cancer Cells, Otto Warburg tried to pin down the causes for the “mysterious latency period of the production of cancer.” Fifty years later, in Genetic Progression and the Waiting Time to Cancer, Niko Beerenwinkel, Tibor Antal, David Dingli, Arne Traulsen, Kenneth W Kinzler, Victor E Velculescu, Bert Vogelstein, and Martin A Nowak replace the “mysterious latency period” with talk about a waiting period: they set out to “derive an analytical formula for the expected waiting time for the progression from benign to malignant tumor.” They started with a “normal” cell and predicted the number of mutations the cell will undergo. Based on the number of mutations, they could calculate how long it will take for a normal cell to produce a benign tumor and how long before those mutations produce a tumor that becomes malignant.

Ripped at the Rendezvous in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from the Rendezvous Bar in Scanlon, roughly 10 miles west of Duluth. This article appeared in the July 25, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

So, it starts with Sean the Locksmith and I barreling down the southbound lane of I-35, sober as a couple of appellate court judges. Sean is worried, and with good cause: The brakes on his newly purchased Delta 88 are suddenly … how shall I put this? … nonexistent.

The plan, and I’m not saying it’s a good one, is to sort of just not go any faster. Sean plans to take the momentum we have and ride it out, giving little nudges on the gas pedal to keep us going in an attempt to run out of speed precisely as we reach an off-ramp. Eventually, with a little practice, he actually does it, landing us in the heart of beautiful Scanlon. We immediately head to the Rendezvous Bar with its promise of wonderful, sweet booze to wet down our sizzling nerve ends.

Red Flag Warning

It’s almost suspicious how often I happen to be nearby when bodies are pulled out of the water. Am I a jinx or a murderer? No, I just like being by water. And it’s pretty well documented that water is a serial killer.

I’ve already written the essay “Lake Superior Wants to Kill You,” outlining just about everything I want to share on the subject of drowning. There’s one more warning worth putting forward, however, regarding the various ways you can lose your life in the water. So please keep this in mind:

I won’t try to stop you from putting yourself in danger, and it’s unlikely anyone else will, other than maybe your mommy.

Of course, you’ll probably get some general, impersonal warnings. This essay and my other essay, for starters. There are warnings in the media constantly. And then on Minnesota Point in Duluth we have those red flags and warning signs on the beach. But that’s all you get. And it’s not enough, obviously.

Telling someone about the dangers of rip currents is like warning about the potential for pregnancy. The risk vs. reward balance is quickly weighed and then it’s time to get wet.

Duluth, Minnesota and the Lost Confederate Gold

In 1861, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey was in Washington D.C. when the Confederates started the Civil War. He was in the Oval Office when Lincoln received the fateful telegram detailing the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina — the most serious in a string of Southern aggressions, including the seizing of Federal armories across Dixie. Heeding Lincoln’s call for troops, Ramsey walked right up to the President and said, “Mr. President, let Minnesota be the first state to commit 1,000 volunteers to answer this latest outrage from the disloyal states.”

Ramsey’s commitment created the famous fighting force known as the Minnesota First Infantry Regiment. They were the Civil War’s earliest northern enlistees, and they saved the Union at Gettysburg as every Minnesota schoolchild knows. On the third day of that pivotal battle, after Pickett’s Charge, Pvt. Marshall Sherman of St. Paul emerged with the scarred battle flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry. Virginia whines about it to this day but we’re not giving it back neener neener neener.

Ripped at R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from R.T. Quinlan’s Saloon in Downtown Duluth. The article appeared in the June 13, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper. The last paragraph refers to a poster that disappeared from Quinlan’s men’s room wall a few years later. The word on the street back then was: “someone stole it, and he is a fucker.”]

Holy Christ, the rear entrance of this basement hooch joint is lurid. It’s like a nasty Minneapolis strip club, with about four cheap multicolored bulbs attempting to light up beautiful Michigan Street. The Superior Street entrance is … well … it sort of blends into Mr. Nick’s charburger joint, so no one sees it or uses it. When you go to Quinlan’s, you gotta take that long walk down Michigan with all of its homeless teenagers and homicidal paint-huffers, just to get yourself in the mood.

Quinlan’s is the gathering place of 40-year-old men who don’t want to deal with any bullshit. They’re not looking to enjoy live music, score with chicks, get into a bar fight or be entertained in any way other than a regular conversation or a little TV. They want a direct, nonstop, one-way ticket to oblivion, and tonight as usual I’m right there with them.

Wop Wap Wopatui Wopatusi Whatever

Back before the pandemic, when sharing germs was cool, human beings gathered around buffets of food and troughs of alcohol. It was a simpler time.

A meme in my Facebook feed a few months back featured a blurry image of someone pouring Hawaiian Punch into a cooler with chunks of fruit floating in it. In the background of the photo were various bottles of booze. I instantly recognized what was happening; someone was mixing up a wop.

But the caption on top of the image read: “This is what a WAP was back in the day …”

A wap? As in, rhymes with snap? What the hell is that? And why is it capitalized? Is it an acronym? Wild Ass Punch?

Don’t overthink it. This awful group-cocktail-in-a-bucket idea is worthy of the poorly crafted meme that celebrates it.

The Janus, Ghost Ship of Lake Superior

The MV Sophia F. Janus was built, launched, and christened in 1977. It was among the first of 13 “thousand-footers” to sail the inland seas: 1013 feet long, 113 feet wide, 566 feet hull depth, containing 1,300 tons of oil for its four-story engine. It could carry more than 90,000 tons of cargo, with a crew of 23 souls. The ship was an innovative mixed-use tanker-bulk hauler, with three chemical tank holds and two bulk holds. It had a 250-foot discharge boom for the self-unloading of bulk cargo at a rate of 6,000 tons per hour. The vessel holds numerous cargo records. In the superstitious lore of the sailors, however, because a dock worker was crushed during launch, the Janus was considered cursed. Even the infinite dilution of the Great Lakes could not dissolve the stain of blood.

Communication was lost with the Janus in a storm in 1982, and it appeared to have sunk without a trace after leaving Duluth. No flotsam, oil slick, or fuel spill was discovered in the area of her last known location, which was the middle of Lake Superior.

Guts

It started about five years ago with an ordinary stomach ache after eating late and poorly — a speedy meal en route from a client visit in Wisconsin with several coworkers. I felt like maybe I’d eaten something that disagreed with me, and thought really no more of it. Except, I kept getting sicker.

That night, I thought certainly I’d vomit, or at the very least I’d spend a not-inconsiderable portion of my evening in the bathroom. No such thing occurred, but the discomfort in my body continued. My gut felt raw and painful, as though I’d consumed many cups of coffee on an empty stomach, and my stomach filled with what I thought was gas, except it was in a really weird spot. Rather than the typical lower abdominal fluff of my lengthy experience with daily human digestion, this bloating was in my midsection, between my belly button and sternum. I felt like someone had filled me to painful expansion with air. It felt like something inside of me might tear or burst.

Over the next three weeks, it got slightly worse, and slightly better, depending on conditions I couldn’t plainly discern. I made an appointment with my general practitioner, an allopath I trust and respect. As I prepared to head to the appointment, I said to my husband, “This is crazy! I can’t believe I’ve been this sick for three weeks!” What a mouthful of macabre prescience: I would remain that sick or worse for the next two years.

Ripped at the Black Cat in 2001

[Editor’s note: For this week’s essay we’ve once again pulled out a relic from the archive of Slim Goodbuzz, who served as Duluth’s “booze connoisseur” from 1999 to 2009. Twenty years ago he filed a report from Ashland, where he visited the Black Cat Coffeehouse, which remains in business. The article appeared in the May 30, 2001 issue of the Ripsaw newspaper.]

So I’m in Ashland visiting my mom, and after three or four days of listening to her rant about some “potato bug infestation” while under the influence of Tequila Rose and Aunt Jenny’s George Jones records, I decide to walk around and discover all that “alternative” Ashland has to offer. Namely, “alternative” Ashland consists of that hippie college, the co-op and the Black Cat Cafe. My instincts tell me that only one of these places is going to serve up any kind of booze, so I skip the first two and jump right to the Black Cat.

The Black Cat is among the growing number of regional coffee shops that have discovered the obvious: Coffee shops that serve booze are some of the most comfortable places in the world. I’ve said this a million times, but here’s all you need to make an outstanding drinking establishment in this area: good beer, great live music, couches and dim lighting. Of course, reasonable prices help, too. The Black Cat has all of this in spades.

Math, Semantics and the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a minor math problem for event organizers that seems fairly straightforward and simple to solve. If you promote an annual happening, and it was canceled in 2020, then that year shouldn’t count when you add up how many times the event has occurred. When you announce in 2021 that the whatever annual Whatever Festival is coming up, it should be the same number that it was supposed to be in 2020.

I mean, that’s obvious, right? If I give you an apple every year for 14 years, and last year I didn’t give you one, then the apple I give you this year is the 15th apple, right? It’s not the 16th apple just because I wanted to give you one last year and couldn’t.

The math is fairly straightforward, and for the most part people are getting it right. Take for instance Duluth’s Bayfront Reggae and World Music Festival. The inaugural event was held in 2006. The 2020 event was to be the 15th annual, but it was canceled. Therefore, the promoter is referring to this year’s event as the 15th annual. And that is correct. The 2021 festival will be the 15th in the series.

But I’ve known for quite a while that keeping track of how many times an event has happened in the past isn’t always the top priority of the organizers, who let’s remember have an event to organize with all the tasks that go with it. On one hand, you’d think being willing to get involved in organizing everyone else’s fun might be a thing only math-obsessed nerds do, but that’s just not the case.

A Brief Remembrance of George Hovland

I’ve only been in Duluth for 20 years, so in relation to George Hovland’s life, I’m just a newcomer. Even so, as a cross-country skier, my tracks crossed his over and over.

George always ran Snowflake Nordic Ski Center like a charity. The cashbox on the counter just sat there on the honor system. Each year, I signed up my kids for the KidSki program. This was during the window of time each fall where he gave a discount for signing up early. I paid full price because I could afford it. I also did it because, unlike a lot of things, I knew exactly where my money was going. I mean, outside of my family, cross-country skiing is my favorite thing. And each year when he got my check, George called me on the phone and said, “You shouldn’t pay full price. You can pay the discounted price.” And I said, “I know George. It’s me. I told you the exact same thing last year.”

One time, I was skiing classic style in the snow-blessed microclimate at Snowflake and George came up on me the opposite direction and said, “Great technique!” I was a little too pleased, but a comment like that from George, a 1952 Olympian, was like a benediction.

Lake Inferior: The Underground Lake Beneath Lake Superior

Exploration Timeline

June 1679

I have lost the reference, but I read somewhere that when the French explorer Sir Duluth heard rumors of an underground lake beneath Lake Superior, he quipped in his native tongue, “Lac d’Enfer” (literally: “Lake of Hell”). This nomenclature was mistranslated by English-speakers, becoming anglicized as “Lake Inferior” — an insidious malapropism that replaced the original meaning.

Sept. 8, 1870

Copper-helmet diver William Bitter found an entrance to Lake Inferior. He was working by the breakwater wall for the city of Duluth, offshore of what is now the Lakewalk. A large storm had damaged the wall, and he was conducting an underwater survey at the end of a 20-foot lifeline.

Working the winch and the air pump, his support team on the wall heard Bitter cry out through the speaking tube, then noticed a whirlpool opening up. They winched Bitter out as loose boulders and timbers were sucked into it.

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