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Life in unorganized territory
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Calm in an emergency

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 4:14pm

I have covered my share of catastrophes—real and pretend—in my 14 years of working for our community newspaper. I’ve learned a lot about fire behavior, prevention and safety. So you wouldn’t think I would be freaked out when a fickle electrical device started smoldering recently.

You would think, with a number of volunteer firefighters in the family—sons, brother, brother-in-law and cousins—some of their calmness about fire would rub off. I’ve watched these dear relatives fight fires numerous times, cringing as they entered smoky buildings or climbed ladders to cut holes in roofs of burning buildings.

Watching local firefighters battling fire is scary enough for me. This June 2013 fire at Devil Track Lake had firefighters from six departments, as well as some U.S. Forest Service personnel on scene.

Just last week, April 5, readers saw an article I wrote after watching our fledging volunteer firefighters undergoing fire training, knocking down vehicle fires at the Grand Marais Fire Hall. They were the essence of calm as they muscled hoses around and shot water on live fires.

I’ve also watched our local firefighters giving fire safety presentations in elementary classrooms. It’s fun to watch the kids checking out all the fire gear and absorbing the safety message. I’ve listened enough times that I know exactly what I should do if I somehow encounter a fire—or worse, catch fire. I know that you shouldn’t run around screaming. I’ve heard those excited students shout, “ Stop, drop and roll!” I know that one of the main things to do in case of fire is to remain calm.

I’ve also attended the Cook County Emergency Services Conference nearly every year in its 25-year history. I’ve learned a lot there, not just about fire. The interesting conference covers a wide variety of emergency training. Everything from rope rescue to wilderness orienteering, from water rescue to airbag safety, from vehicle extraction to accident scene triage, from landing zone safety and arson investigations, from radio communications to caring for injured pets, from handling hazardous materials to recognizing meth labs and much, much more has been covered at the conference over the years. Sitting in the emergency services conference, I have come to understand that the key to just about any emergency is being prepared and remaining calm.

Knowing and doing though is a different matter. Fortunately—and unfortunately—I was in the immediate vicinity during my near calamity.

Fortunately because the smoldering didn’t lead to flames.

Unfortunately because the gadget that was sputtering and spitting rancid-smelling black smoke was my hair straightener! I was in the midst of smoothing the kinks out of the right side of my hair— always a somewhat dangerous situation even with a hot iron that is working perfectly—when I heard a strange crackling sound in my ear. As I moved the straightening iron away from my head, I was shocked to see black smoke rolling out and sparks flying.

For a moment I just held it in my hand, perplexed. Then, I realized it was likely going to burst into flame. I dropped it onto the counter and said something impolite. And, not very calmly, I reached over and pulled the electrical cord from the wall extension.

It stopped smoking and sputtering almost instantly, but the stench was horrendous.

Shaking, I let it sit on the counter and cool down for a while. I didn’t want to throw it out right away and start a real fire. It was scary enough having nearly caught my hair on fire.

I shudder to think what could have happened. I frequently turn on the straightener and let it heat up while I do household tasks. What if it had burst into flames, caught the hand towel on fire, and spread to the medicine cabinets and then the curtain and…?

Scary thoughts and a good reminder not to leave electrical devices unattended. I thought of saving this story for the Unorganized Territory that would be published near the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Prevention Week, but that is not until next October. By then, I would have forgotten the frightening experience. So I thought I’d share the reminder now.

It is timely anyway, because it made me think a bit about the well trained emergency responders who would come if my house caught fire or if I had been burned by the errant hot iron.

I’m looking forward to this year’s Emergency Management Conference, which will be held April 25-26, where a lot of these folks will gather. It will give me a chance to say “thanks” to all of our hardworking emergency responders.

And it will give me a chance to learn more about staying calm—or at least trying to stay calm!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It’s what you learn after
you know it all that counts.

Coach John Wooden

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April brings oobleck

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 10:26pm

Regular readers know that I like winter. I enjoy watching snow falling on the trees and shrubs along my driveway, turning it into a Currier and Ives scene. I like snowshoeing and snowmobiling and watching my grandchildren ski. I admire the frost pictures on my windows and the lovely way snow glistens like glitter in the bright sun.

I like how refreshing it is to step outside on a cold day. And I love how good it feels to come back inside to warm up. I’m proud that I know how to layer appropriately so I don’t get cold when the Polar Vortex passes through.

We seemed to have more than our share of bitterly cold days this year. Although this winter reminds me a lot of winters when I was growing up here on the North Shore. Now, I’m not going to share some sad tale of having to walk to school in a blizzard…up hill, both ways… but I do remember waiting for the school bus on brutally cold days. I remember our elementary school principal, Mr. James, chasing us out of the school entryway into the cold because we were too noisy.

No, winter wasn’t always fun. But it seemed like we always had enough snow to build snowmen and snow forts and to go sledding. I keep telling people this is a good old-fashioned winter.

Maybe that is why I keep thinking about the games we played and the way we passed time in the winter when I was a kid. The giant snowbanks remind me of many games of “King of the Hill.” The open expanse of our septic drain field tempts me to go make a snow angel like we used to do long ago. Of course many recess hours were spent throwing snowballs at one another, even though it was prohibited.

I also remember a really silly game, one that could only happen in our snowy clime. Some childhood friends and I used to pretend we had somehow been transported to a giant’s world. We were trapped in a giant bowl of ice cream— bright, white, vanilla ice cream! We had to make a hiding place so the giant didn’t find us.

I’ve always liked looking at snow that way, trying to see more than just semi-permanent ground cover. The clumps piled up by the snow plow? Like fluffy white clouds in the sky, if you look at them imaginatively you can see polar bears or dragons.

And then there is the oobleck snow. The most recent snowstorm that passed through brought a downfall of heavy, sticky, snowflakes, reminding me of one of my favorite children’s books, Bartholomew and the Oobleck.    

If April snow was green, it would be exactly like oobleck!


The Dr. Seuss story may not be familiar to everyone as it isn’t written in Theodor Geisel’s usual poetic meter. No, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, like its preceding story the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, isn’t written in Dr. Seuss’s usual poetic style. Instead it is simple prose telling the story of King Derwin of Didd who was tired of rain, sun, fog and snow. The king called on his royal magicians to make something new fall from the sky. What falls is oobleck— sticky green globs that wreak havoc on the kingdom.

In the story, young page boy Bartholomew Huggins comes to the rescue by getting King Derwin to say the magic words—not the words the magicians said to create the oobleck, “Shuffle, Duffle, Muzzle Muff”—but simply “I’m sorry.”

Once Bartholomew convinces King Derwin to say the magic words, the sun comes out and the oobleck melts away. It’s a nice story, ending with the King declaring a holiday to celebrate the four things that should come from the sky—rain, sun, fog and snow.

So although heavy, clumpy, sticky snowflakes are white instead of green, they make me think of the Kingdom of Didd getting gooped up with oobleck.

Oobleck-like snow makes me think of the gentle wisdom of Dr. Seuss via Bartholomew Cubbins. Don’t be arrogant. Say you’re sorry when you’ve made a mistake. And appreciate what you have— even if it’s another five inches of snow.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

The people who are successful are those
who are grateful for everything they have.
Alan Cohen

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Seeds of Change

Thu, 04/03/2014 - 1:58pm

It always bothers me when I look through old issues of the Cook County News-Herald and find articles or photos about women’s activities. Even as recently as the 1970s, hard-working women—workers at the school or hospital or grocery store, members of chamber of commerce or the hospital auxiliary or some other important community organization— are not identified by name. In story after story, photo caption after photo caption, smiling ladies are identified as Mrs. Joe Somebody.

Notice the names of these hard-working members of the North Shore Hospital Auxiliary in this Jan. 31, 1963 Cook County News-Herald caption. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way!

Some of these women I recognize and I can say, “Oh that’s Nancy or Barbara.” Others remain unknown.

The women’s movement changed that and I am so very glad. It may seem like a trivial thing, but to me it means a lot. I love my husband dearly and I chose to take his last name when we got married. But I don’t think a woman should have to give up her entire identity when she says, “I do.”

Thanks to the women’s movement, we don’t have to. In fact, we don’t even have to give up our last name. If we wish, we can keep both our old name and new name.

Thanks to the women’s movement, history now records what women do as themselves, not as somebody’s wife.

We owe that change to many brave women who fought for equal rights and I think it’s nice that the month of March is Women’s History Month.

Women’s History Month was introduced by a school district in California in 1978. I’m guessing a Mrs. Joe Somebody, seeking her own identity, started it.

I greatly enjoy the events that take place during Women’s History Month and the stories told about the role women have played in our nation and in their own destiny.

Women like the equal rights pioneers found right here in Minnesota, the Willmar 8.

I had moved away from Minnesota when this group of women bank employees went on strike for equal pay in April 1977. I don’t remember hearing about their struggle.

But I am moved by it now, by the idea of the eight women employees picketing the Citizens’ National Bank in Willmar wearing snowmobile suits in the minus 70 degree wind chill.

For years the women had accepted the fact that the bank paid men more than women. They trained new male employees who then received promotions they were not eligible for. But when the bank hired a young, inexperienced, man to a position and paid him $700 a month—much more than the $400 per month most of the women earned after years of service—the strike began.

They filed a gender-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

In June 1978, the commission ruled that there was reasonable cause to believe that there had been gender discrimination at the bank. The bank’s board of directors agreed to negotiate but the discussions went nowhere.

In March 1979, the strike ended altogether when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the women had gone on strike for economic reasons, not labor practices. That meant the women would get no back pay and no guarantee that they would get their jobs back.

After two grueling years, with the strike causing stress within marriages and between friends, it seemed to be a loss and the women moved on to other jobs. But it was not really defeat. The struggle that began in the bitter winter planted a seed of hope for other women. Today, the Willmar 8 are saluted for the role they played in bringing the idea of equal work for equal pay to light. They deserve to be remembered during Women’s History Month in March and through the year. These pioneering women, known by their full names—not Mrs. Joe Somebody—made a huge difference for all of us.

~ ~ ~

Even a purely moral act that has
no hope of any immediate and
visible political effect can gradually
and indirectly, over time, gain in
political significance.
Vaclav Havel

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