Well, every year about this time, in past years, Lillian and I would get together and draft a “Christmas Letter,” which we would then take to the print shop, have it printed on fancy paper, buy a bunch of colored envelopes and a whole lot of stamps, spend hours addressing each envelope by hand and writing personal notes on the bottom of each letter, and mailing them to people we know and like, and who sent us similar missives. There was something special about that, for an old guy like me. With each note and envelope, I got to revisit, briefly, in my mind, the person this was going to, to think about things we’d done together, to smile over memories of our times together. My thinking was that I got as much from this process as those who were getting the card and letter.
Well, we’ve been weaning ourselves from that for a few years, because most of our friends and relatives, even those far away, who got that letter every year, already know what we did this year because of Facebook and e-mail and phone texts. Why bore them again? So, enough of that. Welcome, Jim, to the 21st century.
Still, old habits are hard to break, so my compromise is to write a “Christmas Blog,” in which I will review some of the highlights of our year and post it on The Prairie Blog, where people can read it or not. As best Lillian and I can, we‘ll let people know it is here for the reading. Or not. We’ve got a few friends and family members who are digitally challenged, and they may get a copy in the mail. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll call them and read it to them.
So I took the money we’d have spent on a print shop and postage and envelopes and went shopping. I bought a couple bottles of our favorite Christmas wine, Banfi’s Rosa Regale, and the fixin’s for Cioppino, and on Christmas Eve or one of those nights around Christmas, we’ll have a really fine Christmas supper, just the two of us. And toast all of you who didn’t get a card or letter from us in the mail.
So here are what I consider some of the highlights of the year–things we read about, things we did, things we enjoyed. And then, at the end, Lillian and I are going to share with you the happiest and saddest and best Christmas poem ever written. Merry Christmas.
Best news story of the year: A young fellow over in Fargo named Steven James Anderson got a part-time job driving a Zamboni at the Fargo ice arena. One night last winter, before showing up at the high school hockey game at which he was to drive the Zamboni, he went to a friend’s birthday party and had too much to drink. So much that he knew he shouldn’t drive his car to the hockey game, so he rode his bicycle, even though it was the dead of winter. Unfortunately the ride didn’t sober him up. He jumped on the Zamboni and began driving it around the ice between periods, crashing it into the boards a few times. Busted. Hauled away. Ended up in court, with his lawyer, who pleaded Anderson not guilty, saying “Neither North Dakota state law nor Fargo city ordinance defines a Zamboni as a vehicle. The law goes into some detail about trucks, bicycles, snowmobiles and various other conveyances and whether they’d be considered a vehicle, but it excludes Zambonis.” Yeah, well, the judge didn’t buy it, and threw him in “the box” for nine days. Uffda. That was a screwup.
You get the best damn job in America—driving a Zamboni—and then blow it by driving it drunk. Still, it must have really been fun to do that. I mean, really, really fun. Think about it. How many people ever get the chance to have a few beers and then jump on a Zamboni? Must have been fun in jail, too, answering the question from his fellow inmates: “Hey, dude, what you in for?” Here’s the newspaper story.
Speaking of jail time and answering the question “What you in for?”, the musical highlight of our year was the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where, among other great acts, we saw Arlo Guthrie while he was on his Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour. Arlo did all 18 minutes or so of “Alice’s Restaurant,” an all-time classic. You may recall the lines from the song: “What you in for, boy?” “Littering.” What he didn’t do, because it was a Canadian audience, I suspect, is the line about taking credit for the demise of Richard Nixon, claiming that the 18-minute gap in the White House tapes was there because Nixon didn’t want anyone to know he had been listening to “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Our greatest source of joy at our house this year was our garden—both the vegetable garden, which got most of my attention, and the Lillian’s incredible flower garden. We spent hours and hours every day in the yard from May through September. The vegetable harvest was pretty good. It’ll be better next year. But the flowers –especially the daylilies and hostas–were spectacular, Lillian’s dream from five years ago coming to full fruition this summer. And the raspberries bore fruit all the way through a wonderfully warm October.
We actually picked raspberries in November for the first time ever. Not many, but enough to say we did it.
When we weren’t gardening, I spent a lot of time with my buddy Jeff providing vittles for the table. We’ve become fast, fast friends since we both retired in the same month, June of 2009. This year we spent a total of 86 days together, in the field, or on the ice or the water. So far. The year’s not over.
Northern Pike, Walleyes, Perch, Crappies, Pheasant, Ducks and Geese showed up on the table at various times of the year. That, combined with the garden harvest, meant there were many meals eaten at our house this year at which nothing came from the store.
Canoes were used this year after a one-year absence.
Lillian and I canoed a stretch of the Little Missouri in May, and the boys and I canoed the Upper Missouri in September on our 40th anniversary trip together. Both enjoyable, but I’ve got to say that they’re making the canoes a lot lower these days.
We spent more time in the Bad Lands this year than we have in a long, long time. Each year that special place becomes more and more threatened by the inexorable march of the oil industry across the prairie (although $30 a barrel oil is providing a respite right now, along with gas at a price we can afford to drive out there more often), so we cherish each day, each hour, each minute, each sunrise and sunset more than we ever have.
Besides the canoe trip, we were there for a long Spring Equinox weekend to celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, and spent many days just hiking the trails and observing the wildlife, and many evenings just enjoying the fine food of the Rough Riders Hotel restaurant. We spent less time camping this year than we ever have, though, because the ground seems to be getting harder out there each year.
We had a lot of really good family time this year as well. That’s the beauty of retirement. We can adapt our schedules to almost anyone else’s, ‘cuz there ain’t much on ours. We spent lots of time with Lillian’s elderly parents here in Bismarck, including taking 91-year-old Garland fishing in Jeff’s boat on the Missouri River, and spending Mother’s Day in Medora with Marian, her children and grandchildren.
And six of the seven Fuglie siblings—all three of my sisters and two of my brothers—and our spouses, reunited for a long weekend in Medora in August. It was scheduled to be a golf outing but it turned out to be that weekend with wind and rain and record cold temperatures for August (remember that?), so we were forced to spend a lot of time in a tavern. Darn.
A sadness: Ivan Doig, my favorite novelist died.
His last novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously in August. I finished reading it in December, stretching out my reading to a chapter a day, lingering over what I knew was the end of perhaps my greatest reading pleasure, the last of the great writing from one of the best of the Montana authors. I say one of the best, because he‘s in fine company with A. B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner and Rick Bass.
Another sadness: The end of what may have been the best television series ever—Mad Men. It ended well, with Don Draper taking musical advice from a risen Bert Cooper: “The Best Things In Life Are Free.” Watch it here. It’s only a minute and a half. Truly a great ending to a great show.
And yet another sadness: Vern Gagne died. Famous 16-time World Heavyweight Champion wrestler, childhood idol, who I actually got to meet once. He lived to be almost 90, in spite of the abuse his body took as a wrestler and the Alzheimers disease that plagued his mind in his last years. He actually accidentally killed a guy with a body slam when he was 82 years old. That’s something. Even if the dead guy was a 97-yeare-old resident of the memory care unit they were both living in. Charges were dropped because of his dementia, sparing him spending his last years, physically, at least, in prison. Because of his Alzheimers he was in his own private prison for the last ten years or so of his life.
A happiness: I spent a couple days with my Hettinger High School classmates at our 50th Anniversary Class Reunion. Longest I’ve been around that many old people ever.
Mixed feelings: The Bakken Boom went bust. No speculation here. Just gonna wait and see what happens. And then hope our state’s leaders start cleaning up the mess.
Highlight of the year: Helping Lillian take on a battle to preserve the serenity of the North Dakotan Veterans Cemetery, by discouraging the state’s Adjutant General from approving a project to light the place up at night. A successfully-waged campaign. Another reason I love that woman so much.
Since this is being written in lieu of a Christmas letter, Lillian joins me in saying “Merry Christmas” to all of you, and we’ll end this year by sharing this Christmas poem: James Foley’s Billy Peeble’s Christmas.
BILLY PEEBLE’S CHRISTMAS By James W. Foley (From The Book of Boys and Girls)
Billy Peeble he ain’t got no parents—never had none ‘cause When he was borned he was an orfunt; an’ he said ‘at Santa Claus Never didn’t leave him nothin’, ‘cause he was a county charge An’ the overseer told him that his fambly was too large To remember orfunt children; so I ast Ma couldn’t we Have Bill Peeble up to our house, so’s to see our Christmas tree. An she ast me if he’s dirty; an’ I said I guessed he was, But I didn’t think it makes no difference with Santa Claus.
My his clo’es was awful ragged! Ma, she put him in a tub An’ she poured it full of water, an’ she gave him such a scrub ‘At he ‘ist sit there an’ shivered; and he tol’ me afterwurds ‘At he never washed all over out to Overseer Bird’s! ‘An she burned his ragged trousies an’ she gave him some of mine; My! She rubbed him an’ she scrubbed him till she almost made him shine, Nen he ‘ist looked all around him like he’s scairt for quite a w’ile An’ even when Ma’d pat his head he wouldn’t hardly smile.
“En after w’ile Ma took some flour-sacks an’ ‘en she laid “Em right down at the fireplace, ‘ist ‘cause she is afraid Santa Claus’ll soil the carpet when he comes down there, you know An’ Billy Peeble watcher her, an’ his eyes stuck out—‘ist so! “En Ma said ‘at in the mornin’ if we’d look down on the sacks ‘At they’d be ‘ist full of soot where Santa Claus had made his tracks; Billy Peeble stood there lookin’! An’ he told me afterwurds He was scairt he’d wake up an’ be back at Overseer Bird’s.
Well, ‘en she hung our stockin’s up and after w’ile she said: “Now you and’ Billy Peeble better get right off to bed, An’ if you hear a noise tonight, don’t you boys make a sound, ‘Cause Santa Claus don’t never come with little boys around!” So me an’ Billy went to bed, and Billy Peeble, he Could hardly go to sleep at all—ist tossed an’ tossed. You see We had such w’ite sheets on the bed an’ he said afterwurds They never had no sheets at all at Overseer Bird’s.
So we ‘ist laid and talked an’ talked. An’ Billy ast me who Was Santa Claus. An’I said I don’t know if it’s all true, But people say he’s some old man who ‘ist loves little boys An’ keeps a store at the North Pole with heaps an’ heaps of toys W’ich he brings down in a big sleigh, with reindeers for his steeds, An’ comes right down the chimbly flue an’ leaves ‘ist what you needs. My! He’s excited w’en I tell him that! An’ afterwurds He said that they never had no toys at Overseer Bird’s.
I’m fallin’ pretty near asleep w’en Billy Peeble said: “Sh-sh! What’s that noise?” An’ w’en he spoke I sat right up in bed Till sure enough I heard it in the parlor down below, An’ Billy Peeble, he set up an’ ‘en he said: “Let’s go!” So we got up an’ sneaked down stairs, an’ both of us could see ‘At it was surely Santa Claus, ‘ist like Ma said he’d be; But he must have heard us comin’ down, because he stopped an’ said: “You, Henry Blake and William Peeble, go right back to bed!” My goodness, we was awful scairt! An’ both of us was pale, An’ Billy Peeble said upstairs: “My! Ain’t he ‘ist a whale?” We didn’t hardly dare to talk and got back into bed An’ Billy pulled the counterpane clear up above his head, An’ in the mornin’ w’en we looked down on the flour-sacks, W’y sure enough we saw the soot where he had made his tracks. An’ Billy got a suit of clothes, a drum, an’ sled an’ books Till he ‘ist never said a word, but my, how glad he looks!
An’ after w’ile it’s dinner time an Billy Peeble set Right next to Pa, an’ my! how he ‘ist et an’ et an’ et! Till he ‘ist puffed an’ had to leave his second piece of pie Because he couldn’t eat no more, an’ after dinner, w’y Ma dressed him up in his new clo’es, an’ Billy Peeble said He’s sorry he’s an orfunt, an’ Ma Patted Billy’s head. W’ich made him cry a little bit, an’ he said afterwurds Nobody ever pats his head at Overseer Bird’s.
An’ all day long Pa looked at Ma, an’ Ma she looked at him, Because Pa said ‘at Billy looked a little bit like Jim ‘At was my brother, but he died oncet, years ago, An’ ‘at’s why Billy Peeble makes my mother like him so. She says ‘at Santa brought him as a present, ‘ist instead Of little Jim ‘at died oncet. So she ‘ist put him to bed On Christmas Night an’ tucked him in an’ told me afterwurds ‘At he ain’t never going back to Overseer Bird’s.