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Wednesday, August 29, 2007
THE SKUNK LAKE LABOR DAY CHURCH PICNIC
Across the Northern Plains, Labor Day signifies the end of summer. Winter looms beyond the colorful hues of autumn and when you live in the Northland, every waking moment is spent concerning oneself with winter's onslaught.
A well worn Minnesota proverb states the Indians always know how bad the winter will be by observing the size of white-man's wood pile. Though the story is overused, but oft repeated in Minnesota bars, there is a grain of truth in it--folks spend an inordinate amount of time worrying if their wood supply is as big as their neighbors. Indians don't.
Truthfully though, Labor Day does send a panic across the wooded fields, farms and lakes regions. Summer vanishes immediately after September 1st. Every God-fearing man knows the crops have to be brought in and the wood pile tended too. Soon the great white male hormones will kick in and the deer, and a few Holsteins, from that point on is in danger of being consumed. It is a fact Labor Day sets off the seasonal clock of which no man can stop.
Olaf Sundine ,who ran the local Deep Rock filling station decided several years ago to break tradition. He declared a week long Labor Day celebration, totally wiping out seven whole productive days of harvesting and chopping wood.
The shocking proclamation angered the local clergy. Sloth is not part of the fabric of Minnesota heritage. The sermons about town reminded the faithful of the horrid consequences of the grasshopper who fiddled away his resourceful days. His woodpile needed tended to and the freezer remained empty as others about busied themselves as the green leaves became golden with nature's first frost. To make matters worse there was not a even single potato put into his empty bin.
The sermons worked and Olaf's banners came down the very next morning. Things were even slow at the Three Bean Cafe as the guilt had most folks going about there business instead of arguing nonsense over a cup of coffee. Years slipped by since the failed week long festival fell to defeat but now this upcoming Sunday was the 17th Annual Skunk Lake Church Picnic, that glorious once a year festival where Catholics, Lutherans, and all the lesser religions were allowed to mix amongst each other without seeking forgiveness.
The Skunk Lake pavilion always promised a 24 foot festive smorgasbord filled with scrumptious casseroles, sandwiches crafted from white bread, fried chicken and desserts beyond one's imagination. To any normal Northlander this event would be an offering from heaven, but a great fog of guilt hung in the midst of Lake City because the local pastors felt among themselves that a repeat of the "Grasshopper Sermon," was in need. Not for any reason in particular, they just wanted to keep their faithfuls on alert. Just the slightest mention in a church sermon about cutting firewood made it sound like a commandment from God. "Go ye into the woods and cut oak, birch and a little poplar and stack it neatly," so saith the Lord. Now, visions of half frozen grasshoppers gripped the imagination of every man in town.
Jim Sweeny was besides himself. He bought a new Husqvarna chainsaw the previous week but was unable to get out in the woods until a defective replacement part arrived from the distributor, who by the way, took a week off for a long Labor Day vacation. Jim overhauled the engine on the Farmall three times trying to fight off his nervous energy. After that dreaded sermon last Sunday there wasn't a chainsaw to be rented in a twenty mile area.
His wife Irma, the chairwoman of the Prairie Women's Quilting Circle, wanted to run him out of the house during Friday's quilting circle, with no luck. Jim stayed on the kitchen phone all afternoon frantically searching every dealer in the state for the lost chainsaw part. Since he was within earshot of the ladies nobody had the freedom to discuss "personal matters of community importance."
After Jim downed three pots of coffee from the stained "I Love Trees," coffee mug, which in turn caused him to make just enough bathroom trips to set Irma on edge, she threw down her quilt pieces, called The Blue Ox Mower and Saw Service and told them to send the damned part airmail from Sweden, Norway or where ever in the name of Samuel H. they made the blasted thing or they would have a murder on their hands.
Sunday finally crept in with everyone miraculously avoiding homicide induced by insanity. All in all the day proved to be rather quiet and, unlike the week leading up to this day, free of guilt. It was, after all a holiday weekend, the Sabbath and a day of feasting and merriment, though the only downside came after the men discovered the firewood for the weenie roast had disappeared. No further comment needed.
As the afternoon sun started to set and the cooler air of sudden-autumn set in, the Mayor, Clyde Overstart, hit the genuine Skunk Lake hollow log with a gavel signaling the days end and the awarding of the much coveted prizes.
To nobody's surprise Clara Ivarson took home the blue ribbon for best edible sculpture. This marked her 7th-first-place award and this year it was a Jell-O likeness of Walter Mondale. Clara felt it expressed her deep hearted condolence for his humiliating defeat four years earlier. She appropriately named it "The Fritz Jello".
After a long list of awards for children, dogs and ugly farm implements, the evening concluded with Skunk Lake's most coveted award–the most offensive pair of men's bib overalls, followed by the "ceremonial burial of the OshKoshes." The men folk took this seriously and seized every effort possible to make their bibs worthy of being buried with the "legends."
My Uncle Ernie for instance left his bibs hanging in Tom Henderson's mink shed all year. The pungent smell of mink musk saturated the overalls so bad he had to bring them in a sealed container pulled in a manure spreader behind his tractor to keep them away from his picknicin' bibs.
To keep everything above reproach a different family took the honors of judging and handing out the awards each year. Still, rumors quickly spread that Irma slipped $50 in the offering plate since Pastor Yungfest's family was in charge of the judging. She, if the rumors were true, had hopes of Jim taking home the award of King Stinker, therefore taking his mind off that dreadful chainsaw.
Well, fear of reproach being such as it was back then may have caused Jim to loose, but he took a close second with his nasty fish bucket bibs. The honors instead went to Uncle Ernie's musky mink bibs.
Uncle Ernie felt bad about being King Stinker two years in a row, or so he said. He falsely admitted to cheating, then fabricated a story about digging up last years bibs that hung in the back house for months on end then used as a farrowing blanket in the pig shed. With a wink to Irma, he handed the bronzed Copenhagen box over to Jim.
Though by default, winning the King Stinker award was a good omen for Jim. Tuesday morning his lost chainsaw part arrived first class by airmail. By October Jim had the largest woodpile in the county due to his prized Husqvarna.
The Indians predicted a cold winter based on Jim's huge stack of firewood–or so Uncle Ernie told me and you know what, it turned out to be the fiercest winter in 20 years. You know, ol' Uncle Ernie wasn't so goofy after all.