Friday, July 31, 2009

Another update on the story below

Having not heard from the Star-Tribune reporter, Suzanne Ziegler, I e-mailed an editor at the Star-Tribune and asked if this was standard operating procedure. An hour later Ziegler responded via email, saying:

"A colleague at the Star Tribune who knew I was working on a Cash for Clunkers story e-mailed me, saying he tried to get a Jeep Liberty or Compass at Coon Rapids Chrysler Jeep but was told they were out of them. I called the dealership and was put through to Brian Zins. As I always do, I identified myself as being with the Star Tribune and said I was working on a story about the program. I explained that an editor here had been unable to get the Liberty and Compass and asked him if that was the case. I then proceeded to interview him about the fact that they were out of the cars and about the program itself."

Essentially, she's calling Zinny a liar. I forwarded the email to Brian, who said, "It went down exactly as I told you. She never said she was a reporter, and she never said she was working on a story."

Obviously one of these people is not telling the truth about the conversation. So I'll leave it up to you to decide who has the most reason to lie in this "he said/she said" case: Zinny, who took an unsolicited phone call and would not even have told me the story if I hadn't contacted him, or a reporter accused of violating journalistic ethics?

Update on the story below

I e-mailed the Star-Tribune reporter, Suzanne Ziegler, on Thursday to ask if she had any response or explanation. She has not responded.

In the meantime, the government first announced it was going to suspend the CARS program because it was about to run out of money. Then they changed course, and are trying to race a $2 billion supplemental appropriation through Congress. Meanwhile, dealers are complaining that they can't get through the government's system to receive their money, and they are describing the whole plan as a fiasco.

To echo what so many others are saying: Do you really want a government that can't run a simple car-voucher program for 250,000 car purchases running a health-care program for 300 million people?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why newspapers are dying, Part 2

When I was a student at the University of Minesota, the Gopher hockey team had a player named Brian Zins, from the Aurora-Hoyt Lakes area of Minnesota's Iron Range. Years later, "Zinny" showed up here in Red Wing as the manager of a Chrysler dealership, and we actually had the chance to work together for a while. Our sons played hockey together, we've golfed together, etc....He's a terrific fellow who has spent most of his adult life in the car business, and is now a manager at a Chrysler dealership in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

Most car retailers are very busy these days, thanks to the government's "Cash For Clunkers" program (real name: Cars Allowance Rebate Systeam, or CARS). This program, from the brain wizards in the Obama administration, allows consumers to trade in old cars that meet certain criteria, and get up to a $4,500 credit towards the purchase of a new car that gets better mileage.

Tuesday afternoon, Zinny takes a phone call from a woman who says, "I'm looking for a Jeep Patriot or Jeep Compass for my boss." He explained that they were out of those two particular models. She asked why they were out, and he said that the CARS program, along with low inventories that are normal for this time of year, had depleted their supply of the Patriot and Compass. "Are you afraid you're going to run out of cars?" she asked. Zinny answered with a joke that is common these days in the auto business: "They (the government) will run out of money before they (the dealers) run out of cars."

According to Zinny, the woman made a little more small talk, asked some questions that he considered a bit odd, and a few minues later the conversation ended.

The next morning, on the front page of the Star-Tribune, was a story about the CARS program and the increased business at area dealerships. Included in the story, by someone named Suzanne Ziegler, were quotes from "Brian Zins, a manager at Coon Rapids Chrysler Jeep."

I saw the story, and it caught my interest because I know Zinny is not a fan of the Star-Tribune, largely because of its institutional liberal slant. So I sent him an e-mail, asking in a good-natured way why he would give quotes to an organization I know he disdains. That's when the story gets interesting.

Zinny called me back and said, "She never told me she was a reporter." He took the call and believed he was talking to a customer who was - as she said - looking for a vehicle. "After she asked a couple of kind of odd questions, my antenna sort of went up," Brian said. "And then towards the end she mentioned that she worked for the Star-Tribune, but she never said she was a reporter."

Over the past 20-some years, I've dealt with reporters from all over the country, from the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, USA Today and all the major TV networks to small-town radio stations in rural Minnesota. In all of that time, I have NEVER had a conversation with a reporter who didn't first identify themself, and let me know I was talking to a news organization, for attribution.

To call someone under false pretenses, and take quotes for attribution without letting that person know they were talking to a reporter, is incredibly unethical for a couple of reasons.

First, people might speak differently if they know they're talking to a reporter. Think about how you would choose your words differently if you knew they were going to be printed or broadcast.

Second, many firms prohibit employees from talking to the media, preferring that all media inquiries be referred to someone authorized to talk about the business. I've worked in several different organizations in which I was the only one authorized to talk to the media. Imagine that Brian's employer had such a policy in place. He might well find himself out of a job because he spoke to a reporter operating under false pretenses.

Fortunately for Zinny, he didn't say anything that would embarrass him, his employer or the auto industry (and he wouldn't because he's a classy guy), but the entire incident begs the question, "Why?"

Why would a reporter not identify herself as such? Why would she make up a story about looking for a car "for her boss"? Why would she feel it necessary to deceive someone about the purpose of the conversation? Why should a businessperson be subjected to this kind of deception?

This is the kind of behavior that has led us to the point where, as you can see here, people have very low levels of trust in the media. Now, every time you see a quote in the Star-Tribune, you should wonder if the quote was obtained under false pretenses, if the person being quoted really said when they are reported to have said, and how they might have altered their remarks if they knew they were speaking to a reporter.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A little hometown pride

When I tell people in other places that I live in Red Wing, most of the time the response I get is: "Is that where they make the shoes?" Yes, that Red Wing.

Red Wing Shoe Company ("The Shoe," as the locals say) has been producing shoes here for 104 years, and they are easily the most famous product of Red Wing. It seems I can drive through almost any decent-sized town between New York and LA and find a Red Wing Shoe sign hanging outside some store.

My personal experience is limited to using their steel-toed work shoes for a use probably not foreseen: Baseball umpiring. I've spent years behind the plate wearing the shoes, which not only have the steel toe protection, but have a thick, molded plastic flap that covers the laces and the top of your foot. Great protection from foul balls and thrown bats, and you can stand in them all day. In addition to shoes, the company became known for high-quality boots, including the famous "Irish Setter" hunting boot.

A few years ago - I think for the company's 100th anniversay - they decided to create the world's biggest boot. A friend of mine - Dave Fredrickson - had the enviable job of chaperoning the boot around the country to trade shows, conventions, etc.

Next week the company is opening a new retail store and museum along Red Wing's main street, and this morning they moved the boot from the factory to its new downtown location with a little four-block parade. Next time you need a little getaway, come on down to Pretty Red Wing and see the world's biggest boot!

A few quick facts:

Size: 638-1/2 D (Just right for a 120-foot tall person.)
It weighs 2,300 pounds and took 13 months to build.
The lace is 104 feet long, 2-1/4 inches wide, and runs through 3-1/2 inch eyelets that required 80 pounds of brass to make.
It's 20 feet long, 16 feet high, seven feet wide.
It's been recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as the World's Largest Footwear.
The final stitching required lowering a person into the boot with a pulley system.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What a Harvard education gets you

It was my privilege, for about eight years, to serve on a board at Harvard University. My employer at the time - GE - was in the business of making loans for many things, including home improvements. And as part of being a "good corporate citizen" they helped fund an ongoing research project at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Because they were a donor, they got a seat on the board that oversaw the project, and somehow it fell to me to fill that board seat. And so twice a year I would pack up and head for Boston and Cambridge for a couple days of meetings, presentations and very nice lunches, and while it wasn't all that interesting, it seemed to impress people when I'd say "I've got to go to Harvard for a board meeting," so I kept on saying it.

What I learned over the years is that, while Harvard may be one of our more revered places for higher education, it's full of a lot of very silly people. Like most of academia, they operate in an atmosphere of unmatched political correctness. Also like most of academia, it's populated by people who have managed to weasal their way on to the higher-education gravy train by studying some tiny, arcane subject and convincing others that what they do is VERY important.

All you need to know about the efficacy of the Joint Center for Housing Studies is that every year we would get a presentation from some numbers nerd who sat down, analyzed every piece of data, talked to various "experts" and presented some very pretty charts that told us, year after year, "There is no evidence of a housing bubble." Turns out there WAS a housing bubble, and when it burst it took down large chunks of the global economy, but hey, even Harvard gets one wrong once in a while, I guess.

Which brings us to Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor and a ridiculously silly man in his own right. A Yale law school dropout, he quickly latched onto the intellecutally rigourous "Afro-American studies" scam and worked his way through the important left-wing college campuses - Yale, Cornell, Duke - before landing at Harvard. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about his "important" work:

"As a literary theorist and critic, meanwhile, Gates has combined literary techniques of deconstruction with native African literary traditions; he draws on structuralism, post-structuralism, and semiotics to textual analysis and matters of identity politics. As a black intellectual and public figure, Gates has been an outspoken critic of the Eurocentric literary canon and has instead insisted that black literature must be evaluated by the aesthetic criteria of its culture of origin, not criteria imported from Western or European cultural traditions that express a "tone deafness to the black cultural voice" and result in "intellectual racism."

Nice work if you can get it, eh? Here's a boiled-down version: Gates rants and raves about how evil America is, how racist everyone else is and he produces nothing of value to society. A couple decades of that have brought him wealth, Harvard tenure and a small measure of fame.

(It should also be noted that as a literary expert, he's no great shakes. In the '90s he was called as an "expert witness" in the obscenity trial of rap group 2 Live Crew. Defending their profane lyrics he said, “It’s like Shakespeare’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’ ” Which is nice, except that Shakespeare never wrote that. The line was penned by Scottish poet Robert Burns about two centuries later. But that's okay, Prof. Gates: Those dead white people all look (and sound) alike, right?)

By now most of you know the current controversy. A neighbor of Gates' called the cops because she saw two men forcing open the door to Gates' home, and suspected a burglary. The cops arrived, found a man inside the house, and asked for ID. Drawing on his vast reservoir of intelligence and sensitivity, Gates responded to the request by saying, "Why? Because I am a black man in America?"

It seems to me a better response might have been, "Sure, here's my ID. I live here, and I appreciate the fact that you would respond so quickly to the report of a break-in at my house. But it's a simple misunderstanding. Thanks again." But of course, I'm not the enlightened beneficiary of a Harvard education, so what do I know?

From there, Gates escalated the situation by saying things like, "I'll talk to your mama," "You don't know who you're messin' with" and "You haven't heard the last of this." Eventually he became so belligerent that the cops arrested him for disorderly conduct.

At which point the political correctness heirarchy went into full-blown panic mode. The charges were dropped, the Governor of Massachusetts and the Mayor of Cambridge (both black) denounced the cops and the king of all diversity hires - President Obama - declared the police had "acted stupidly." Not as stupidly as, say, mouthing off at a press conference without knowing all the facts, but still pretty stupidly.

Then the pendulum swung the other way. Obama seemed to realize how stupid he sounded, and tried to back away from his own remarks, though without really apologizing. Then he called the cop involved to talk things over and now the empty buzzwords such as "teachable moment" and "racial reconciliation" are being thrown around. Everyone involved seems to be staking their claim to be offended and victimized.

Which is the logical product of all the silliness that goes on at places like Harvard, where the real world and common sense can't puncture the bubble of political correctness and identity politics that surrounds everything.

Parents, if your child has a chance to go to Harvard, here's my advice: Take the $50,000 per year you were going to spend, put $35K in the bank and use the rest to send them to St. Cloud State. The education will be just as good, and they'll have ample opportunity to learn that when a police officer asks for ID, your best move is to show him your drivers license.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Thought Police at work

Meet Loren Spivack. An entrepreneurial sort, Spivak leased space for a kiosk in the Concord Hills shopping mall of Charlotte, NC, and sells bumper stickers, posters and other little doodads. Just another energetic American, trying to make a buck.

Spivack, however, committed the "sin" of selling bumper stickers with CONSERVATIVE ideas, ones that say things like "Impeach Obama" and "Work Harder, Obama Needs The Money." His kiosk - Free Market Warrior - also sells things with pro-life messages and criticism of various government agencies.

This caught the attention of a young airhead named Jennifer Ibanez, who doesn't like criticism of her political messiah, so she did what the education establishment has taught her to do: Instead of arguing on the merits, she calls the political criticism "racist." She and her girlfriends threatened to not shop at Concord Hills if the kiosk were allowed to stay in business.

Unbelievably, it worked. As you can see in the story here, Simon Property Group - the owner of Concord Hills - has told Mr. Spivack that his lease will not be renewed at the end of July because the items he sells aren't "neutral" enough.

Now, I understand the Simon Property Group is a private business, and it has a right to choose who will and won't be a tenant. But their outrage seems pretty selective. The Charlotte TV station covering the story noted that other stores in the mall sell t-shirts and other merchandise "so crude we've chosen not to share them."

In other words, Simon Property Group isn't opposed to profane, off-color messages, it's just opposed to conservative messages. Not very "neutral."

Well, just as Simon Property Group - and by the way, the group's owner, Mel Simon, is an Obama contributor - has a right to decide who their tenants are, we also have a right to decide where we shop and how we spend our dollars. And for my friends in Minnesota, there is a way to strike back.

According to Simon Property Group's web site - - the company owns three properties in Minnesota; The Albertville Outlet Mall, Maplewood Mall and Southdale. I used the "Guest Services" link on Simon's web site to let them know that I will never again shop at any of these three malls unless Free Market Warrior's lease is renewed. I realize it's a drop in the bucket - or even less - to a huge corporation, but it's my little way of trying to take a stand.

If you don't live in Minnesota, the site has an easy search function to show you what properties they own and operate around the country. It would nice if they heard from a number of us.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The dumbest woman in America?

Could this be the dumbest woman in America? I think it's possible after seeing a clip (hat tip to of Whoopi Goldberg on "The View" this morning, questioning whether the moon landing actually happened, or had been faked in a movie studio.

She said she has "real questions as to whether the moonwalk actually happened," citing the "rippling flag" as evidence of possible fakery.

Her stupidity speaks for itself, and it seems to be contagious among Hollywood types. Director Oliver Stone swallowed whole the insane, criminal behavior of Jim Garrison and turned it into the movie "JFK." Charlie Sheen - whose acting I love - is on record saying that the World Trade Center was brought down by a "controlled demolition."

In the academic world - where science and reason should triumph - there's a kook UMD profressor that has "proof" that Paul Wellstone's plane was shot down on orders from the White House.

What I always find interesting about liberal nutjobs is that they'll believe any far-out conspiracy theory, but yet they will accept, without even blinking, the idea of man-made global warming, which is quickly being exposed as one of the tallest piles of BS ever put forth.

Here's a clip of Buzz Aldren dealing with a moon landing skeptic. It would be great if he could give Whoopi the same "explanation."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The typo on the moon

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Neil Armstrong's first moonwalk. There are a million anniversary stories online for anyone who wants to recall the details or those who are too young to remember it.

I was a space junkie as a kid. I remember listening to the radio during John Glenn's Mercury flight - the first manned earth orbit - and I was 12 years old when Armstrong stepped out on to the lunar surface. I could tell you about the history of the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the different astronauts' names and backgrounds. I knew what the CM was, along with the LEM, an EVA and all the other nifty acronyms. As noted in the previous post, I chose Kennedy's "Put a man on the moon" speech for oratory competition in high school.

(When I arrived in Washington in 1987 as Sen. Boschwitz' press secretary, I was thrilled to find that our next-door neighbor in the Hart Senate Office Building was the senator from Ohio, John Glenn! I got to meet him several times and ask a few space questions along the way. Big thrill.)

But my favorite Apollo 11 story was one I didn't hear until years later, listening to Pat Buchanan during a TV interview. He had been a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, along with William Safire, who was later a New York Times columnist. They were asked to help come up with the langugage for the plaque that would be attached to Apollo 11's Lunar Excursion Module (The "LEM") and left behind after the moon landing.


Buchanan - a devout Catholic - was pressing, with Nixon's backing, to have the text include the words "Under God" after the "We came in peace," sentence. NASA, however, was wary of having any religious connotation, and kept rejecting the language.

Buchanan and Safire then came up with an idea. The proposed text had a date of "July 1969" on it. The two of them inserted the initials "A.D" after the date. AD stands for Anno Domini, Latin for "In the year of the Lord." Buchanan said it was their way of subtly making the point that the hand of God was at work in all of this.

It worked, no one at NASA objected, and their plan seemed perfect. Except for one little thing: When properly used, the A.D. initials come before the year, not after it. To be correct, the plaque should read "July, A.D. 1969." And so the first moon plaque actually has a typo in it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Would he be a Democrat today?

It seems that every Democrat politician loves to drape themselves in the mantle of John Kennedy. Bill Clinton traveled to the White House as a teenager, and the picture of him in a group, listening to JFK, was a staple of his first campaign. Earlier this year we were subjected to the spectacle of JFK's daughter, Caroline, being considered for appointment to a New York senate seat for which she had no recognizable qualifications other than being JFK's daughter.

I admit to a special spot in my heart for JFK as well. As a competitor in high school speech contests, I chose his speech announcing the effort to go to the moon, which is really an inspired piece of prose.

But it's another of his speeches - his inaugural address - that got me thinking the other day about the remarkable transformation of the Democrat party over the course of my lifetime.

In January, 1961, JFK stood on the steps of the capitol after taking the oath of office, and gave a tremendous, well-crafted speech that included this phrase:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

Powerful words, and words that he had to stand behind a short time later, when he faced down the Soviets by blockading Cuba in order to stop the shipment of Soviet missiles.

But put those words in the context of today's Democrat party. Bear any burden, meet any hardship? Those words ring hollow when you consider the rabid anti-war folks - the Daily Kos bashers, the Code Pink operatives, the nutjobs like Cindy Sheehan - who control most of the party.

Support any friend, oppose any foe? Again, those words are a joke to the people of Iran, who are trying to throw off the shackles of tyranny, but hear the current American president say "The political situation in Iran is for Iranians to work out internally."

In fact, there's so much of JFK that seems not just out of sync, but in irreconcilable conflict with the views of most Democrats today. Take the most famous line from that inaugural: "Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country."

Today that vision is totally backwards, with the Democrat party's largest constituencies being public employees, teachers, labor unions and shakedown enterprises like ACORN, whose primary concern is what their country can do for them.

In fact, when you think of JFK in his totality - an advocate of strong defense, an interventionist abroad, a tax-cutter (he dramatically rolled back rates on high income earners, rather than "soaking the rich") and someone willing to be a vocal advocate for facing down tyranny ("Ich bin ein Berliner") then you have to wonder if today's Democrat party would have any room for the man they consider their icon.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Arnold Palmer and Me

Of course, there is no "Arnold and Me," but the King is back in Minnesota this week as the Senior Tour - oh, sorry, "Champions Tour" - rolls through Minnesota. A few months shy of 80, he remains a giant in the golf world, the business world and, heck, the world. And every time I see him come through town, I'm reminded of one of the most traumatic events of my life, in a brief moment when Arnie and I intersected in Chaska, Minnesota.

It was June of 1970, and 13-year-old Tim Droogsma was very excited. I had been playing golf since I was 8 or 9, and Arnold Palmer immediately became my hero. I watched him on TV whenever I could, I read everything I could get my hands on about him and even emulated that knock-kneed putting stance on the greens. My jr. high library had a Palmer biography written by his business agent, Mark McCormick, and I read it over and over, soaking up every little detail.

I knew how Arnie had grown up as the son of a club pro, how he had once thrown a club in a junior tournament and was told by his father "If you ever throw another club, you'll never play tournament golf again." I knew the stories behind his four Masters wins, the 30 he shot on the front nine to help win the 1960 U.S. Open, the tragedy of the 1966 U.S. Open, his love of airplanes, his various business ventures. I was a total Palmer junkie, ready to argue all night with anyone who dared to insist that Jack Nicklaus was better.

And now, in the summer of 1970, my hero was coming to Minnesota. The U.S. Open was at Hazeltine, the first major for the young course, and I put an elaborate plan in place so that I could see my hero up close. I mowed lawns to earn the money for a ticket. I knew that getting there wouldn't be easy, since we lived in Fridley (a northern suburb) and my dad worked near South St. Paul. Chaska - out beyond the western suburbs - wasn't exactly convenient.

But I mowed a few more lawns, and offered my parents gas money if mom would take dad to work, then take me to Chaska, then come back and get me that evening. They agreed, in part - I think - because they couldn't believe I was actually out finding work to make it all happen, and they wanted to reward this unusual behavior.

So I got a ticket for Friday, the second day of the Open. Mom got me there around 8:30 and said she would be back at 7:00 to get me. I went right to the driving range, where I figured Palmer would be before his tee time. Good call.

There, just 30 or 40 feet from me, was my hero, smashing balls down the range and getting ready for his round. This was the first pro golf tournament I had ever seen, but the other 149 golfers didn't really exist for me; My only goal of the day was to get Arnold Palmer's autograph.

In retrospect, there was an amazing collection of talent on the course that day: Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin (who had won the British Open the year before, and would win this tournament), Gary Player, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw (still an amateur), Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Chi Chi Rodriguez and others. But I was only there to see Palmer.

He finished his work on the driving range, and started up the hill towards the 1st tee. Today you wouldn't get near a player making this walk unless he chose to stroll along the ropes, but in 1970, security was pretty much non-existent. And so a crowd of us surrounded Arnie, making our way up the hill, shoving programs and pieces of paper in front of him, hoping for that signature.

I immediately fell a little behind the crowd and hustled up to try to get into position. With everyone trying to stay in front of him, I decided to get in close behind him and try to somehow get his attention. I was getting close, and then it happened: I stepped on his heel.

A total accident, of couse, and it was just a little nip, but there was no doubt my foot had made contact with his. And in case I had any doubts, the King made them go away by looking over his shoulder and saying "Off the heel, kid."

I froze, traumatized. The crowd kept moving and I just stood there. My idol had actually spoken to me, but the words were "Off the heel, kid." I was devastated. Here was my hero, trying to win the U.S. Open, and I had stepped on his heel.

I spent the rest of the day following him around the course and saw almost every one of the 74 shots he took that day. And as he left the 18th green, there might have been another chance for an autograph, but I was too afraid. I didn't want to risk angering him again. When mom picked me up later that day and asked if I had seen Palmer, I was too embarrassed to tell her what had happened. For years I had daydreams about someday meeting him, just so I could apologize for what happened on the way to the 1st tee.

Over the years, he's remained one of the people I most admire. During my annual trips to Myrtle Beach I've played two of the courses he's designed - River's Edge and King's North - repeatedly. I've played Arnold Palmer golf clubs, worn the shirts and still prefer Heinz over Hunt's ketchup because that was "Arnie's brand."

And in 39 years, I've forgotten most of my teenage traumas, but that one will never leave me, and I get reminded every year when Arnie comes back to town.

In 2002, Hazeltine again hosted a major, the PGA. I took my son William, and the parallels were eerie: He was 13, seeing his first pro tournament, on the course where I had been 13 and seen my first one. And for him, seeing Tiger Woods up close was every bit as big a deal as seeing Arnie had been for me. On the way to Chaska, I told him the story and reminded him that if got near Tiger, he should take special care not to step on his heels, or it would haunt him forever.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My 4th of July reward...

...In addition to being able to play 81 holes of golf (27 Friday, 36 Saturday, 18 Sunday), I was rewarded on Sunday after church by The Smartest Little Girl in the Universe, who ran up to me screaming "Opaaaaaaa" and was wearing this little patriotic outfit. For comparison's sake, the second picture is what she looked like last year on Independence Day.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

We hold these truths to be self evident....

I'll admit it right up front: Except for Easter Sunday, this is my favorite day of the year. When I was a kid, the 4th of July was the highlight of every summer.

I grew up in a church in Pease, Minnesota, which back then was a town of about 95 people, and I think it's grown to something like 200 now. But in the center of Pease was the Pease Christian Reformed Church, (pictured below) and attached to the church is a large picnic grounds with swings, a softball field and a nice little natural amphitheater. Back then the church - in a town of just 95 people - had an average Sunday attendance of 300-350 people. It seemed like every Dutch farm family in a 20-mile radius belonged to the Pease church.

And every year on the 4th, we went to Pease, because these folks knew how to celebrate Independence Day. It usually began just after dawn, when some locals would blow off a little dynamite, just to wake people up. Then there was a service at the church, in which the younger kids would come up front and perform a well-rehearsed song-and-dance routine with patriotic music. A guest speaker would give a talk. Around noon, all the families would start setting up in their usual part of the picnic area. Every clan knew their spot: The Kiels over here, the Droogsmas over there, the Tellinghuisens by that tree.

After a potluck lunch, the games would begin. Running races for the kids, a greased-pole-climbing contest that went on all day. A dunk tank. Volleyball. And because fast-pitch softball was all the rage, the two Pease teams - imaginatively named "Pease 1" and "Pease 2" - would face off at 2 p.m. The kids ran around all day, while the adults rested, visited, maybe took a walk in the adjacent cemetery to look at grandparents' graves.

Around 4:30, things would come to a halt. There were lots of dairy farmers in the crowd, and it was milking time. But they all starting filtering back around 7 p.m. for the evening program. We'd all sit on blankets on the hillside and listen to performers who led us in "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" until it was time to move to the other side of the grounds and watch the fireworks.

It was like being in a real-life Norman Rockwell painting, and every year I spent May and June just waiting for those fireworks. I'd sit on the grass and be thrilled by every single one, and I hated having it end. Pease, I later learned, has held a fireworks display every 4th of July since 1915, but when that last shell went off, I was afraid I might never see fireworks again.

And what I soaked in from this great day every year was that these people loved America. I grew up in the '60s and '70s, when the fight for civil rights, political assassinations and Vietnam were huge stories, but every 4th of July in Pease I was reminded all over again that America was good. Almost everyone in the crowd had an ancestor that came here from Holland or some other part of Europe to find a better life, and that lesson just seeped into all of us. America was where you came to find freedom and opportunity, and no one was embarrassed to celebrate it.

I took my kids back there a few years ago, hoping they would feel some of that same magic, but like everything from our childhoods, it's changed. The church is smaller now, and while there is still a morning program at the church, the picnic grounds don't fill up with as many people. Folks still show up for the fireworks, but there wasn't much left of the day-long celebration. The kids had a bit of a laugh at the old man, but that's okay; the 4th of July is still my day.

And over the years, it just keeps meaning more and more to me. The story of the Declaration is as compelling today as the first time I heard it, and my admiration for the vision and courage of the men in Philadelphia continues to grow. They challenged the mightiest country in the world because of their belief in freedom and self-governance, and they pledged - as the last line says - their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.

So enjoy the day. Have fun at the cabin, enjoy a round of golf, watch the Twins game, see some fireworks. But take a moment to remember the genius of Jefferson's writing - "We hold these truths to be self evident..." - and appreciate the fact that all of us today are still reaping the benefits of what they did.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Smartest Little Girl in the Universe

Indulge me, please, in a little bit of grandfatherly boasting. My granddaughter Anne, known to regulars here as "The Smartest Little Girl in the Universe," has made me proud again.

It's not just that she already has a huge vocabulary, or that she remembers all sorts of obscure things, or that she can string five or six words together to make a sentence at an age when most kids only say one or two words at a time. It's all of those things put together. Granted, it's my first grandchild (her baby brother arrives in about seven weeks!) so maybe I'm a little out of touch with what kids should be able to do, but I don't think so.

Anne's mother - a school librarian who knows tons about child development - tells me that a 22-month-old child should be able to stack four - or maybe six - blocks.

Yet here is Anne, just this week, stacking up all 10 of her nesting blocks. I'm telling you, there is some sort of advanced brain in that giant head!

Now if we can just get her mother to fully dress her in the morning......