What irony! Being a thief, plunging in the freezing water of the Thief River in Northern Minnesota seemed an appropriate punishment for my acquisitive nature. The ice had left the river four weeks earlier but it was still dangerously cold. I swam as fast as it was reasonably possible. My clothes hampered my progress somewhat, but I had no choice; I had to continue swimming. At first, the cold water took my breath away, but I concentrated on taking breaths from alternating sides to control my breathing so that I would not hyperventilate.
The sky overhead was shrouded with heavy clouds which seemed to encourage my stubborn progress towards the sheltered river bank I knew
well. With each breath, I could hear the sounds of sirens and see the red and blue lights from the police cars sweep across the water. I knew the new night watchman at the lumber yard had been close enough behind me to see that I had gone to the river. He had obviously called the police but I was across the 100-yard width of the river by the time they arrived.
With a last tremendous effort, I pulled myself out of the water and onto the river bank at the edge of an exceptionally familiar forest before the police cars pulled up to the other side. I was frozen to the bones, but I took no time to focus on my predicament, I had to move.
The troupers deployed their officers along the opposite side of the water and started searching the water surface with powerful spotlights. Everyone would have known how futile this search would be if I had drowned. My body might not have surfaced for days somewhere downstream or to be discovered only later in the spring.
I knew I was beyond reach as I jogged along a familiar track through the forest hosting mature oaks and maples, brambles and bushes that would be covered with attractive flowers in the months to come. It was a dark night with a slight crescent moon but I knew the serpentine deer paths like the back of my hand. I grew up playing in these woods which were just a half a mile from my house.
Yet, on that night, I did not head home. I knew that the only two access points into the forest were the 8th Street Bridge and the Northland Community College to the south and Long’s Bridge to the north. Instead, I angled North East about three-quarters of a mile to exit the forest’s eastern edge, coming out onto a stubble field. I continued at a scamper northward. I kept close to a windbreak of small trees and brush as I ran. Even though it was dark and there were no houses or roads anywhere close, I didn’t want to be seen out in the open. This was a long way around but I knew that the police would have to cross the river at Long’s Bridge so I couldn’t go that way. A half a mile or so later, I reached our pasture. I slowed down to a walk and crossed the last half a mile to our barn. I was exhausted, cold and glad I had escaped the law once again. I changed into the dry clothes, which I had left in the barn as a precaution.
I caught my breath and headed down our long driveway home. My house was on a separate piece of land across the road from our barn. As I walked down the driveway I reflected on the foolishness of my going back to try to get the few sheets of plywood that I had failed to get two weeks earlier when with the help of a friend we had successfully stolen a pickup load of plywood from the same lumber yard. It seems that the lumber yard management had increased its security since our last visit.
But let me explain…. I did not want to live with my parents once I graduated from high school. They owned 80 acres of wooded land 8 miles west of town. I didn’t want to live with them but I didn’t mind living on their land. I just wanted the freedom to come and go without supervision. The acreage was heavily forested. So, I had to clear a small area to build a cabin. Of course, I had to be different. I did not want to make a regular cabin I wanted it to be more like a sod-covered hill a “Hobbit Hill”. The land around Thief River Falls is completely flat, there are no hillsides in which to make a home. I had to make my own hill. I started mixing cement by hand and making a 12 by 12-foot concrete slab. Then I cut some 4″ diameter oak logs from trees I found nearby. I stood some of the logs up as 6-foot tall posts around the perimeter of the concrete slab. I used some of the logs to go around the top of the posts. Then, I cut some long aspen logs. I leaned these logs at a 45-degree angle on the oak logs at the top of the perimeter of the concrete. The bottoms of the logs were 6 feet out from the slab and extended to 2 feet inside the oak log frame perimeter to a height of 8 feet. I framed out the inside of the aspen logs on the top leaving an 8 by 8 opening. This 8 by 8 opening was 8 feet high. I used some lumber that my dad had me remove from part of our barn floor to cover it.
When we would clean the barn in the spring our pitchforks would stick into the wood, making cleaning the barn more difficult. But that wasn’t all, the stench of horse manure would deter anyone from approaching any of the stalls. It was not my favorite job, but my dad had me remove the wood and discard it in a pile. Someone’s garbage is someone’s treasure; isn’t that what some people say? Well, that pile of discarded wood would soon become my treasure. I used this lumber to complete the roof of my hut: making an 8 by 8 flat roof on the top with sides slanting out in all directions at a 45-degree angle. The base of the structure was 24′ by 24′. I left a 4′ wide entryway through the aspen frame to the oak frame. I put a door in the oak frame at the edge of the concrete. This is as far as I could go with the materials I had available.
I needed more lumber and plywood to finish the building of my Hobbit Hill house. That’s when I decided to steal some of the material I needed to complete my project. I knew doing this alone would be foolish if not stupid, so I recruited the help of a friend and fellow swimmer named Geoffrey, A Junior; one year younger than me.
“So, are you in?” I asked him one night after I discussed my plan with him. “Yeah, I’m in,” he replied, “as long as I can raid your fridge once in a while or crash at your place when I have had too much to drink.”
I was comfortable with the bargain since I knew Geoffrey not to be the drinker he often pretended to be. As for raiding the fridge, I didn’t think I would have the luxury of owning a kitchen appliance just yet. This was just a Hobbit Hill house after all.
First thing first; we staked out a local lumber yard. The lumber yard was just a couple of blocks from the river. Geoffrey and I were both competitive swimmers. On the other side of the river was the large forest with no roads where I grew up and played as a boy. I knew it like the back of my hand. We knew that if we were detected stealing the lumber we would be able to beat the cops to the river. Once at the river we would swim to the safety of the forest. We practiced our getaway, minus the swim, a couple of time so that we would not be surprised by anything unexpected like a fence or a hole.
Geoffrey and I did not drive; we walked to the lumber yard in the middle of the night. We carried the plywood, tar and tar paper that I needed to the edge of an unlit, gravel road outside of the lumber yard property. The road went to a couple of buildings along the railroad tracks that were unused at night.
Once we had the building materials positioned where we could load them quickly in the dark and out of sight, we would get a pickup in which we would load the materials. We considered this the most risky part of the heist. This is when we could get caught with a vehicle and would not have the option of running, and swimming to safety.
On the day, we smeared mud on the license plates just in case. We drove to the lumber yard and quickly filled the back of the pickup. As we were loading the last sheets of plywood we saw the beam of a flashlight of a railroad employee. Mind you, he was quite a ways away but definitely headed our way. He had obviously noticed us. We left a few sheets of plywood on the side of the tracks, jumped in the pickup and drove away before the railroad employee could get close enough to identify our pickup.
Two weeks later I tried to go back on foot to try stealing a few more sheets of plywood and bring them to a better concealed pickup point. However, when I was spotted, the light from a bright flashlight originated from the place where I had just picked up the sheet of plywood. I dropped the lumber and headed for my predetermined escape route. The watchman gave chase but I was in the best shape of my life, having just finished my senior year as co-captain of my high school swim team. I easily outran my pursuer, putting considerable distance between us. When I reached the river, I dove in.
Geoffrey and I were never caught, but later, when my world view was changing, I went back to the lumber yard, confessed and paid for the lumber. I used the stolen plywood to cover the aspen log frame and complete the exterior of my Hobbit Hill. When the plywood was fixed in its place, I covered it with tar paper. To tar the roof, I had a party and my friends came to help me. We started a fire and put large metal buckets over the fire with tar in them. We then rigged up a rope, tied to a tree up high on one side of the hobbit hill, then to another tree down low on the other side. We had a pulley with a hook on it to hang a hot bucket of tar. The pulley had another rope to pull the bucket up to the top of the Hobbit Hill house. We would get a bucket of tar boiling, then hook it to pulley and pull it up to the top of the building. The tar was poured over the tar paper until we had a thick layer covering the whole building.
On another day we rented a Bobcat front-end loader and covered the whole hill with dirt and planted grass. Very quickly the whole Hobbit Hill was covered with grass. I laid a wood ladder on one side to easily climb to the top without disturbing the sod.
Lastly, and inside of my new home, in the center of the cement slab, was a center post in the middle of a large wooden cable spool. The spool was painted white and the post supported the center of the 8′ by 8′ flat roof. On one side where the roof tapered down to the ground, I put wood pallets with a mattress on top for a bed. On the other side under the slanted roof, I had an old cast-iron bathtub. There was a sand point well with a small hand pump for water. The hand pump was right over the bathtub. I did not have a sink. To keep clean and warm was all I wanted. Luxuries would be added later.
NEXT TIME – CHAPTER 2 – SAND-POINT
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