Returning to Thief River – Ch 4

During the winter before going to New Guinea I had my first winter camping experience. Hillary Stoltman was an avid outdoorsman and was one of our neighbors on the river. He took me and his son Steve for a winter camping weekend. We didn’t have a tent. We built a lean-to, covered it with Spruce boughs and laid down some more spruce boughs to sleep on. It got down to 38°F below zero that night. Whichever way you look at the thermometer, doesn’t matter. It was cold! It was so cold that trees were cracking from their freezing resin. They sounded like gunshots in the woods.

A feat not to repeat… But did.

The summer before we left for New Guinea, when I was between fourth and fifth grade, was the first time I jumped off the top of Longs Bridge. Longs Bridge was located about a quarter-mile from our house. The bridge was fitted with a suspension bridge where the road was about 7 feet off the water and the top of it was about 25 feet off the water. Older kids would jump off and dive off the Longs Bridge. My brother Knute and I climbed to the top and my brother dared me to Jump. He hadn’t jumped off the bridge himself yet. I jumped so then he had to jump. After that we spent a lot of time swimming in the river and jumping off Longs Bridge until we went to New Guinea.

After these and other experiences camping, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, when we got back from New Guinea, my main interest was camping. All I wanted to do was go camping with my friends and buy camping equipment. I always liked to make plans and design things. I didn’t have a lot of money for camping gear and we would make do with what we had. If I did have money I would buy something for camping. Once I bought a net hammock. I decided that I am sleeping bag and a tarp would be a perfect camping arrangement. I put a grommet in the bottom of the sleeping bag. I ran the rope for the Hammock through the grommet pulling the hammock into the sleeping bag. This way the sleeping bag was on the outside and the insulation was not being compressed by laying on it. I then pulled a rope really tight between the same two trees on which the hammock was stretched, so that I could put a tarp over it to protect me and the whole sleeping contraption from the rain. I rigged a net over my face for protection against bugs. The whole set up was very light weight. I had no walls or floor to carry and the tarp could double as a tarp under which I could cook a meal in the rain. However, I found out that I didn’t particularly like sleeping in a hammock. But it was fun designing my own camping gear on a shoestring budget.

In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, Tom and I put on backpacks and walked to Lake Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, a 30 mile hike.  Because the refuge is just a large lake and swamp there is no place to camp. We hiked to the headquarters and compound where the Game Warden and caretakers lived. We thought that they would let a couple of 12-year-olds, who had just backpacked 30 miles, camp somewhere on the property which was high and dry. We were wrong and were told in no uncertain terms that we had to camp outside of the refuge. We were not offered a ride but had to hike a couple of more miles back, in the dark, out of the refuge. When we crossed the border of the refuge, we didn’t even set up camp but just slept in the ditch.  The Game Warden, who had turned us away, had a son and two daughters. Many years later, my friend Dana married the older daughter and I briefly dated the younger daughter. The next day we backpacked past Holt and went on to Newfolden, A distance of about 25 miles. That night we camped in the park at Newfolden, On the 3rd day we hiked the 20 miles back to Thief River along Highway 59.

Speaking of Dana…

We skated a lot on the bay behind our house on the Thief River, playing pom-pom pull away tag and hockey with neighborhood kids. Even though we lived in the country we had a neighborhood because the houses were close to each other along the river. But, the ‘bay’ on which we loved to skate – it was smooth as glass – was in our backyard. As we got older, we started doing a lot of skating up the river. We had a number of years in a row where we didn’t have any snow for a long time in the fall and early winter. We could skate for miles up the river.

One time, when I was in ninth grade, I was home alone and we had been skating on the bay for a couple of weeks. The bay freezes earlier then the river channel because of the lack of flow through it. I was skating and I was gaging whether or not the ice was thick enough on the channel to skate on. I went and got a hatchet. I skated out to the edge of the channel and chopped a hole in the ice. It was a couple inches thick of nice new ice. I knew the ice would be thick enough to skate on. Yet, since I was alone, I took the precaution to cut myself a pole to hold onto, which I could use to get myself out of the hole if I fell through. Once I was ready, I took off skating up river. As I skated I saw a change in the appearance of the ice by Tom’s house. I was skating fast and didn’t think too much of it. As it turned out the ice, at the curve in the river outflow, had been kept from freezing because of the prevailing wind in that area. The change in appearance, which I saw near Tom’s house, was now the ice going from 2 inches thick to a quarter of an inch. Because of my speed I traveled a good 50 feet on the thin ice before breaking through. When I did, I went through completely. As I fell, I opened my hands to catch myself. The pole that I had cut for my safety went flying out of my hands and skidded across the thin ice.

I went completely underwater and when I came up I realized that I had only a few minutes to get out of the water before my body would start reacting. First, there would be numbness and then drowning. I turned and look at the good ice, which was now 50 feet away. Using the little energy I had left, I started swimming towards that thicker ice. All the way, I smashed the thin ice with my fists.

I was a competitive swimmer and swam the butterfly a lot. However, it is hard to kick your feet and get much propulsion with skates on. Nonetheless, I did the dolphin kick as hard as I could and propelled myself up onto the good ice.

I skated home relieved to be alive still. I could hardly stop shaking. My clothes where turning to ice and by the time I got home they were frozen solid.

I stepped inside, got undressed and threw my clothes in the dryer. I didn’t wait; I took a shower and changed. I never told my parents I had fallen through the ice until many years later.

Later that same year I went skating with Dana. We went skating way up the river. He had brought a bottle of Mad Dog 50/50. At that time, I didn’t drink and he drank the entire bottle by himself. He got so drunk he couldn’t stand up on his skates anymore. I ended up dragging him all the way home holding the blades of his skates pulling him, on his back, behind me.

Often life is stranger than fiction. And that is certainly the case for Ione Stone. The stories I’m going to tell about Ione don’t need to be embellished or exaggerated because they’re already odd or even gross in reality. My brother, sister and I all had to take piano lessons from Ione Stone. Our parents thought that she was the most qualified piano teacher in Thief River. She was an Oberlin College graduate and had been a concert pianist when she was younger.  Ione was an older, plump, eccentric lady. She lived with her elderly mom. I’m not sure how old she was but we thought she must be at least 90 and her mom 120. Okay, this is exaggerated but that’s how old these two ladies seemed to us. Ione’s house was probably as old as she was. It was dark. It reminded me of the Adams family or Munsters’ house. The grand piano was the main feature of the parlor. It stood in the center of the room and commanded the entire décor, except perhaps for the large harp standing in the corner. Ione had wild, matted red hair. She wore purple capes and the wrinkled face was highlighted by a thick coat of red lipstick on her quivering lips.  She smoked like a chimney and the house, as well as her, smelled of rotten stubs in an ashtray, such as the one standing on the piano. When she yelled at us she would spit with chunks of red lipstick flying in our direction. She was very precise as to the way she wanted us to play the piano. She wanted our fingers tight and curled so that we would have the power to play loudly when needed. If we straighten out our fingers to play she would slam them with her fist against the keyboard.

Ione had quite a reputation in Thief River. She didn’t drive and expected the parents of her students to take her whenever and wherever she wanted or needed to go. She was a holy terror wherever she went. For instance, when she went to the supermarket she would go five minutes before closing, that way she would have the entire staff of the supermarket to yell at and to order around. However, If they saw her coming they would yell, “Ione”. The entire staff would then scramble to turn off the lights, lock the doors and everyone would dive behind the checkout counters to hide. Ione would be looking through the windows pounding her fists on the door. No one would budge. Eventually, she learned (a bit late perhaps) that people were not necessarily at her beck-and-call.

One time, Ione was taking a bus somewhere. The bus stopped at Marque Corner, a small gas station bar and restaurant which stood at the corner of Highway 2 and Highway 32. She had been harassing the bus driver so much, that when she was late getting back on the bus, because she was harassing everyone in the restaurant, the commercial bus driver just drove away and left her there.

I only took lessons from her for two years. I don’t remember any piano because I think I developed a form of PTSD from taking lessons from Ione. I think my brother had lessons from her for about two years as well. My sister had lessons for longer and did actually learn to be a good piano player. She still has music that she saved where you literally cannot see the notes because of all the writing that Ione had scribbled over the notes on the sheet music. She would sometimes imitate Ione. My sister would put a pillow under her shirt matt up her hair and then slam her hands on the piano keys bouncing up-and-down on the stool. My parents thought they were getting their money’s worth because they would pay for a one hour lesson but a lesson would never be one hour. Our lessons were always at least an hour and a half if not two hours. Once my brother’s lesson lasted a full four hours. He was in junior high and this was a lesson which he attended after school. I was in grade school when I took lessons from her. She was not an appropriate teacher for a grade-school kid. For a high school or college age student, who may have been a very serious about music, she was an excellent instructor. My sister-in-law, Nancy, has a brother Billy who went on to become a professional opera singer in Germany. He was very eccentric himself. He also took piano lessons from Ione and loved it. But he was a music prodigy and became a professional musician. That’s the sort of student that Ione needed, not some clueless grade school kid like me.  

One night, I had a lesson scheduled. Thief River Falls High School was playing our rival Rousseau High in hockey that night. I did not want to go for my piano lesson, I wanted to go to the hockey game. I conspired with my brother to hide from my parents and sneak off to the hockey game. I hid in the attic space at the back of my closet while my parents were looking for me.

My brother pretended to look for me too. When they went to the barn to look for me, my brother let me know that the coast was clear. He told me that my parents were really worried, though. He suggested that when I got to the hockey game to call them and let them know I was all right. My brother knew that my mom would be really mad. Although he thought that my dad would show me some mercy because he would be proud of me for showing some gumption and going to a hockey game instead of a piano lesson.

I got out of the house, and walk down the frozen river into town and then a few blocks up the street from the river to the old arena. When I got there I used a payphone to call my parents and just said, “I’m okay,” and hung up before they could ask any question. Unfortunately for me, they could hear the noise from the hockey game in the background. It wasn’t long before my parents showed up, brought me back home, gave me a spanking and brought Ione to our house to give me my piano lesson. I should have received a much more severe punishment than I did, but, I think my brother was right about my dad.



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