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              It was a blustery weekend in Muskrat Flats. The wind was conducting a symphony as the poplars bordering the vineyard...

Monday, September 22, 2014

So Traditional ...

The seasons are once again changing in Muskrat Flats. The days are still warm but the nights are delightful as the temperature has been dipping into digits which threaten to rouse the furnace from its summer hibernation. Quietly sleeping in the basement during the humid and sweltering summer, it would let out a little fart every now and again, just long enough to keep the hot water flowing through the pipes for washing dishes or the occasional shower.

A big fan of cooler temperatures and an open windows, Moe Eckstein, shuffled over to the emergency switch, which controlled the  furnace. Located at shoulder level in the hallway leading into his kitchen, he flipped the switch turning the furnace off. The house was the perfect temperature that morning and he wanted to let the beast in the basement slumber a little longer so as to not unnecessarily heat up the house.

Moe was on a mission today. His Sonny Boy, Gomer was due to arrive any minute to pick him up as they were heading to their usual haunt at the corner of Petersen and McKernan Streets, the Odd Fellows Hall. The County fair was in full swing in Muskrat Flats for the next two weeks. The carnies and vendors and butter sculptors had been rolling in the previous week, setting up at the old race track inside the Fairgrounds at the edge of the Farm and Agriculture Museum. The old paddock was once again alive with not only horses of all breeds and sizes but cows, bulls, sheep and pregnant sows who were sure to give birth to a litter of piglets during the fair. That was always a crowd pleaser.

With the local economy in a slight dip for the last couple of years, the end of summer influx of cash money into the town was always welcome respite. Today, Gomer and Moe were on parking duty at the Odd Fellows hall. Not quite across from the main gate to the fair, but close enough that nobody ever complained about parking their car for $10 a spot.

If you have been a follower of the goings on in Muskrat Flats, you will know that the gathering of folks who comprise the Odd Fellows membership are the finest definition of a karass, assuming you subscribe to the teachings of Bokonon or the writings of Kurt Vonnegut.

Examples of the continuing cast of characters who give this town so much color and flavor include Moe, and Sid with their life long friendship. There is Coley Blackstone, who without proper medication would be an eccentric street person. But, in good mental health, a philanthropist.

Let's not forget Jeff and Jenny Smith and the story of how they met and their long and chaotic friendship/love Triangle with Gomer as well as their dedication to the preservation of the Farm Museum.

And there is the sad tale of Jeff Nelson and his sponsee in NA Benwah, may he rest in peace.

We pay a special testimonial to Sid's wife Iva Bartleby. The wainscoting walls of the Odd Fellows banquet hall most definitely have attained their warmth and coziness from absorbing the buttery sweetness of the blueberry muffins she bakes every day. And who can forget the catalyst who brought everyone together,  Sheriff Samuel Coleman Hawthorne, the crazy, drunken bastard whose mischievous and meddling touch is still being felt in everyone's lives  over a century later.

The whole bunch of them were thrown together through some inexplicable cosmic happenstance. Perhaps, Bokonon himself would be hard pressed to explain it other than to declare "So many different people in the same device."

One of the glues which held the fabric of Muskrat Flats in place was tradition. Muskrat Flats is ripe with them and they are being formulated all the time. What is a tradition really, other than a reverential repeating of an occurrence which seemed like a good idea at the time? And today, Moe would get to carry on one of those traditions.

Perhaps you may have noticed, more than likely you haven't since it seems to be something mundane - a simple prop. In county fair situations, parking lots pop up every where, Businesses will close for two weeks so they can park cars. All of the guys hustling parking spaces in their lots, yards, and semi-public spaces during the fair have one prop - a parking stick.

This is a stick that is old and grizzled and has been used time and time again, perhaps even unintentionally. After the cars are all parked  and the fair is over, the stick goes back into the corner of the garage and is forgotten about until the next year. Somehow it is always overlooked when kindling is needed and the dog never seems to take it. Unknowingly, it is very simply, THE stick, the parking stick. It is as iconic and unique as the personality of the old guy who is waving it.

 You wave it obsessively to entice people to pull their vehicles into your lot. Some sticks have an American Flag attached to the end, or one of the blue rags your mechanic would use to wipe up oil spills on your engine block. Some are adorned with one of those day-glo orange triangles you can buy for 75 cents at the Aubuchon. Others simply have a ripped red piece of fabric nailed to the end, looking almost like -  before unloading a recent purchase of lumber from the flatbed of your pick up truck, you decided to saw off a 2 and a half foot piece from the molding  which has extended beyond the length of the flatbed insuring the safety of the driver behind you. How clever, you got an instant parking stick for the next fair, without even thinking about it.

That is the beauty of the concept of a parking stick. It is almost worthless and has no real value, but it is your Parking stick, it can grow to have as much value as the first baseball glove you ever oiled up and broke in by placing two baseballs in the pocket and wrapping it with elastics every night, before you would unwrap it the next morning and beat the shit out of the leather all day.You repeated that process all summer until that glove became a part of your hand. You may not have seen that glove in years, but you know exactly where it is, just like your parking stick. In the corner of the garage, next to the tool cabinet, underneath the pastel drawings and graffiti your daughter put there when she was a teenager in the summer of '67. The cartoon is of Snoopy laying on top of his dog house and the slogan underneath it says, "Flower Children are Seedy Characters." The parking stick has that kind of sentimental value.

The Odd Fellows are no different. Moe walked over the to the fireplace. On the side of the mantle where the Jack-a-lope is situated, to the left of the impressionist era painting of Sheriff Hawthorne and underneath the mantelpiece,  there, leaning against the wall was their parking stick. This was a different parking stick. This was the top couple of feet of a Northland Hockey stick. The top end of the stick was wrapped in orange and red electrical tape giving it the appearance of a barber's pole. The stick was first used in the 50s and ended up in the hands of one of the Odd Fellows' predecessors.

The stick was originally owned and used in play for the Muskrat Flats AHL team The Mic Macs during the 1950-51 season. The stick belonged to the team owner/manager/player Eddie Hawthorne, the Sheriff's great-grand nephew. Eddie was a brilliant player and often played the entire game.

The team played at the Coliseum located on the fairgrounds. Eddie was a shrewd business man and worked diligently to squeeze every nickle he could out of the players and fans alike. He personally sold tickets to the games. He blocked fire exits which would allow people to sneak in, He kept a close eye on the concession stands. One night he had the brilliant idea of charging patrons for parking. He hastily grabbed one of his old hockey sticks and sawed off a length of it and ran out to the parking lot furiously waving the stick at incoming traffic. Using it to hold up traffic and to point fans into the spaces he wanted them to park. Like his great uncle, he lived life fast and large. He had a Cadillac which he would power down the interstate at 115 miles per hour, paying more attention to telling a hockey war story to his terrified passenger, than he did to the road.

He was hard on his players, fining them for minor infractions, he was hard on the fans, insisting on proper behavior and tossing people out for putting their feet on the seats. He was hard on the neighborhood kids who toiled for him sweeping the hallways of the Coliseum, and more importantly, resurfacing the Ice.  During games they would attack the ice between periods. There was no such thing as the Zamboni, an ice resurfacing vehicle, back then. The kids would scrape the ice, shovel the excess snow and haul a tankard of hot water with which they would spray the ice surface and squeegee the excess water until it was frozen and smooth. The kids who became known as the Rink Rats, did all of this work in exchange for admission to the games, but more importantly ice time and coaching in the fundamentals of hockey, by Eddie himself.

A few years later these Rink Rats took Muskrat Flats HS to the state championship three years in a row. Some went on to play professional hockey. And all of them, they never forgot Eddie, often coming back to work for him between seasons or after their knees gave out and couldn't skate any more. One of the kids, Tony, was handed the parking stick and that was his job until the Mic Macs were sold in 1970. By then Tony had been drawn into the fold as an Odd Fellow and somehow that parking stick ended up underneath the mantle piece, where it remains today. Nobody ever really thinks about the provenance of that stick. They all know its history. Without fail it always ends up back in that spot, because that is where it goes.

The scene outside was typical, Sid and Moe were in their lawn chairs at the edge of the parking lot, and somehow Gomer was out there furiously waving the top third of that red and orange taped Northland Hockey Stick while the old timers sat and read their papers. A stick which was owned by possibly one of the most revered, loved yet despised player/owner/managers ever to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Not just any parking stick, but THE Coliseum parking stick. Another Odd Fellows tradition happening at the corners of Petersen and McKernan. After a long hiatus, I'm glad I stopped by for a visit. It is now time for me to be Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.

Peace, Pablo