Friday, August 19, 2011

My last, finest summer vacation

Seeing parallels between then and now

The Mississippi River is seen at Winona, Minn.
(Stock.xchng vi)
The spring of 1982 began in earnest with commencement ceremonies in a hot, crowded gymnasium at what then was known as St. Mary’s College of Winona, Minn., which some years later would follow an apparent trend and declare itself a university.

It was a time of excitement and joy — college careers were culminating, mine among them, and we all looked forward eagerly, perhaps with a hint of trepidation as well, to the roads of our future unrolling before us.

But ’82 was not such a great year to graduate, at least not in terms of finding work.

Then, as now, the nation had been shaken by a recession. Companies were laying off or holding tight, not hiring. Newspapers around the country were no different, tightening their belts and fearing the worse. In Minnesota, where I’d hoped to start my journalism career, there was somewhat deeper turmoil. In Winona, in southeastern Minnesota, folks referred to the downturn in the Iron Range, a region far to the north that was rich in iron ore.

Mining, like much else during that recession, had slowed. Miners had been laid off, and as the income they once earned disappeared, there were reverberations throughout their communities that, in turn, trickled out further through the region. Fewer people had money to spend; retailers suffered and cut their advertising budgets. Newspapers took a hit. Then, as now, some closed, although the reasons for closures  today are vastly different.

In fact, the managing editor at that time of the Winona Daily News told me — perhaps his way of letting me know that my internship would not transition into a job — that five papers in Minnesota alone had folded since the first of the year.

If nothing else, I recognized I would face stiff competition for my first job as a newsman. But I was young, smart, strong and likeable — nothing was too far out of reach and dreams hovered over me like stars in the night sky, waiting for me to pluck one to follow. In my youthful exuberance and pride, I could not imagine anyone would deny me the right to improve their publication with my enthusiasm, optimism and vast storehouse of inexperience.

What I did not know then was that it would be 18 months before I found that first newspaper job. That job would take me 1,100 miles west to Rawlins, Wyo., where a managing editor who disliked the hiring process was in desperate need of a sports editor and I, well, I knew the difference between a basketball and football, if little about the subtler nuances of either sport, and I desperately wanted a job. But that is another story.

Part-time work for a friend, freedom to fish

For the moment, I was a new graduate who hadn’t lined up a job yet but wanted to stay in Minnesota. Providence smiled upon me — I had worked part-time my junior and senior years as a personal attendant and driver to a good friend, Karl, who happened to need a motorized wheelchair to get around. He planned to attend summer college classes and would need someone to get him out of bed and into his wheelchair in the mornings, help with shopping and meals and then get him into bed in the evenings. In exchange, he would provide me a couch to sleep on and a modest paycheck each week.

Best of all, while he was in class most of the day, I could use my late mornings to check job listings and spend afternoons fishing on the Mississippi River. I had no boat, but unlike what pros might try to lead you to believe, one can be quite a successful shore fisherman. It’s considerably cheaper, too, and as entertaining as one’s imagination would allow.

Somehow, while fishing in the old abandoned marina that became my fishing hole that summer, I often was in great company. Minnesota didn’t seem too far a trek from Missouri for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, nor did the journey from Middle Earth seem too daunting to Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and their fellowship. Reading long has been another of my passions, and I indulged that as well that summer.

It was my last and finest summer vacation, with barely a care in the world, although it had its share of drama.

It was a summer spent in cutoffs and flip-flops. The Minnesota sun painted the skin on my lean, young body to the most bronze of hues — tan was fashionable then; the stigma its association with skin cancer had not set yet.

And I caught fish — oh did I catch fish!

Come rain or shine, I fished. I had such a passion and eagerness to spend time on the water that not even Minnesota’s prodigious mosquitoes could intimidate me. From the last week of May through mid-October, I caught scores of northern pike. The smallest one was about 28 inches long and went about 51/2 pounds — I actually caught that snake of a fish in Lake Winona.

But from the river, where I did 99 percent of my fishing, they were brawnier, stockier. The 40 or so fish I took home to eat that summer averaged 28 to 30 inches in length and weighed 8 or 9 pounds apiece. My largest that summer, a 10-pounder I caught on a fly rod, remains the biggest fish I’ve ever landed.

As the weeks and months ticked by, my absence of prospects for future employment hung like a cloud in the back of my mind, but it was a small cloud. The joy of this months-long moment remained upon me. It would not be until mid-fall that I would have to face returning to my hometown, where I would find warehouse work to hold me over for the next 12 months.

That period of my life is in stark contrast to this summer, 29 years later.

Job search summer

When I was laid off in December, I decided immediately to forego a fishing license this year — not until I was working full-time again. Part of me feared I might spend more time hunting for fish than for work.

In 1982, I nary had a care in the world. Now I have more cares than I care to admit — every single one of them hanging over me every moment for the past eight months, including this summer.

I am no longer the lean, bronzed Adonis I imagined myself to be back then. Middle age has set in, my eyesight’s not as sharp, and for the past 10 years, my children sometimes have teased me about the splotch of ice cream in my beard: “No, wait,” they say, failing to restrain a giggle, “those are (white) whiskers!”

I’ve gained more, too, in terms of experience, perhaps even some wisdom. I certainly am no longer the na├»ve, optimistic lad of 23 who was absolutely confident (at least in front of others) of all he did and said. Nor do I believe that I have grown cynical, particularly over the past 10 years or so as I’ve watched blood flow freely from round after round of layoffs, both at my place of employment and at other newspapers around the region.

But it’s mid-August, and summer is drawing to a close. Now, as then, the urgency to find work grows, even as the industry in which I’ve served so many years continues its contortions and contractions.

Yet now, unlike then, I have greater confidence that, at least for the interim, I’ll be working within my vocation. Freelance work is not what I would choose first, but it’s what God has set before me at the moment, and I am grateful for it, and I will give it my best.