Red Pump Beginnings

from Tales from the Red Pump 
Pages 1-2

Can one place hold all your dreams?  I believe it can.  The Red Pump marks that place for me.

    The Red Pump is a worn, upright cast-iron hand pump we bolted to our water well here years ago in Solon Springs.  This humble monument is my center of the world.  It marks the focus of where over five generations of our family have lived, learned, and played through adventures, joys, challenges, and tragedies.  It is where I have grown to know much about being a son, brother, husband, father, a man.  It anchors the one place where I know I can thrive the rest of my days.  The Red Pump, and this land it secures, compose the stable, certain base from which I draw strength to leave and courage to return, always. 

     The Red Pump took residence here recently in the human history of this land.  My father found the well-used pump at a nearby rural thrift store, and paid five dollars for it.  The pump was a ragged, barn-red color when Dad bought it in spring, 1973.  Shortly after he hauled it here, we bolted it to our newly drilled well in our small clearing in this old forest.  Our deep well, along with our cherished pump, became the heart of this five-acre remnant of our family’s original homestead from the post-Civil-War 1800s.  

     A few years later, we repainted our new-old pump a bright glossy red.  Ever since, it has been “The Red Pump”.  Stories and reflections in this book diverge from this central, solid cast-iron catalyst of adventure and life learning; this one place, one symbol of continuity so important. 

     For over 130 years, our family felt the power and attraction of this special forest haven in the Upper St. Croix Lake basin of northwestern Wisconsin; our great grandparents, grandparents, and parents have all engaged in demanding, active lives here.  My wife, our sons, and I also learned its draw.  We appreciate this unique site more fully as we grow wiser.  There is much to tell.         

     The Red Pump has become the heart of our homestead.  Along with our compact living quarters in the midst of this mature, serene forest, the Red Pump also represents the heart of the north.  It reminds us daily of the permanence of this place, the power of this climate, and the tenacity of all who live here.  The Red Pump and its stories link to the northland Wisconsin heartbeat we have known in our lives for so many years, and are atop a deep reservoir of tales radiating from our unique homestead in an old forest.  

This first offering of Tales from the Red Pump is only a beginning.  There will be more.                  

Copyright 2009  Thomas Wayne King.  All Rights Reserved.

Best of Show

from Tales from the Red Pump 
Pages 30-34

     The huge toad almost got splattered by my lawn mower. 

     I was cutting thick grass and ground cover, near our Red Pump in Solon Springs in June 1985, when my rotary power mower passed over a lump on the ground.  The lump looked like a dark rock in the grass, but the rock had bumps and spots on it–and it got up and hopped out of the way as the mower passed.  It was a particularly, shall we say, muscular toad.  I called the boys over. 

     Seth, age four, and Adam, almost six, playing in another part of our camping area, were thrilled to see the big toad up close.  They soon decided he was “Tubby Toad” (he truly was a tubby toad), and Seth put him in a box on damp grass and fresh green leaves.  The boys decided to take him home to Superior as a pet.

     Over the next few weeks with us, Tubby became a fine family pet.  Our young sons learned a lot from him, and he was surprisingly interactive with them.  They would stroke him gently on the back of his head with their small fingers, and Tubby would warble, his brown and white spotted throat flap moving in and out.  They fed him worms and bugs in his box, and always kept a shallow pan of water there for him.  Seth took him out many times a day to romp in the damp, dense plants near our Superior garden.  He also let Tubby have time to just sit in the low, buggy greenery along one cool side of our house.  Toad and boy bonded.

     Soon we learned the upcoming summer celebration at the county historical museum included a pet show and contest sponsored by the humane society.  Divisions for pets ranged from largest, smallest, and best trained, to best of show across all categories.  We saw possibilities for Tubby.  Seth asked if he could take his new toad friend to the show. 

     Debbi suggested that, as a pet show contestant, Tubby should have a proper pet harness and leash.  Using some thin gold curling ribbon she had taken from a package, we designed and crafted a small, loose-fitting harness for Tubby.  It fit well and was quite attractive for the dark brown toad.  “Accessorizing your amphibian,” we mused, “what a concept.”  We also fastened a ribbon lead to the harness so Seth could walk his pet.  Wow, a chunky, tubby toad on a gold leash with a tow-headed, blue-eyed four-year-old kid walking him: a winning combination, we figured.  

     On the day of the contest, Seth put Tubby’s harness on the cooperative toad, packed him in his homemade port-a-toad box, and took along his leash.  Seth and all of us were excited as we drove to the historical society museum to show Tubby.  Each child with a pet had a chance to come up in front of the group as everyone met out on the bay-front lawn of the museum.  It was a sunny, brilliant blue day there, overlooking Lake Superior.  The kids all sparkled as they each enthusiastically told about their animals and showed them to the crowd of assembled pet lovers.  

     When it was Seth’s turn, he walked to the head of the group, carefully holding Tubby, then put him down on the ground with both his harness and his gold leash attached.  Seth told his pet’s name, and explained how he got him.  Tubby apparently understood his role at that point (or was scared stiff), for as if on cue, he hopped out ahead on the grass while Seth walked him back and forth a few steps in front of the judges and crowd.  The audience laughter and approval were huge.  Tubby, nonplussed, almost seemed to enjoy it. 

     The judging of dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, turtles, frogs, and other critters was soon completed, and the prize announcements came for each category.  Tubby won the first place blue ribbon for the “Interesting Pet” category.  When all the division awards had been announced, the drama built as the “Best of Show” trophy was about to be awarded.  The head judge got everyone’s attention, and intoned loudly “The Best of Show award goes to…. Tubby Toad and Seth King!” 

     We cheered and laughed; we knew Tubby was a winner.  Tubby and Seth won a surprisingly large trophy, and we recall the story being in the local paper.  We also got some great pictures we will always treasure.  Seth had the trophy in his bedroom for all his growing up years.  It is stored on a special, revered shelf in our barn attic here at Solon Springs to this day.

     After the pet show, we decided to return Tubby to the wild.  Putting him back in the lush leaves near the Red Pump was our first thought.  We realized, however, that might be too risky for him, with all the wild predators here, and the power mower cruising over his head several times each summer in our camping area.  We concluded the protected, moist perennial covered area near our garden at home in Superior might be best for him until hibernation time came in the fall.  The spot we decided on was fenced in, and seemed to provide enough freedom for Tubby to hop, eat, and roam.  It also offered protection from birds, cats, and traffic, as well as from other kids and parents.  We felt Tubby would be secure and happy there for a few more months until the weather cooled off.  

     Then fate stepped in.  In late summer of 1985, we found we had to sell our Superior home and make a major family move south, to another Wisconsin town, because of care issues for our extended families.  We packed and prepared for several months, and got entangled in all the depressing details and stresses of moving.  It was sad and difficult for all of us to leave our simple, small (but to us, most beautiful) home we had built on our own, on our little corner lot, and had loved for more than a decade.  It was also when Debbi and I stopped sleeping well in our lives.  We began pulling a much bigger family-care and financial load. 

     In all the rush and changes, we largely forgot about Tubby.  We looked for him once or twice in the garden area where we had last seen him, but could not find our toad.  Seth was concerned about this, but he and Adam both understood Tubby needed to be in the wild.  Hopefully that was where he was.  Just maybe, he had escaped our garden to better digs, literally perhaps, in the larger yard or in our neighborhood. 

     We resolutely stopped looking, and continued about our intense business of packing and transporting all the important things, indoors and out, we had accumulated in our wonderful, eleven active years in Superior.  Debbi hastily dug out some of her treasured flower bulbs and other perennials, and we boxed and carted them to our new home in southern Wisconsin.  It truly broke our hearts to leave our well kept, self-built home and yard, with so many memories and so much life having happened there.  But we knew we had to leave for a greater family purpose. 

     One day in late fall of 1985, we were in our new yard transplanting some of those bulbs and plants from the few boxes we had quickly stuffed in Superior as we packed to go.  As we carefully tipped out the roots with rich black dirt from back home to replant them, one of the lumps we found in the dark soil moved.  Tubby?  Yes, it appeared to be Tubby, a miraculous reminder of home, our real home, not this strange, new one.  We thought at first it was too good to be true; that our stowaway friend was just another toad who had bedded down for the fall in our moist northern garden.  But the closer we looked at him, and as we watched him move and interact with us, Seth and all of us knew it was our favorite amphibian.  We believed it really was Tubby Toad, concluding he had moved with us.  We collectively, carefully placed him in our new side garden of dense plants and bushes, to continue life with us at our new home.  Tubby was there in those bushes the next spring of 1986, and we kept track of him well into that summer when we last saw him. 

     Tubby Toad was a good pet for us.  He was a needed, fun friend for a four year old and his family at a time of such sad leavings and new, uncertain beginnings.  We learned from Tubby how even the humble and mundane, with imagination and love, can indeed become Best of Show.  We think of Tubby now and his many, many toad progeny here, especially every time we mow near the Red Pump and see a lumpy dark form in the moist leaves.  We need to be careful. 

     Hey, something just hopped over there.  I wonder…?

Copyright 2008 and 2009  Thomas Wayne King.   All Rights Reserved.

Ice Lemon

from Tales from the Red Pump 
Pages 113-116

     Upper St. Croix Lake was a frozen mirror on December 9, 2006.  It was already 3 pm that sunny, cold day, and I knew the light would fade soon.  At this latitude in December, we have usable sunlight for lake skating only until about 5 pm, depending on cloud cover.  I finished my work for the day, and decided a long-distance skate on our seven-mile lake would be perfect.  The lake ice here had frozen and firmed up a week before, and I checked it for safety earlier that day.  No snow had fallen that late autumn, so the lake surface was a brilliant sheet of wide-open, clean ice; an old hockey player’s private paradise, something rarely seen now in years of warmer winters.

     From our garage hockey equipment box, I grabbed my Bauer skates, hockey gloves, and one of my old banged-up, ragged-taped sticks.  Hadn’t used them in a year or more, and it sure felt good to be heading for a well-lit skate on the glassy lake.  With the total lack of snow in our area that year, the walk down to the lake bank was quick.  There, I sat on a big rock at the edge, tied on my skates, and put on my gloves.  I grabbed my stick, pushed off with my life-long skater’s legs, and power glided out on my smooth, personally reserved rink.  There was no one else around.  It felt sublime to stride strongly, and skim over the slick, bright surface in the sun.  I skated north about two miles in just a few  minutes, where the ice got rougher, then I turned around and headed back south to explore around the Island at the other end of the lake.

     In my rush to get out on the ice during sunlight, I forgot to bring a puck along to stick handle and pass as I skated up and down the lake.  Our puck bag, of many black, hard rubber discs and a few red-plastic street hockey balls, was underneath other gear in our box.  I neglected to grab it when I left.  Not a problem for us old-time outdoor hockey guys; I just skated around any loose chunk of ice, small stick, or pine cone I saw on the ice, scooped it in with my curved stick, and passed it on ahead to my imaginary team mates as I skated hard.  What fun, and what pure joy, to move nearly silently and effortlessly on a fast, friction free surface.  “Best skate ever,” I thought, even though I was alone on the lake.  I skated along briskly, enjoying the wind from my speed, the endless blue sky, and the open panorama of the lake and surrounding forests.  I was lost in my own exceptional early winter world.

     Hey, up ahead, a dot on the ice.  I skated up closer, and could see it was a faded yellow round thing.  A tennis ball?  Or had someone lost their street hockey ball or their driveway puck out here earlier?  Curious, I charged up closer, never guessing from a distance what it really was: a whole lemon, frozen solid.  How random: a loose lemon lying on the ice, hard as a rock, and faded from a bright grocery store yellow.  The story behind that was anyone’s guess.  Maybe it fell out of an ice fisherman’s cooler?  Maybe animals got it out of garbage near a lakeshore cabin? 

     Who knows?  Whatever its method of arrival on the lake, the lemon was exactly the missing “puck” I needed.  I skated fast now, in rapid bursts, and slapped it on ahead on the smooth ice, then raced to catch up to it.  I stick handled it forward and backward, in tight turns and long loops; I tried crazy behind-the-back and between-the-skates passes.  They all worked; I was so loose and relaxed.  My team of one was looking good.  If only I’d had a partner to pass to or been in a game that day, could I have shown them my old stuff.  I didn’t even have to worry about hitting ruts or holes during all my gyrations, because the surface was so clean and clear; almost like newly re-iced indoor skating. 

     In awhile, I was tired from all my tight turns, stops, and reversals of directions with my new lemon puck.  It was my first skate of the winter, so to slow it down a bit, I skated directly north, around the east side of Crownhart Island, then turned south at the Island’s northernmost tip to skate along the sunny west shoreline in the windbreak of the tall pines on the Island.  I cruised in a silent, pure world now, sending my ice lemon way out ahead of me, then chasing it, and shooting it out again, over and over. 

     My attention had been fully occupied for the last hour, up and down the lake, back and forth.  Now, suddenly, a moving shape came into peripheral view over my left shoulder, something moving casually, at about shoulder height and maybe just ten feet now to my left.  It was a large bald eagle coming slowly to my level, in full-spread glide pattern with wings at least seven feet across, tip to tip.  He, maybe she, floated in silently, about five feet off the ice, focused on the lemon out ahead of us about fifty feet.  The eagle held his glide pattern over the lemon, dropping to about three feet above the ice, then tipped his head down to look more closely at the yellow treasure as he passed above.  He gritted through a tight left banking power turn, not unlike what I had been doing on the ice surface.  Then he rose in the air, flew back around me, and came in again from north to south over the ice at about waist height, trying to get a closer look at this mysterious object. 

     I stopped and watched in amazement.  My silent lake partner repeated his close airborne inspections of the random thing on the ice at least three more times, trying to figure out what that wobbling, flopping, skidding, yellow object was:  Food, fish, unusual prey?  I can only wonder.  Then he flew off, disappearing in to the endless blue over the distant forests.  

     For a few moments, the Eagle and I were in a sunlit, clear world of curiosity that day on the ice.  We shared our joy of moving freely and effortlessly: him reveling in gliding, swooping, and turning in the air; me enjoying much the same on my glassy two-dimensional medium of polished, once-in-a-lifetime lake ice. 

     We both pursued a silly target that afternoon, and had some fun together.  I will never forget us both chasing that random lemon during on our shared St. Croix ice mirror adventure.  What an experience, and what a story.  I couldn’t make it up if I tried.  And, by the way, our ice lemon is still in a plastic bag in our barn freezer near the Red Pump to this day.  It will stay there as a reminder of that cold afternoon of crystalline perfection, frozen fondly in my memory, forever.