Trains, lupines, Father’s Day create memories

John Gilbert

Wally Gilbert, looking for the hit sign while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1930.

When you’d love to find a sports event to tune in and watch on your big-screen television, see if you can get onto YouTube and scroll through the music videos of famous performers until you find the late and sorely missed Guy Clark. He wrote many unforgettable songs, filtered through his unique Texas sensibilities, and among my favorites is “Texas, 1947.”

It’s about a youngster in a small town in West Texas where one of the major happenings each day was when the train, pulled by a loud old loco-motive, came rumbling through town. But this particular day, a hot afternoon in the summer of 1947, the town was buzzing because the first of the newfangled streamliner trains was scheduled to pass through, and virtually everybody headed down to the depot to get a look at it.

The tempo of the song gets more precise and you can almost hear the train coming. As Clark writes it, he and some other kids his age couldn’t wait, and the chorus goes, “Look out, here she comes…look out there she goes, she’s gone. Breezing right through Texas like a mad dog cyclone.” As the old men came down from their card games, and everybody gathered, the astounding thing was that this engine – “she don’t make no smoke!” – never even stopped.

As the red and silver missile sped past the astonished townsfolk, Clark says it left people wondering “what it’s coming to, and how we got this far.”

That song captivated me from the first time I heard an obscure Johnny Cash version of it, and it hit home because I was a little kid when our family moved out to the ridge 2 miles up the hill from Lake Superior on my fifth birthday – Sept. 1, 1947. And I can still vividly recall lying upstairs in bed next to the screen window, and as I tried to get sleepy, the haunting wail of a Duluth Missabe and Iron Range whistle broke the silence, and then the chugging of the steam engine could be heard clearly, although it was 2 miles away. When the first streamliners took over, it was sad, in a pre-nostalgic sort of way, because you knew modern times were shoving what we knew off on a siding somewhere.

I was a junior at Duluth Central High School when my dad died, and there has never been a day that’s gone by when I haven’t thought about him.
My mom, and my older sister, are also gone, and so I think about him alone, these days.

When Father’s Day came last Sunday, I thought about him more. He was an amazing influence on me, and I’ve always regretted that my wife, Joan, and our two sons, Jack and Jeff, grew up never knowing him.

Most people knew him as Duluth’s all-time greatest athlete, having emerged from Denfeld to attend Valparaiso University where he starred in football, basketball and baseball, before going on to play professionally in all three sports. But to me, he was mainly just “Dad.”

I always wished he could have seen his grandsons play sports and become wonderful people, and I’ve spent my career striving to write about sports and anything else in a way that would have made him proud.

Joan and I built a new house after I left the Minneapolis Star Tribune to return to Duluth, and we built it on the same hilltop location, where we can still appreciate the comparative silence of the countryside. Occasional cars speed up and down our now-paved highway, but no trains in the distance, these days, steam engines or locomotives.

As we pull out of our driveway, memories come tumbling back as we find the ditches on both sides of our roadway positively glowing with the purple of lupines, which grow wild for about a mile down the road.

When my dad was unable to work, he busied himself keeping our yard almost park-like and tending the vegetables and flowers my mom would grow with him.

Lupines by the side of the road bring back memories from 60 years ago.

Among my favorites were the annual spring flourish of the lupines. And my dad must have liked them, too, because he would take handfuls of the lupine seeds and go for a walk out to the road, where he’d toss those seeds.

We still have lupines in our yard, and Joan does an incredible job of working nearly full time and also tending assorted plants and flowers in our yard. The lupines always precede the rest of the flowering plants and shrubs, and they always get into full bloom around Father’s Day.

And every time we leave home and drive or walk past all those thousands of lupines on both sides of the road, it reminds me to think beautiful thoughts spanning a lot of years. And a lot of wonderful memories.

Action and reaction

After the afternoon Star, which was faltering, merged with the morning Tribune, which wasn’t, the merged management became preciously seeking political correctness.

We were informed one year that we would no longer be allowed to write the nicknames for various sports teams, including – and led by – the Washington Redskins, but adding the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, and any and all pro, college or high schools that had nicknames that could be demeaning to anyone.

We spent much of a season writing about the “Major League baseball team representing Cleveland,” and that sort of thing. That wasn’t enough, and in our attempt to become the standard bearer for all things politically correct, our management sent down an electronic notice that we were discontinuing the name “Chiefs,” also, as a late-coming addition.

There arose considerable consternation over that one. I remember in my electronic response I wrote that not only is Chief not a Native American term, we were suddenly going to have to do without a police chief, or a fire chief…or, an editor in chief.
I have no idea if that had any influence on a bad idea that never came to fruition, but now, a couple of decades later, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has proclaimed that the city would no longer use the term “chief” to describe any city officials.

C’mon…Really?

We’ve got a lot of serious civic issues that could use some careful scrutiny and adjustment, but whether naming the head man or woman the chief of their endeavor is not a chief reason to spend any time on it.

Speaking of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is still among the top half-dozen newspapers in the nation, they seem to have slipped a few cogs in their own organizational structure, or else there is a serious void in their sensitivity toward hockey. Last week, the Strib gathered everybody on their sizable sports staff together for a nominating party to select the top 20 sports teams that were icons to Minnesota sports.

They named some Twins teams, some Vikings teams, some Timberwolves (really!) and some Lynx teams.

But when they got done with their 20 most iconic teams in Minnesota sports history, there was not a single University of Minnesota hockey team even mentioned.

For sure, the 1973-74 team that Herb Brooks gathered together in his second year as coach and won the university’s first-ever NCAA championship, should have been one. They won it again in 1976, and then the 1978-79 team that Brooks assembled that won the third NCAA title in Brooks’s seven years at the helm should have been a cinch – particularly after a dozen of his homegrown players formed the basis for his 1980 Miracle on Ice team.

If the misguided sports lads at the paper could name the Clem Haskins-coached team that reached the NCAA basketball final four – and later had all its honors stripped for a cheating scandal – then at least two of Herbie’s all-Minnesota Gopher hockey teams deserved a mention.

We also are closing in on the final struggles of the Duluth News-Tribune, which only has about two more weeks of 7-days-a-week publication, and then goes to two days – Wednesday and Saturday – with the rest being online. For those of us who like to look things up online, but also like to hold a physical newspaper in our hands, that’s sad news indeed. I started my career there, before going to the Minneapolis Tribune, and it’s a sad state of affairs when a daily newspaper can’t make it.

We are still waiting to hear if there will be an official NHL-ending schedule coming soon, or whether there will be anything resembling Major League Baseball this season, even if reduced from 162 to 60 games.

We need sports, even with no fans in the stands, or limited numbers let in.

There is, however, a nagging concern that when we get everything back to normal, “normal” won’t be anything like what we know as normal. We’ll all be digging out that Guy Clark classic and pondering what it’s coming to, and how we got this far.