How I Spent Time with My Two Sisters –

With my wife Sue planning to be off to Indiana to visit her two sisters and their mother, I thought I should do the same with my sisters.

So –


My sisters Jean and Cher drove up from the Cities this past Thursday, arriving around 6:30 pm. (We won’t get into the getting lost’ episode at all.) I grilled up five brats, even soaked and cooked them in beer, using the burner on the grill. I also grilled 3 hamburgers, so I was ready to feed them when they arrived. Provided ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, potato chips, and potato salad and we were ready for a feast.

After the meal, I presented Cher with a birthday present – (She had just turned XXX years old . . .)
A handful of weeks ago, Sue and I were in Indiana, where we browsed our way through a good many flea markets and antique stores. Sue happened upon the perfect gift for Cher.

Cher is the proud owner of a set of china that feature what is called the DESERT ROSE pattern. So, when Sue saw a DESERT ROSE teapot in one of those flea market stores, there was simply no question that we’d get it. For four bucks, how could we not?

Cher opened the gift – and oh, she was so happy! The DESERT ROSE china was our Grandma Ruud’s dishes, so this just added to the legacy and good fun.

Meal done, gift presented, and all three of us could hear the pontoon calling, offering us an evening boat ride. Down to the dock we went, complete with plastic cups and a bottle of cheap champagne that Jean had picked up at the liquor store. Out into North Long Lake we went, cruising into the western part of the lake (along highway 371) and back again, getting back to the dock right near sunset. Up to the cabin for a little chat, and then back into Brainerd for bedtime and some sleep. And yes, we emptied the champagne.


Get out of bed, get dressed, get coffeed up, and head out for some garage sales. The first is one down on Graydon Avenue – no purchases. But today, luckily, is the garage sale day for the North Brainerd Neighborhood Association – all kinds of stuff in many driveways in that area of town. The three of us wade our way through tables of doodads and gizmos of all sorts – through clothes hung on poles suspended between two step ladders – finger through boxes of books, of DVDs, of VCRs (remember them?), and we each make a purchase or two. Jean got a doll. Cher picked up a few little things, and I procured a nice Ryobi hedge trimmer. Nice shopping, ladies. Can anyone say “LUNCHTIME?”

And with us three Johnson kids, there is no better than A&W! Here we come, Nisswa! We park near the pioneer village and head right to the A&W – after a short stop in CRANKY HANK’s shop, where the clerk recognizes me as having been in plays. (Gee, that’s fun to hear …. ) and finally, 3 root beers and three burgers, along with fries. Can there be a better summer lunchtime with sisters? Won’t be the last; I feel that in my bones.

three nelsons and a&w

And more stores … down one side of the town and then the other. We started on the north side of town, headed south, got to Stonehouse Coffee and returned on the other side. I bought nothing, but my sisters found a few items each. It was a nice day for shopping … not too terribly hot, and being a Thursday, not so very busy as I’ve seen Nisswa get. Some ice cream at the Chocolate Ox, and I talked up some of my writing buddies that have books in the book store (Simar and Salli – I pushed your books well . . . .). Then back to the lake place (which was closer than coming home all the way into Brainerd) and start getting our minds set for the Nisswa Stammen concert.

What’s that, you may ask. The Nisswa Stammen is a Scandinavian Festival of quite a large magnitude. It has been running for nearly 20 years now, always on the first weekend of June. Friday nights feature a ‘sampler’ concert, in which a good many visiting musicians assemble, giving the audience a taste of what’s to come. I’ve seen the concert before, but my sisters had no idea what was to come – and this year, we saw some fine music. Ther e was Maya Kjaer Jacobsen, a Danish lady who sang some very nice songs . . . there was LUSTSPEL, a group of students from Lund, Sweden . . . and there was our favorite, Sara Pajunen and Teija Niku, who call themselves AALLOTAR. They gave us some superbly performed, highly sensitive music – one on violin, one of accordion, and both of them adding some fine vocals.


Let’s not forget, too, the others that performed. The warmup band gave us some nice music – and more groups performed … one precious moment glowed highly for the audience when two local girls (ten years old, I think) sang/rapped a song along with playing their violins with their instructor Arne Anderson accompanying them on accordion.

With the close of the concert, it was time for a late supper, so we retreated to PONCHO AND LEFTY’S, where we regaled our server, ate our food, and enjoyed an adult beverage… home, to bed, and wrapped a good day in happy sleep.


Not so much to report – we went to COUNTRY KITCHEN to breakfast, and then the two left for home.

It was a fine time – and a fine idea for the three of us to get together – just us, just the three Johnson kids.

us three




Sometimes it is important to recognize long-time friendships and the accomplishments of such friends.

Sue and I, along with our friend Janis, took in a performance of HEPHZIBETH, WOMAN OF IRON at the Pequot Lakes High School Theatre. This one-woman show was written and performed by Lauren Nickisch, who I have known for four decades now – and Sue and Janis know her as well.

The play is a story about Lauren’s great great great great grandmother – and to my RANGER friends, you will recognize the name. That person of so many generations ago was HEPHZIBETH MERRITT, the mother of the Merritt Brothers, who were so instrumental in the iron mining industry of Northeastern Minnesota. In 90 minutes, the audience learns about Mother Merritt, the adventures of her husband and their sons, and a good deal about life in the late 1800s.

She researched her family history to come up with the play. It took her a year, and then some. With the help of many, the show came to fruition. She’s performed it several times throughout Minnesota. Sue and I saw her perform it for the first time down at St. Cloud State a good 25 years ago.


But for me, this is a good deal about Lauren, too.

Lauren taught for a long time in the Brainerd schools – led an idea called WINDOWS ON…. Which was a musical revue for elementary school kids (oh, she didn’t do it alone – but she was there….) She plays the flute in the Heartland Symphony. She’s active on stage as an actress (SO many roles) and she’s directed many shows, and she’s been vocal coach for many shows. She’s active in the arts community around here, serving on several boards that deal in the arts. She and her husband C.J. have been a part of AARON BROWN’s Great Northern Radio Show many times.

lauren and CJ

On a personal level, I met Lauren pretty much when I first came to Brainerd in 1976 – playing in Heartland Symphony, and in playing in a few pit orchestras for plays she was in. She and my wife Sue worked together so very much on many musical events (for instance, the WINDOWS ON programs) … and then we all have done shows together. Lauren has been an encouraging factor in my own work on stage – a positive, teaching voice, a person who has helped me grow as an actor in many ways.

The dream – to see HEPHZIBETH, WOMAN OF IRON continue to grow. To my friends on the Range – she’s done it a few times up there, but hey, wouldn’t it make sense to have her come and do it for MERRITT DAYS in Mt. Iron?   See what you can do about that …. Or as Lauren talked about today in her after-show conversation with the audience, maybe a documentary, or a movie …

So, I am proud to count Lauren as a friend. Her great great great great grandmother HEPHZIBETH MERRITT would be just as proud.


(photos from Lauren’s FB page . . .)

The TURING TUMBLE: A game? A learning tool? It’s BOTH!

When I was growing up, Mattel produced a game called HIGH GEAR.

high gear

The object was to move your pegs along the procession of gears until you reached the top gear. Each move required the player to figure out where each gear turn would go and what it would do to his pegs – and his opponent’s pegs, for that matter.

When my son was young, he had a similar toy. It used gears that could be placed on a board, allowing the player to form different configurations

We both learned about mechanics, logic, and planning through the concrete examples presented to us by our mechanical toys.

And now we have Paul Boswell’s game – or, rather, his device called TURING TUMBLE.


In what appears to be a game like PLINKO on THE PRICE IS RIGHT, TURING TUMBLE provides more than random chips that fall into random slots. Paul Boswell’s innovative project takes those random chips and slots, throws in some cleverly designed pieces (ramps, bits, gear bits, crossovers, interceptors, pressers, a book with 51 projects for the player to try, and even red and blue marbles), allowing the player to learn how computers work.

To quote Paul from his video on his kickstarter page, “We know how computers behave. Turing Tumble shows us how they work.”

You can find Paul Boswell’s words, videos of his prototype version, and more information at this link:

The site will go public on May 30 of this year.

*** A personal note: Paul’s wife Alyssa is a former student of mine, as were her two brothers and sister. Their parents taught with me for 25 years. That may not matter to you, but there it is.

ARTS ADVOCACY DAY at ST. PAUL – Feb. 28, 2017

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Sue and I spent Tuesday down in St. Paul at the state capital as participants in the annual Arts Advocate Day. With a head count of 800 or so art supporters, our day went like this:

8:00 am – Rally, learning about the study done about the impact of the Arts in Minnesota, hearing from a few legislators who are on the Legacy committee, an award given, and then meeting in our teams that would head together to visit legislators.

Some things we learned from the study of arts in Minnesota:
Information is from the report prepared by that group. You can see the whole report at their website

Minnesota artists and artistic organizations have an economic impact in Minnesota of 2 BILLION DOLLARS.

 This generates a total government revenue of 222 MILLION DOLLARS

Minneapolis is the second best rated place for the arts in the country, behind only New York

 There are over 62,000 volunteers in the arts in Minnesota, provided over 2 million hours of their time.

Minnesota’s population is 5.4 million, but the head count at arts events is 18.9 million. 77% of these people are from households that make less than $100,000 – so much for the arts being something the rich people do.

Of the nearly 1 million students in the state, they see, hear and learn from the arts about 3 times a year from outside their own schools – either visiting artists or field trips.

10:00 am – our appointments begin. We met with Representatives Kresha, Heintzeman, Layman, and Poston. Then over to the senate building where we met with Senators Eichhorn and Gazelka. We had others scheduled but they were tied up in committee meetings – and that happens.

2:00 pm – back on the road, headed for home. Tired, but satisfied in knowing we were part of a big day.


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In the theatre at the Minnesota History Center – there are about 400 in this shot – the other 400 couldn’t get into the theatre.

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Our group (Group E – People from Little Falls, Long Prairie, Grand Rapids, Brainerd, Walker and other communities in this part of the state…. (I’m not sure I have the names right – nor were all the people in our group in this photo . . . please send corrections ….)

Back Row – Charlie Johnson, Joe Haj, Sam Grigsby
Middle Row – Millie Engisch, Mariko Yoshimura, Hannah Novillo Erickson, Kate Henricksen-Benes, Patty Norgaard, Scott Lykins
Front Row – Sue Johnson, Luan Thomas – Brunkhorst , Mark Turner, Chelsey Johnson, David Marty,

In this group, we had Five Wings Arts Council members, people who work for the Walker Art Center, The Guthrie Theatre, The HennepinTheatre Trust,The Reif Center in Grand Rapids, the MacRostie Art Center of Grand Rapids, the Lakes Area Music Festival, the Long Prairie Chamber of Commerce We were just one of well over 25 groups that visited all the state legislators that day.

Here’s our full group with Representative Sandy Layman

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Target Field

I am ready for baseball to start. As I write this, the tv brings me a spring training game between the Twins and the Red Sox from Fort Myers, Florida. How nice! In just over a month, the regular season will start, and that will be equally nice.
Consider the nearly silent anticipation before each pitch, the gasp of expectation from the crowd at each swing, and then the shouts and hoots at each hit and catch – it is all exciting, so very satisfying as the rituals of baseball appear in each game; never in the same order, never in quite the way it’s been witnessed before.
At the stadium, the senses are activated with vast possibilities. Listen for the concession guys as they carry their wares up and down the sections of the stadium, and for the crack of the bat as the PA announcements ring through each tier. See the flags fly on top of the stadium as the wind changes, affecting fly balls in windblown arcs, and see the fresh, clean uniforms as the team first comes onto the field after the national anthem. Feel the sun on your face, the excitement as the crowd reacts, the up-and-down as THE WAVE comes by in its different levels of intensity. Taste that bratwurst with all its spicy trimmings and taste the thrill of a stolen base or a double play well executed. Smell the wonderful cotton candy, smell the tantalizing hot spicy foods, smell the dust as a base gets stolen or a run gets scored with a slide under the catcher’s tag.


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Buxton Sliding into second base

Whether you’re sitting in a stadium or in your own armchair as you watch in on TV, or listening to the game on a radio out in your fishing boat, consider the intellect of the game – the sensation is virtually the same no matter where you take in the game. You sense the strategies as they happen – an intentional walk, a executed successfully hit and run, a pitching change – it’s all there, whether in person or by courtesy of your home appliances.

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There’s not a big fluff of endless pre-game blabber from overexuberant, underqualified talking heads like we see in other sports (please read here: football.). There’s no need for tailgating – baseball doesn’t need to hype itself up to get going. There is no clock – it is not a matter of who scores more points in a time frame, but who puts who out 27 times while trying to score more times in that limit of 27 outs.

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Casey, Ted and Jim enjoy a game at Target Field

And as George Carlin said in his famous routine about baseball, the goal of baseball is to ‘run home’. How can it be any better?



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My hometown … the field in this poem is at the arrow .. .the houses in the town are mostly gone now, moved out by the mining on the Mesabi Iron Range … but imagine all these town blocks filled with houses and families who have boys who want to play ball.  This is for them.

(dedicated to my boyhood friends who were there . . . )

Boys gather automatically

At Berquist’s field

No signal or notice

The game is on

They call their own strikes and foul balls

(No umps, no sir, never ever)

Disagreements work out one way or another


Jimmy, fast on the bases

Gary pitching, so smooth, so clean

John behind the plate with his classy Finnish catcher’s glove

Ole Olson batting so tall, hitting so hard

Charlie and identical twins Rob and Ron

Cover the outfield

Ready to catch ‘em all.


Ernine and his brother Etsie

the greatest nicknames in town)

Pull up on their bikes, shouting encouragements

as they lower their kickstands

Pull their gloves off the bike handles

No question, they know what to do next

One heads to the infield, straight to shortstop

One to the team at bat

Joining Jeff, Steve and Roy

On a bench by the third base line

Awaiting a turn to bat.


Just a year or two older,

Kim and Tom and John Lee

Lend their age-wise experience

In hitting, catching and pitching.


Early spring brings snow shoveled baselines

The summer sun hangs up in the sky longer and later

The fall skies get cooler and darker quicker

The game continues anyway

Until the ball is only a sound as it is pitched or hit


All comers welcome

Side by side, turn by turn

Just for

The fun

The pleasure

The joy.





I first learned my love for the game from my dad. We played catch from when I was old enough to give a ball any form of forward momentum. Mom, too, could bring it when she was available to engage me in a game of catch or a round of batting practice. Even my lovely grandma Hilda took a swing or two with a bat. Aunts Shirley and Inky played semi-pro softball so they showed me some good techniques when they visited from St. Paul. Many other aunts and uncles joined in as we visited them or they visited us.

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Dad in front of his brothers (My uncles) Elwood, Willie, Gus, Henry and Ken

Get all the cousins together and you never saw such a festivity of baseball. We played in back yards, front yards and back alleys. We chased balls under apple trees and down the curbs of the streets before the ball would go down the storm drain. We teased each other about our feeble swings or waving at the air with helpless effort. We would drop our bats and gloves right in the middle of the yard when we were called over to the grill for hot dogs and hamburgers, only to return and play some more. This was true of both sides of the family – whether it was the Johnson/Grundstrom side or the Ruud/Strand gang. And by the way, boys and girls played as one. Who knew, also, that decades later I would join my wife’s cousins in the identical games of fun in their own yards and fields.

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The Johnson cousins, all grown up –  front: Chris, Jean, Charlie, Jim   back; Leslie, Aunt Inky, Cher, Becky, Aunt Shirley, Lois


Then we grew up and had our own kids. I first taught Heidi and Steven through simple ‘roll the ball across the floor’ to encourage good hand-eye coordination, just like a good daddy of the 1980s should do. Then it was underhand tossing out in the yard, and finally full games of catch or some batting drills in front of the garage door. Then it was out into the street where I would throw balls as high into the air so they would learn to catch those fly balls . . . and later hearing from the neighbors how fun it was to watch that Johnson family get out and enjoy themselves so much.
There’s the joy of taking the whole family to the game. Down to the Metrodome we’d go, maybe once a year, and we’d experience the grandeur of the game. 2002 presented a nice thrill, when I was selected in a lottery to get tickets to the playoffs against the Angels. I managed to squeeze in a game with each kid at those playoffs … I will remember that for a long time. And again, later on in the first season of the Twins at Target stadium, Sue and I got to take in a game with Heidi and her husband Jon – and it was Jon’s first major league ball game ever – truly memorable when Thome hit a home run to win the game in the bottom of the tenth.


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   A young Steven ready to play

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Jon, Heidi and Sue at Target Field

My sister’s kids, too, found their uncle Charlie (Me) always good for some time outside with a bat and ball …. And now as their own kids issue forth, I suspect I will not hesitate to show those babies of this not so old century a thing or two about the glories of baseball, too.

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My kids and their cousins – kids of my two sisters.  Steven in front, In the back is Karen, Paul, Dan, Adam, Joel and Heidi

Baseball – a family game in so many ways.