Essayettes of Delight

In October 2020 I participated in a writing workshop in which we participants were invited to compose “essayettes” that tell of ways we were finding DELIGHT in the difficult time of COVID-19. The following is a selection of the pieces I wrote for this purpose. I trust that readers will find them meaningful.

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BE YOU

My wife, Mary Ann, and I recently traveled to eastern Washington State to visit her brother Jim and his wife Claudia. During our stay I encountered in their kitchen cupboard a coffee mug that captured my fancy. I ended up using that mug for the remainder of our visit–and I’ve since acquired one of my own. Let me explain why.

Thirty-five years ago, as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, I was asked by an administrator to come up with a ‘motto’ that might serve me during my career. After some deliberation, I came up with the following:

Be prepared, be concerned and be yourself.

I came back to these words often for guidance during the ensuing years. However, I hadn’t thought much about them since my retirement in 2008–until that day when I came across the “Be You” mug in Jim and Claudia’s kitchen. Then it all came back.

I’ve since learned that my mug is a ‘Rae Dunn’ brand, which has been around since the mid-1990s. Rae Dunn is an actual person, an artist from California with a degree in Industrial Design. Her mugs are not mass-produced and each has a genuine feel that might help account for their appeal. Someone recently described a Rae Dunn mug as “perfectly imperfect.” I like that.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of the mug (to my eye, at least) I was drawn to its inscription–“Be You.” Of the three elements of my former career motto, “Be yourself” has had the most-lasting influence on me. I think of it as a call to authenticity, which is something I’ve sought during my university time and since. Whether it’s taking photographs with black-and-white film or playing golf with hickory-shafted clubs, there’s something appealing to me about discovering and then taking things (and myself) to our “perfectly imperfect” underpinnings.

I guess it’s just part of being me.

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TAKING THE BAIT

Dick Leidinger and his prized pike. (1940s)

It was the largest fish I’d ever seen to that point in my life. It was 1953 and I was seven years old. I lived with my family on North 34th Street in Terre Haute, Indiana, and our next-door neighbors were the Leidingers–Dick, Mary and Suzanne. Dick (known as “Zeke” to most grown-ups) was the one who introduced me to the fish. He’d already distinguished himself in my young mind because he was a city fireman; it was the best job that I, as a boy, could imagine. I also knew him to be an avid fisherman, which set him apart from other adults in my life then, most of whom didn’t like to fish.

I don’t remember now the details of my initial encounter with Dick Leidinger’s prized fish. I suppose I was playing in my backyard sandbox, which was located near the Leidinger’s yard; there wasn’t any fence then. Dick had always been friendly towards me, so when I saw him working in his garage that day I decided to go poke my head in and say “Hi.” Maybe I thought he’d tell me another story about watching the town’s minor-league Terre Haute Phillies baseball team during its glory years with its star catcher, Stan Lopata (who went on to play in the big leagues). Dick liked to tell stories.

On this day though I saw something else inside Dick’s garage that I’d not noticed before. It was a large northern pike mounted on a plaque and hanging over his workbench. The fish seemed huge and dwarfed any of the sunfish, bluegill or bass I’d seen caught at our city’s Deming Park ponds. But what most impressed me about this fish was its TEETH! I hadn’t seen fish with teeth before this; I’m not even sure I knew they could have them.

Dick probably saw the look of amazement on my face and proceeded to tell me more about his fish and how it came to be there. It seems the Leidingers had acquaintances then who lived in Michigan. Dick had once gone to visit them during the 1940s, and while there he went fishing. That was when he’s landed his prize. He then took down his large tackle box and opened it so I could look inside. I was awed by all the colorful lures and other fishing paraphernalia it contained. He pointed to one of the lures and told me that it was the one with which he landed his pike. My mind recalls now that it was a yellow one.

I’ve gone on in life to become anything but a fisherman. I’ve probably gone fishing only a dozen times or so in my entire life. So I was surprised recently when I awoke one day with an strong desire to once again see that lure Dick Leidinger had used to land his ‘lunker’ over seventy years ago. Perhaps I was spurred by a note I’d received from his daughter, Suzanne, containing a a picture of Dick with the fish before it went to the taxidermist. She informed me that her father had finally disposed of it a few years before he died. She didn’t know what had become of his treasured fishing lures.

Following my urge, I went to my computer and typed “vintage pike fishing lures eBay” into my browser. The very first listing caught my eye; it read:

Vintage Unknown Folk-Art Pikie Minnow Antique Fishing Lure

There were other lures, of course, but this “vintage unknown folk-art pikie minnow” was the one that called to me that day. I bought it for four dollars. I then wrote to the seller and asked if he had further information about the lure. He immediately responded:

“It’s folk art. I called it a ‘pikie’ because it resembles a Creek Chub Pikie in its shape, design and three treble-hooks. If you look up ‘Creek Chub Pikie’ you’ll see the resemblance. It could have been used for catching northern pike, walleye–really any game fish. I don’t have any info other than that. I sell fishing lures on consignment and get stuff from all across the country.”

I took the seller’s advice and searched for the ‘Creek Chub Pikie Minnow’ lure. I learned it was one of the most popular ones in the U.S. from 1920 through the 1950s. It was made then by a company from Indiana that advertised it as “effective for muskies, pike and pickerell.”

I’ll bet my last dollar that Dick Leidinger had a pikie minnow lure in his tackle box that day during the 1940s when he caught his prized pike in Michigan. And if so, I expect it was also the lure he identified for me as the one with which he landed it. But I wouldn’t be too hasty in concluding that Dick’s lure was a store-bought “Creek Chub” version. Dick was a gregarious fellow and I can easily imagine him preferring to acquire a homemade (i.e. folk-art) version of the lure–possibly from a fellow fisherman on one of his visits to a local fishing hole.

Who knows? Could Dick’s pikie minnow lure have looked much like the whimsical one I acquired from that eBay vendor in Oklahoma? Or might it be Dick’s very lure?! The seller did say, after all, that he acquires his vintage lures from “all across the country.”

I can’t know, of course–and after seventy years it doesn’t really matter. I do know that my folk-art pikie minnow lure has taken up a place of honor amidst other decorative things with much meaning to me. It is a reminder of one of the most-memorable people from my childhood–and of his passion for a sport with which I have little familiarity. And after seventy years, I guess you could say I’ve finally taken the bait.

Folk-art pikie minnow lure

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AT A THRESHOLD

At a threshold… (1951)

I recently came across a family photo I don’t recall ever seeing before.  It traces to a time in my family’s history in 1951 when a national magazine dispatched a writer and photographer to my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana.  Their purpose was to do background work in advance of publishing a multiple-page article about my family’s life and times then.  The magazine had identified us as its “typical American family” based on rudimentary national statistics—and the fact that we lived at the “Crossroads of America.”

After the article was published, my parents received a packet of photographs from the author of the article along with a note thanking them for agreeing to be the subject of the piece.  Among these photos was an assortment of small “contact prints,” most of which had not been used for the article.  I suppose the writer, Roul Tunley, thought my parents might appreciate having the prints since they were of no further use to the magazine. 

One of these contact prints likely hadn’t been used because it was marred by a streak of light that had leaked into the camera.  The picture depicts a young boy standing before an open door—at a threshold so to speak.  The subject of the photograph for me was little affected by its blemish; I found it to be a powerfully-symbolic image.

The boy in the picture is, of course, me. It was taken when I was just four-years of age. The author’s narrative for the article references at one point that I had left the house to go out into the yard to play. I suppose he envisioned this picture being used at that point in his story. When the picture turned out to be blemished, he dropped the idea.   I recall my house well enough to know that the photographer was standing in the dining room as he shot the picture through the kitchen towards the back door.  It wasn’t a posed photo, as were many others used in the article; he only got a single exposure. 

It’s the spontaneity of this picture that partly draws me to it—an open cupboard door, light reflecting on the kitchen floor and the boy’s shadow, the slightly raised right leg suggesting movement. I can also imagine the child’s unseen face, which I expect bore an expression of anticipation as he considered what lay ahead of him for that day.

This photo causes me to think of other thresholds I’ve crossed since that day. There have been so many; I seldom even give thought to the idea of thresholds these days.  Perhaps that should change.  A favorite author of mine, Gunilla Norris, wrote a book thirty years ago about the importance of paying attention to everyday routines in our lives—like crossing thresholds.1   She wrote:

I need to remember that my life is, in fact,

a continuous series of thresholds;

from one moment to the next,

from one thought to the next,

from one action to the next.

She notes that each threshold in our lives—whether great or small—is an invitation to embrace anew the pure joy of living.  And, for me, it helps to also think of that unseen look on the four-year-old boy’s face as he crossed that threshold so long ago.

Truly I tell you, unless you become like a small child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven… (Matthew 18) 

1Gunilla Norris. 1991. Being Home: A Book of Meditations. Bell Tower, New York.

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Steve Robert Simmons wrote these essayettes in 2020. All rights reserved.