And She Wasn’t Laughing

It was a raw February morning. I was on my way to the Social Security office to tend to matters related to wife Elsie’s death. I hurried along, leaning into the wind. Suddenly I was falling, tripped up by an errant brick. I landed hard and lay stunned: nothing broken, but I could not get to my feet and there was not a soul in sight. Winter pedestrians use Duluth’s extensive skywalks.

As I scrunched toward the building hoping for a handhold, a man rounded the corner. He picked up my hat and glasses and helped me to my feet. “You look familiar,” he said. I gave him my name.  “Oh, you just lost your wife! So sorry.” Then he added, “I sure enjoy your books.” I had no idea who he was. I call him the Angel of Second Avenue West.  That was the first of a string of remarkable encounters that led me to Woodland Garden.  

Elsie died on February 13, 2009.  She fell in early 2003 injuring her spine. Severe arthritis prevented surgical repair. Her lower right leg hurt constantly, relieved only by  strong medications. I looked after her for five years at home, with creeping dementia adding its problems. She spent her last 16 months under hospice care in Chris Jensen Health Center.

Six months after Elsie’s injury, son Kevin and wife Tena came to help with Elsie’s care, living in the lower level of our home. I set about to make the house handicap friendly, taking a reverse mortgage to cover costs.  

Following Elsie’s death, son Joel and wife Sue kindly invited me to live out the winter with them in their park model in a Tucson, Arizona resort. I joined them the following winter, struggling with nagging discomfort. I delayed my return to Tucson to check out the discomfort and learned I had rectal cancer. Surgery in late November, 2011, left me with a colostomy.

The surgery went well and after four hospital days, I was moved to North Shore Rehab though I felt less than perky—no appetite. A nurse, insisting I eat to gain strength, spooned soup in my mouth and my belly exploded, spewing out black gunk. “Feces!” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance. The crew laid a warm blanket over me, hustled me to the unheated vehicle, and left me untended while they completed paperwork. The blanket soon lost its warmth and I grew colder and more miserable than I had ever been in my life. I lost it. . I cried out, “Lord, I quit!” From somewhere came “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” God doesn’t talk to me as some claim, but the impression was overwhelming. Soon the ambulance soon rattled over icy streets to the hospital where they ran a tube through my nose to my belly and hooked to a pump. Sleep came to a lullaby: “I’ll tell you when to quit.” That encounter would stand me in good stead in days to come.

I returned to Tucson in late October 2012 and began weighing my future. I decided to live alone for the first time in my life with hometown Duluth as my city of choice. A brief online search brought sticker shock. I could not afford the cheapest apartment! Remodeling our home ate my equity leaving me with Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension as my assets.

I despaired for my future until Joel told me about HUD Section 8, rent subsidy for low income people and I refocused my online search to HUD-assisted properties. I found an efficiency apartment at Lakeland Shores in my boyhood community. Though uncomfortably small, it would put most of my basic needs; important since I no longer drove. I phoned for an application. I labored over the pages of government gobbledygook that reached me arrived mailed to Lakeland Shores.

After a long wait, the reply came with another shock. My income was $196 a year over the HUD ceiling! Unless my income went down or my deductibles increased, I did not qualify. Knowing little about deductibles, I phoned Lakeland Shores and got the answer machine. I left an urgent message. Two weeks passed with no reply. I fired off an email followed by a special delivery letter. Days passed with no reply. June arrived and Joel was closing down their park model home for the season. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including daughter Sally, my go-to person in Duluth.

One day, she shared my plight with a group of friends. One of them suggested Woodland Garden Apartments, a HUD facility my search had not uncovered. (I later learned they did not advertise; they were always full with a long waiting list.) Sally Visited Woodland Garden, explained my circumstances to manager Jill, who gave Jill, reminding her of my refection. She replied, “Leave that to me. Your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year.”

Within days, Jill phoned with news that a resident had died and she wanted to fill the apartment in early July. Could I come? I emailed the news to Kevin. He and Tena decided to check out their old father’s future home but found the entrance secured. A woman resident chanced to be in the lobby. Learning their purpose, she offered to guide a tour. Finding my apartment locked, she showed them hers, which was configured the same.

Kevin reported their visit by email: “We met the nicest lady! She gave us the tour. Her name was Norma.” I moved into Woodland Garden apartment 301 on July 7.

I found the facility more like a co-ed college dorm than a seniors’ residence. There were 56and nine men. None of the men socialized much. Each evening clusters of women gathered to play cards or chat. I joined the second floor cluster and met Norma, the nice lady Keven mentioned. She was the volunteer librarian and being a book guy, we chatted often, discovering several coincidencesin our family histories.

Our ancestors lived in the same part of Finland and emigrated to America in the late 1800s, settling in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Norma had met some of my kin when she was a child. We visited most evenings in the library and I grew increasingly fond of Norma, but romance never entered my mind–she was 17 years younger.

Our friendship continued about a year then hip replacement surgery took me away for a time. I entered what I call my lost week. The surgery went well and I again checked in at Lake Shore Health Center for rehab. Something went terribly haywire. Abdominal infection followed by disorientation set in. I have no memory of the ambulance ride to the hospital or of a week in bed tethered to machines and tubes. They were fighting pneumonia and a variety of troubles.

I remember in vivid detail the strange world I lived in. I later learned that each episode reflected my bed care. Once, desperately thirsty, I pled for a sip of water.  An austere refused stating I was on a liquid-controlled regimen. I spotted an old aluminum communion tray across a dark-paneled room. I worked my way to it, hoping a dreg remained. Another time, I coughed up fresh blood in a Kleenex. I asked a woman standing by, what does this mean?

I moved from scene to scene with no sense of passing time; then hospice, palliative care filtered up to me; and, Dad, you have to fight. I was dying! Exhilaration gripped me. At that point, I began a slow return to reality.

I lay propped up comfortably in a hospital bed. Behind my bed was a flower garden with a pond and rustic dock. Friends filed by, some crying. They retreated to the garden. Learning I wasn’t going to make in, Kevin spread the news among my friends.

But the story wasn’t over. Not satisfied with information he was getting, Kevin negotiated a second doctor who scanned my chart and affirmed the diagnosis. He halted all treatment, leaving me in bed untethered. Inexplicably, I immediately began to recover.

From my comfortable bed, I heard Kevin discussing insurance with a hospital official. My insurance covered hospice care but not rehab. The hospital did not offer rehab so I was given three days to relocate.

I handled daytime fairly well, but nights were misery. I watched every hour tick by. I begged for sleep help but nothing worked. On the third night, a new nurse came on duty. Assuming pain caused my sleeplessness, she squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. Morphine, she said. Will I sleep? Oh, you will sleep!

But almost immediately I sank into unimaginable terror with a vortex trying to suck me down. Old men in dark suits heaped small pieces of furniture made of rough-cast cement on a pile and a taunting voice declared: There are theological issues here, and you are responsible, but you can do nothing about it. I shouted I don’t care the consequence; I will do what’s right!

In that instant the terror fled and I lay in my bed fully alert  and at peace. Do with that what you will.

On the Fourth of July weekend, a van transported me to Chris Jensen Health Center to begin six grueling weeks of rehab. I returned to Woodland Garden just in time to celebrate my 90th birthday.

But the morphine left its mark. Emotional responses deepened—I cried more easily.  I grew increasingly reflective; friends grew dearer, and I realized how much I had missed Noma. .

We resumed our evening chats and I took every opportunity to be with her.  One morning, we joined the daily wait for the mailman. Spirits ran unusually high with banter and laughter. The mailman finally arrived and the group moved toward the mailboxes on the wall. Norma collected her mail and, befitting the jovial mood, pecked me with a kiss then turned to the elevator.

Something overpowering walloped me, a longing to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. I elbowed to the mailbox, arthritic fingers struggling with the small key. I finally collected my mail and hurried to the elevator and hit floor three whit exits at library. Norma was gone and I didn’t dare knock on her door. Hoping she might appear to check returned books, I grabbed a chair and pretended to read.

Around one o’clock I sought my apartment but lunch held no interest. I returned to the library until supper time but no Norma. I returned to my apartment and dabbled at supper. As early winter darkness fell, I fired up the computer and began a love letter, fully intending to delete it.

Clichés worthy of a lovesick teen poured forth. I wrote and rewrote, always with the same lead:  Dearest Norma, please don’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you. Writing brought some relief. I read the screen one last time and reached for delete. But foolhardy abandon gripped me and I hit print. I padded down the hall to 313 and slid the letter under Norma’s door. I returned to my apartment in near panic. What kind of fool was I?  Surely she would laugh. It was a long, sleepless night.

I was making morning coffee when I heard a knock on my door.  There stood Norma, love letter in hand. And she wasn’t laughing.

Joe and the Gypsy Fortuneteller. A Center Lake tale.

Another friend from years far back headed for heaven ahead of me. Joe Burkhardt died October 3 in Springfield, California. He moved to Muskegon, Michigan in 1953, a year after I began serving Wayside Baptist.

Joe came to teach at Lincoln Elementary across the street from the church, bringing wife Julie, sprightly daughter Cindy, and his wise, gentle mother. They became part of Wayside. Joe and I hit it off. We shared a love for camping, fishing, and kids. We both had Scouting experience.

Sensing a community need, we worked with the school principal launch a Scout Troop. Joe became Scoutmaster; I volunteered as chaplain. A gangbuster committee formed. Within a year, 60 boys joined the troop.

Each summer, Joe put together a camping trip. The 1956 trip would circle Lake Michigan. The committee refurbished a used school bus and right after school was out, 16 boys and four men headed north.

We explored around Imp Lake in Michigan’s U.P. for six days then worked our way southward through Wisconsin, reaching the Dells, a popular tourist attraction. We set up camp and turned the boys loose—we had good kids. Joe and I joined a group clustered around a Gypsy fortune teller, not hiding our skepticism and a story began to form.

The next year Center Lake Bible Camp near Cadillac in North Central Michigan hired Joe to direct its summer program. I filled a staff role for junior high week with duties that included evening campfires. Eager to open with a bang, Joe and I plotted.

A waning moon lit the sky as campers circled the fire on the hill overlooking the lake. Folding chairs accommodated adult staff and visitors, a white-haired grandmother among them. Joe stood just outside of the circle, the fire between him and me. I launched the story of our visit to Dells and the Gypsy.

History faded. I pictured the fortuneteller’s table, Joe and me too obviously skeptical. Growing increasingly irritated, the Gypsy suddenly ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, and strode toward me, pressing her face close to mine. “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note into my hand.

I paused to fish out my wallet, extracting wrinkled paper. “Come to think of it, that happened exactly a year ago today!” I smoothed the paper, pretending to study it by firelight. “I don’t know why I kept it this. I don’t believe in fortunetellers. Then I said, “Ridiculous! Joe and I are the best of friends.” A camper called out, “What did she write?”  I read slowly: “On this very day another summer, one of you will slay the other.” 

With a frightening yell, Joe leaped the camper circle and fire and headed for me. I hurled down the hill into the darkness, Joe close behind.

We lay in tall grass, stifling laughter. But back at the campfire, panic. The grandmother came close to a heart attack. Staffers grew angry. Joe and I strolled in laughing, expecting applause for a masterful performance. But our laughter turned to chagrin: “How could you!” said one stern soul. Good question.



The Hammer, by Paul Boskoffsky

The Hammer, by Paul Boskoffsky


One year at the close of the camping season, I stayed behind to batten down the camp. The day was clear and breezy, ideal for flying, so after finishing my work I decided to cross the lake and check out the beach near the Gas Rocks for a possible camper overnight the next year. Flying campers over would save a long boat trip across the lake, which can get rough.

My Super Cub was small, but it was great for beach landings. I buzzed the beach and it looked fine. I landed smooth, but then I made a mistake: I forgot to raise the flaps before I turned the plane. The wind caught a wing and nosed me. I hit the switch, but not in time. The prop bit gravel. I climbed out, pulled down the tail, and checked the prop. It was slightly bent. Now what!

I was OK, but it was too far to walk out, and my family and friends would worry when I didn’t get home. I knew search planes would never think to cross the lake. The only thing to do was try to fix the prop. I always carry a tool kit, and after getting the prop off, I felt I could straighten it with the right tool. But the hand axe from my tool kit was too light. OK. Find a large rock.

For two hours I walked the beach in both directions and found only small stones tumbled smooth by the surf. It was a real predicament. I grew desperate. I prayed out loud, “Lord, please help me!”

As I walked toward the plane thinking what to do, I saw an old stick poking up from the tundra at the edge of the beach. I pulled on it—I don’t know why—and to my amazement, on the other end of the stick was a geologist’s hammer. I lifted it high and shouted, “Thank you Lord!”

The hammer was just right. I made a bed in the sand, worked gently on the prop, eyeballed it, and put it back on the plane. Nervously, I cranked the engine. It fired and ran smooth! I flew home rejoicing.

I still have the prop, and I keep the miracle hammer on my bookcase to remind me of God’s love and provision for His people. He put the hammer at just the right place, waiting for me. It had been there long years, swept by many storms. The handle was nearly rotted off. People ask how a hammer like that could have got to such an out of the way place. I can only guess, but many years ago, oil prospectors explored that region. Perhaps a prospector lost his hammer. He sure picked a handy place to lose it


Letters to Alice Part Two


Letters to Alice Part Two

The Field behind Our Home

When I was a kid the fields and woods behind my home were magic. We played softball and kick the can and chased golf balls for neighbor men. I picked wild flowers, hazel nuts, wild strawberries, raspberries, juneberries, chokecherries, and pin cherries. The woods were my hideout, a place to feed partridge in the winter. My small garden had really rich soil.  The space had once been a chicken yard.

Father’s scrap pile was just behind the garage. Each spring we burned it. When the big pile burn down to coals, we roasted marshmallows and potatoes. The potatoes turned charcoal black outside but tasty white inside.

Father did something at the pile burning I never saw before or since. He pinned together the corners of a double sheet of newspaper to make a hollow square and laid it on the coals. As soon as it began to burn, it rose into the sky and drifted off, like a hot air balloon.

Burning last summer’s tall dead grass from the field was always fun. Neighbors came with rakes and wet gunnysacks, burning small patches to make sure he fire didn’t get away. I don’t think city folks are allowed to do that anymore.

What do today’s kids do for fun in the spring? I see them sitting around twiddling gadgets with their thumbs. I wonder what they will remember when they get old like me.

 First Campout

I went on my very first campout when I was eleven.  A buddy and I got permission to spend the night on the hill. We had no tent. We tied food and a flashlight in our blankets and followed the trail to the spring, pausing to drink. At the top, where Hawk Ridge is now, we found a flat place where we could look down on our neighborhood.

There were no fir trees to make bough beds like Deep River Jim wrote about in his Wilderness Trail Book, so we gathered ferns and long grass. We spread out our blankets then explored the area around us. Toward evening we built a fire, ate our sandwiches, then sat time talking and watching city lights blow us come on one by one.

It was fairly dark when we climbed into our blankets, sleeping in our clothes. We were cold right away, and the ground was hard with small stone poking into our backs. I lay there looking up at the stars. Maybe I slept a little.

No way could I have imagined how many campouts lay ahead of me. Baxter Park in Maine, a  bull moose picking his way among sleeping campers as he headed for the lake. The night of the skunk in Wyoming, saddle horses nearby. Canoe Country campfire, the sky ablaze with Northern Lights. A scary night in Twisp Pass, Washington and burrowed into the snow at sixteen below in Alaska. Mountain treks in Japan and Austria. Canada’s Cascades; Early morning in the desert on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.   It will be interesting to see where life takes you, Alice. Live happy each day.  I love you.

Trouble at School

I don’t remember much about kindergarten except I was the youngest kid there. Being youngest haunted me all through school. You had to be five to start kindergarten and I was born on August 29. Had I been born three days later, I would have had to wait a full year to start school, and that would have put been among the oldest kids in class.

Another troubling thing: I soon learned girls like older boys better than they like younger boys. Being liked by girls was important; but I didn’t know why. And I was no good at sports. I could run pretty fast, but I couldn’t throw, catch, or hit a ball well. When sides were chosen, I was always picked last.

The truth is, I wasn’t much good at anything—handwriting, drawing, class games, studies, and that made me look dumb. But most troubling: Sister Hazel was two grades ahead of me and she was good at almost everything. Teachers expected me to be good too, and I really, really wanted to please teachers.

I liked school OK, but I liked after school and weekends better. I can’t explain why I loved the woods, fields, and streams so much, but I was happy there and didn’t care who did or didn’t like me. I understand it better now. The outdoors was my real school. They taught me knowledge and skills I would need for important jobs to come. I’ll tell more about that in days to come.

 Elephant to the Rescue

I told you about my first school years and that I wasn’t very good at studies. Books were my problem. I learned to read in first and second grades from the teacher’s flashcards with big letters, but picture books with small print were a mystery. I think the teacher figured I was slow.

Grade three had just begun when our mother took sister Hazel and me our first circus. The big, big tent with three rings fascinated me. All those clowns from one little car! Mother pointed across the center ring and said, “Look! An elephant! I couldn’t see an elephant.

Mother took me to an eye doctor in the Medical Arts Building. He put me in big black chair and made me look through a machine with little glass circles. “What letters do you see?” I saw a black blur. He kept changing glass circles until E G W R popped up. The doctor peered in my eyes with a bright light, scribbled on a small paper, and gave it to Mother. Severe astigmatism, he said. I had no idea what that meant.

The next week I got my first glasses and became the only four-eyes in our class. Kids teased me, but I could read! I began going to the library three blocks from our school every chance I got. I read every book in the kids’ section a boy would like. Sometimes I sneaked over to the big people’s section until I got kicked out. I got my own library card and took many books home, winning the summer reading award. My report cards got a lot better.

I Become a Writer

I never planned to become a writer. I never studied writing. Yet a couple dozen books and a thousand stories and other stuff have my name on them.

I remember the day the writing idea was born. I was alone in our little house on Oneida Street, sort of napping. I found my mind telling a story! It was about the Bob’s Hill Boys, ids a little older than me I met in several books by Richard Pierce Burton. They were my kind of boys. I loved their secrets.

My story came almost like a dream. I thought, Maybe I could become a writer! Of course I didn’t tell anyone; they would laugh; I was just nine. Writers were important men with beards on cards in the Authors game sister Hazel and I played. But the writing idea never left me.

Well, I never wrote Bob’s Hill Boys story, but when I got old, I wrote a storybook book about grown-up boys and I met at Lake Ellen Camp in Michigan. The book has four stories: Big Foot and the Michigamme Trolls, The Curse of the Cross-eyed Moose, a story about Grandma Hoppola’s fine jersey cow, and a long Alaska poem about gold miner Tim I knew when he was a kid.  Tell you what: I’ll send you the book. You’ll love the cover. When you get older, you can read and maybe write a story about me.


Playing marbles was a spring thing. We couldn’t wait for dry ground to play big ring, little ring, cigar, chase, or lag. We played every day then poof it ended and you stashed your marbles until next spring.

Marbles measured a boy’s wealth. The more marbles, the richer you were. Each season, I soon grew poor: We played for keeps—the winner took all the marbles—and I was not a sharpshooter. But one spring, a fire in a newsstand made me the richest kid in school.

Now the only thing worth more than a marble was a tattoo, a small square of paper with a picture of an Indian chief, cowboy, ship, or lady in a bathing suit.  You licked your arm, pressed the tattoo over the wet spot, and wore the picture all day. A tattoo cost one penny or one marble.

The newsstand on fire sold tattoo books—hundreds per book. The firemen sprayed everything, including the tattoo books. Some books we’re just damp, but the man threw them all away even though the tattoos were OK.  My policeman father was checking on the fire. He saw the damp tattoo books and brought them home for me. I took a book to school the next day and came home with my pockets bulging. All my classmates wanted tattoos and were glad to trade for marbles.

At home, I dumped the treasure in my coaster wagon to admire it and a strange thing happened. I was the richest kid in school, but what do you do with books of tattoos and hundreds of marbles?  I discovered marbles make fine ammunition for my slingshot.


The Deeps

When I was a kid, we had a family rule: no swimming without big people present.  I thought about that as I found myself sliding headfirst down the waterfall into the Deeps. Would Mom believe my story?

The Deeps was a popular boys’ swimming hole in Amity Creek, about a mile from my home. It was surrounded by rocky cliffs. A log bridge spanned the creek just above the waterfall. The Deeps was forbidden territory for me.

Three friends and I set out to explore the Amity one morning. We took our revolvers in case we ran into rustlers. We had a great morning and no rustlers. We started home about noon following a trail that crossed the Amity just above the Deeps. But instead of using the bridge, we decided to cross the creek by jumping from rock to rock. Not smart: the current was swift. My friends made it fine, but my first jump landed me on slimy green stuff and down I went, face first.

The current swept me over the falls and into the Deeps. I lost my revolver. Unhurt, I swam to a ledge and climbed out with my friends laughing. But I had a problem: If I came home wet, what would I tell my mother? Jumping jump across was a dumb idea. The only thing to do was dry out.

We built a fire in thick woods and I hung my pants and shirt on sticks to dry, standing around in wet underwear. Two friends left for home. My clothes were still damp when I started home, and I smelled like smoked fish. Maybe I could change before Mother saw me. But no such luck. She was waiting. “So, you fell in the creek. Are you all right?” I think she smiled.

I never found out which friend squealed.

A Moment of Terror

I was 13 or 14 when this story took place. I had just got my first skis with real bindings. I was anxious to try them, but it winter was slipping away. Then a March storm brought new snow and I called a buddy. We decided to ski the rustic Seven Bridges Road from my home and back—five or six miles.

With the mild breeze to our backs, skiing was easy. We reached we reached the turn-around and paused for a breather. The wind had picked up blowing new snow. It would be in our faces as we skied home. That’s when I had the dumbest idea of my life. Our homes were about a mile and a half south through the woods down the hill. If we skied through the woods to the spring trail, we’d cut our return trip in half. I knew the route well from many summer hikes.

We left the road and headed south, but it was tough going. Everything looked different in winter. By the time we reached the top of the hill top, the sky had darkened. March days are short. Worse than that, I couldn’t find the spring trail. And there was danger. There were small cliffs with jagged rocks at the bottom. I was lost; my buddy followed close behind.

Suddenly, a moment of terror: we were airborne. In the snowy darkness, we skied of a cliff. We missed the rocks, landing in thick brush, our skis buried beneath us. Getting untangled wore us out. All we could do was slog downhill carrying our skis, fighting brush. Finally we reached a street a half-mile from home, a couple tired kids. Home never looked so good and Mom and Dad didn’t even scold.

  Snowshoeing Barefoot by Moonlight

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this story, Alice; it was sort of mean. But things happen when a new Scoutmaster wears a long nightshirt in cabin full of boys. Boys will be boys.

Our Scout troop owned the cabin with three other troops. It was built with vertical cedar poles chinked with concrete. Pieces of chinking had fallen out, allowing show to filter in on our bunks. One March our troop settled in for the weekend. We loved to tease our new Scoutmaster; he slept in a long nightshirt.

On Saturday night, we waited until he was ready for bed. Then three of us sneaked out barefoot to go snowshoeing by moonlight wearing only our underwear. Someone told the Scoutmaster and he dashed to the porch in his nightshirt. He yelled, “You boys get in here right now!”  Snowballs appeared by magic and began to fly. Boys inside slammed the door and locked it. Pelted by snowballs, the Scoutmaster pounded and pounded: “You boys let me in right now!”

We were glad to get in where it was warm. The leaders made hot chocolate and we ate cookies and laughed, our Scoutmaster laughing with us.  I loved he cabin.

Ode and Me

Ode and Me  

Lloyd Mattson


On May 5, 2018, family and friends gathered at Knife River Lutheran to say goodbye to Oden Alreck. Ode was my dear friend for 40 years. Since he never talked about himself, I felt compelled to tell a few of the adventures he and I shared.There were many more.


I came to serve North Shore Baptist in Duluth in August, 1977. The church had gone through a difficult period that threatened its survival. Then kerfuffles in two a sister churches sent North Shore new families, breathing in life and vigor. Oden and Joanne Alreck were among the new families. They attended Sunday mornings but I rarely saw them at social functions.

I didn’t know Ode well until we tackled a longstanding problem. When winter winds blew, the heat flew from the the basement fellowship hall stairway and out the front door each time it was opened. You kept your boots on. A curtain at the foot of the stairs helped until a service man fell, blamed the curtain, and sued the church. The curtain was removed. 

A windbreak at the foot of the stairs was the obvious solution. I sketched a plan, ordered materials, and called a work day.  Ode showed up with a serious tool box.  When I showed him my sketch, he smiled. I yielded leadership to the  pro and a bond began to  form.

New Man in the Church

One Sunday a middle-age man accompanied by a junior-age boy showed up. We’ll call him Ron. He dropped off the lad for Sunday school and left but returned for the worship service. Ron seemed uneasy, but the lad fit right in. Front row at my kids’ time.

As I edged into Ron’s life, I learned booze had cost him his family. He sobered up and met a younger woman with kids who had left a miserable marriage. Acrophobia kept her close to her apartment and Ron visited often, finally persuading her to marry him. They moved into to Ron’s  motorhome not far from North Shore.

One Sunday in late fall Ron asked me if I knew where he could find heavy-cardboard packing cases. I said sure, but why. He explained that his mobile home was not skirted and the floors grew really cold in the winter. Cardboard won’t work, I told him. The first rain would take it down. Ron figured rain was unlikely so late in the season; he had to something. He couldn’t handle proper sheeting. Hold off, I said. Let me think on it. I phoned Ode.

Saturday morning a crew showed up at Ron’s home. Ode’s rig held all-weather chipboard, lumber, paint and power tools. Ode measured and cut; the crew framed the mobile home, screwed on chipboard and rolled on paint. By noon the motorhome was professionally skirted.

All morning Ron had protested, “I can’t pay you!”  “Of course you can’t” I replied. “You’re part of the family. The Church maintains a fund for such needs. No one but this crew will ever know.” We packed our tools and went home.

Barrel Stove Evangelism

There’s more to the story. Back in the 50s, the Lampsons, an older family, gave 17 wooded acres on Chub Lake to the South Arrowhead Baptist Association (SABA) in memory of their challenged adult son who died. They asked that the property be used as a recreation center for kids.

Choosing Camp Green Hill as a name, volunteers developed a swimming area, boat launch, ball field, washrooms, and a spacious lodge. Families cleared RV and tent sites and built picnic tables. The camp thrived, requiring a resident manager, and that made funding a challenge.

New pastors came to the churches, some with priorities that did not include camping. Pressed for funds, an aggressive launched an initiative to give Camp Green Hill to a rescue mission. I arrived on the scene.

I saw the camp as a treasure and poked around. No one knew where the camp documents were. When the issue of giving away the property came up for a vote, I protested:  “We can’t give it away; the donors are still living. Have you read the articles of incorporation?” I was reasonably sure no one had. They motion lost.

A year later, the offended pastors set up a scheme to sell the camp to a developer to fund the start-up of a SABA outreach at the University of Minnesota Duluth (two such ministries already existed.) They arranged a meeting stacked with supporters. By then I had found the Camp Green Hill documents and noted voter eligibility was determined by church size. A quorum could not be determined. The sale issue went up in smoke.

Hell hath no fury like preachers scorned. In the turmoil that followed, SABA reorganized, separating out Camp Green Hill. I found myself chairman to the new management committee.

Prior to the melee, SABA had dedicated funds to enlarge the lodge kitchen, a long-time issue. With the SABA fiscal year winding down, I was reasonably sue those funds would be withdrawn under the new management plan.

I called Ode. We drove to camp. He walked around the expansion area, tape in hand. Over coffee, he came up with a materials list. I placed an order.  I felt it imperative to pound some nails before the end of the year. I called for a workday the Saturday after Christmas.

A cold snap settled over the Northland. The lodge’s only heat source was a rusted barrel stove with the smoke stack stuffed up the fireplace chimney. Little wonder no one showed up to work but me, Ron, his foster son and two of his friends.

The well-bundled boys went sliding. Ron and I fired up the barrel stove and grabbed our hammers. The work went slow—it is tough pounding nails wearing mitts. Finally we gave up and sought out the barrel stove, Thermos and goodies in hand.

Ron had not been a church man prior to North Shore. He was profoundly moved by the skirting project. He listened intently to my preaching. As we sipped coffee, absorbing what little heat the stove offered, Ron said, “Pastor, what does it mean to be a Christian?” We talked and prayed and a few weeks later I baptized him. I remember Ode’s declaration as he held up his hammer: “This is my pulpit.”Top of Form


Meeting Wally

Wally Olson ranks up there with Ode as one of my all-time special friends. Here’s how those men became fast friends:

Wally showed up at the March SABA pastors’ meeting—a new bunch since the Camp Greenhill divide. Wally reported progress on the new mission house to be built at Lac La Croix, a remote Native village in Canada. He displayed the floorplan: 20 by 36 feet. I shook my head. That’s a box car, Wally. All we can afford he replied. I looked again and asked Wally if he could come to my study the next morning. I wanted him to meet someone who might be able to help. He agreed to come. I went home and phoned Ode.

Wally and Ode clicked immediately. Ode examined Wally’s sketch and asked how the building would be used and how much the Fort Francis lumber supplier wanted. What are you doing Saturday? Ode asked. Early Saturday they headed north to Fort Francis, a new building design with nearly twice the space in Ode’s folder. They returned with a contract for materials delivered to the building site for about the same as Wally’s plan. But there was one nervous missionary: Ode had negotiated a five percent discount for cash, far more than Wally had.

Time was the critical factor. Lac La Croix was accessible only by plane, boat, and an ice road over lakes and portages. The weather had turned mild. Within days, I boarded Ode’s truck bound for Crane Lake where we would rendezvous with Wally and the supplier.

The Road to the Village

The ice road from Crane Lake to Lac La Croix village ran about 20 miles over lakes and portages, some with steep hills and occasional marshy spots. Puddles were already forming on the lake track. South-exposure portage trails would be muddy.

Ode drove a 4wd three-quarter ton pickup. Wally’s beat-up 4wd Jeep sported a sturdy winch, which saved our skins on every hill. The supplier arrived in two vehicles: a rear-powered van and overloaded, one-ton stake truck with small duals.

It was an extended marshy spot that beat us. Wally had no problem—slow and easy. The truck driver attempted to plow through, counting on momentum. He bogged down. He revved the engine; the dual wheels screamed; a rear tire blew. Unbelievably, the truck had no wheel wrench.

Wally worked his way back around the truck to attempt to winch the truck out backward. No go. There was nothing to do but unload. Soon a heap of lumber, windows, doors, paneling, roofing, and hardware lay on the side of the trail. The supplier tried to talk Oden and Wally into hauling the stuff the rest of the way but we were running out of time. Empty, the truck could roll with one dual missing. A forlorn supplier headed back to Fort Francis to return the next morning with a proper rig.  We loaded the most vulnerable supplies and we reached the village without incident.

Wally was respected in the village. Stashing our load in a secure building, we touched bases with the elders and began the drive home.

Throughout the harrowing day, I noted how easily Ode and Wally worked together; laughing, joking—Norwegian/Swede stuff. That bond strengthened through many years loaded with adventures. One day, Ode and I wept together as Wally headed homeward.

My PhD

A lot has changed since Ode and Wally built the Lac la Croix mission house. A land road has been pushed through from the north. The village name has been changed. But old traditions and problems continue

It took about six weeks to complete building the mission house. Native-born Art Holmes and his wife moved in. Art was an alcohol-dependency counselor and ordained minister. He served for several years; then a new chief was elected who booted Art out and the mission house became a home for several villagers.

Wally somehow came up with the money to pay cash to the supplier and gain the five-percent discount Ode had negotiated. The dealer delivered the materials safely and Wally recruited week-long work crews from churches. North Shore men took the first weekend. I felt obligated to join them. Ode stayed on, neglecting his business back home.

Ode, Wally, and two Christian Native friends joined six North Shore men and construction began. The village picked the site, pointing out the graves of Little Moose and his wife. Care was taken not to disturb them. Village kids were a concern, but though older teens played tricks, they but did not create problems. Younger kids were constantly up close and personal.

At one point I asked foreman Ode for an assignment equal to my talent. He handed me a shovel and pointed out the outhouse spot. Sandy soil made digging easy and I tolerated the kids who danced about, kicking in dirt about as fast as I could shovel it out. I was down about five feet when ground water began seeping up. Ode gave my work his approval and ordered me in the pit for a photo. Every kid hopped in hole with me! That evening I was awarded a PhD–pottyhole digger.

You Men are Kind to Kids.

For the second time, a change in village chiefs had cost Wally a mission house. Many would say that’s it! What a waste of missionary dollars. But that’s not the way Wally saw it. He never gave up on Lac la Croix. The very act of building was missions—God fulfilling his purpose through his people. God is always doing more than we know.

The girl from 313 found a great quote: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Here are hidden values gained through the new building: A lifelong bond formed between Wally and Ode that endured through their lives with consequences it would take a book to tell. And I was reminded of my first Lac la Croix adventure.

It was he late 60s. I hung onto Wally as the snowmobile bounced over rough ice. It was the most decrepit machine in the world, but Home Missions, Wally’s supporting agency, had vetoed replacing it. Someday I’ll tell you how Wally got a new Rupp and I parlayed the process into a missionary lot in Mexico.  God was laughing.

The first week with second mission house saw the crew clear the site, build the foundation, frame and sheet the 24 x 36 foot building. Then those who came by boat took off. As we waited for our float plane, we puttered, the small boys still underfoot. Hearing the plane, we headed for the dock, the kids clustering around me. One of them looked up and said, “You men are kind to kids.” That’s missions.

Saving Fredenberg Chapel

Fredenberg Chapel was in a rural setting about 20 miles north of Duluth. When I came as interim pastor, attendance was down, morale was low, and the building program was at a stand-still. The congregation needed a spark. I grabbed a hammer, called a super sheet rock Saturday, the women fixed lunch, and fresh breezes blew.

Pros had constructed the large metal structure; volunteers from the chapel took it from there. Some were artisans, some broom and shovel people. When I was assigned to build a wall in the balcony, I asked to see the blueprint and they chuckled. Work was mostly room by room seat of your pants. No blueprint.

Early on we ran into a major problem. The main stairs to the lower level would never pass inspection. Anyone six feet tall had to duck to clear the heading at the bottom.  The first-level floor was precast reinforced concrete; the stairs were poured concrete. It seems there was no fix. I consulted with treasurer Harvey Sandstrom and phoned Ode.

Once again, I watched two men bond: Ode, a rough-hewn contractor; Harvey, a first-class artist. Ode took on the project at half his usual pay.

He solved the stair problem and one day pointed out another flaw. He stood with men at the head of balcony stairs looking down on the auditorium. “First time ten people stand here, this end of the balcony will collapse.”

The rest of the balcony was cantilevered over the rooms below, but there was no way to cantilever over stairs. He secured the balcony to the exterior wall. Ode stayed through major construction, often improvising the seemingly impossible.

We held the Christmas program in the new fellowship hall. When I left Fredenberg in the spring for other duties, the building was complete except for carpeting and lighting. Had it not been for Ode, the project could have died.

Somewhere Ode was Grinning

My years of friendship with Ode enriched me more than I can tell, but sometimes he was downright sneaky.

North Shore Church folded a few years after I left, destroyed by two my-way-or-no way pastors.  Finally, sixteen remaining members convened and the pastor’s motion to disband prevailed.  The property reverted to the denomination, which put it up for sale.

While the sale was in progress, a small group of North Shore friends secured the use of the Fireside Room to cluster around a young mother hit by cancer. They met Sunday mornings under Clyde Roger’s leadership. Though I had followed North Shore’s sad decline, I hadn’t heard about the group.

Then Elsie seriously injured her back and I became a full time home caregiver. As her mobility declined, church attendance faded and we missed it.

I had kept in touch with Ode and Joanne, early casualties at North Shore. Ode had friends in the care group. One morning he phoned. He said the group needed help. I suggested we meet at Clyde’s to talk it over. We agreed on a date. I showed up but Ode didn’t. The following Sunday, Elsie and I made our way to the Fireside Room.

The group eventually morphed into a house church with Clyde and I sharing leadership–Elsie could handle a lounge chair. We enjoyed nearly three years of blessed fellowship.

Somewhere, Ode was grinning.

The Old Trapper’s Cabin

My stories with Ode could go on forever. I’ll share one more, set in a Bible camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

In 1991 I served as interim director at Lake Ellen Bible Camp near Crystal Falls. I had had a hand in the camp’s beginnings 20 years before.  Good leadership had built attractive buildings and a strong program around the waterfront and ball fields, utilizing about 20 of the camp’s nearly 400 acres, which included small Loon Lake.

I believe every camp should offer its kids an outpost experience. Nature will speak to hearts, if we give it a chance. When the board asked me to suggest ways to enhance the camp’s outreach, my mind flew to the outpost potential of Loon Lake. I proposed building two shelters for cabin group overnights. Board members listened politely but I gathered they had other priorities.

In a moment of insanity, I asked if the board would allow an outpost if I could pull it off without involving staff or camp dollars. I got an OK. I had no idea how I could pull it off. My first camp newsletter reported the Lake Ellen Hunting, Fishing, Camping, and Literary Society whose sole purpose would be building an outpost on Loon Lake called Fort Brainerd.

By late summer, volunteers had built and paid for two Adirondack shelters and an old trapper’s cabin overlooking the lake. The cabin presented a problem. Its location on a steep bank called for a tricky foundation so that had not been accomplished.

That’s where the project stood when Garry Cropp came on board as director, ending my interim. It weighed on my mind as I returned home. I called Ode.

A week later Ode we were on our way to Lake Ellen. Volunteers were waiting. The lumber yard in Crystal Falls provided material, and with Ode as ramrod, we built the hillside foundation, deck and railings in three days. We headed home pleased.

The End…and Beginning

This wraps up the Ode and Me series but memories stirred in my heart will last forever, however much forever I have left. My prayers send comfort to Joanne and her family. Life gives each of us only a few deep friendships around whom we build our days. Ode with his hammer pulpit rests in the top shelf of my toolbox.

Lloyd Mattson    2018

Letters to Alice Part One


Letters to Alice Part 1

A while back, grandson Jacob asked if I could write a few stories from my childhood for his daughter Alice, who would soon turn five. It has been delightful to look back to the dawn of memory—age three. I send them one by one via Facebook and will compile them for the Story Tree web site. This is Part One.

My first Home

Dear Alice, this is great-grandpa Lloyd from Duluth.  I have a secret for you: You are my favorite great-grandkid. We have to keep that secret because I have bunch of great-grandkids, but you are special.

I thought maybe you would like to know how it felt to be a little kid over 90 years ago. I can remember from when I was not three. I hear you will soon be five. My first home was in the Riverside neighborhood of Duluth. I moved there right after I was born. I don’t remember being a baby, but I remember being little and sitting Mother’s lap on a low rocking chair in the living room. I loved putting my ear on her chest while she sang Lavender blue, dilly, dilly, lavender green. If I were king, dilly, dilly, I’d need a queen. Sometimes she sang Jesus loves me. Maybe Grandma Jeanne can teach you those songs.

My bedroom was in front upstairs. I could look out the window and watch the big kids play baseball across the street. I didn’t understand how come they could be out playing when I had to go to bed.

Next time I’ll tell you about my first nightmare: A huge white monster about to grab me!

The White Monster

Hi, Alice.  Great-grandpa Lloyd again.  Hope you’re having a really fun day. Last time I told you about the first home I remember. I was not yet four. My upstairs bedroom was small and Father strung a clothesline at the foot of my bed so Mother could dry laundry when it was cold outside. I guess driers hadn’t been invented yet.

One winter night, Mother tucked me in and left the door open a crack to let in a little light. The house grew still and I fell asleep. Suddenly, at the foot of my bed, a great white monster appeared. He was about to pounce on me. Believe me, I woke up and hollered! Mother hurried in, turning on the light. The monster turned out to be Father’s long underwear hung to dry after I had fallen asleep.

It took me a long time to sleep again. I remember other nightmares—a mad cow chasing me round and round a shed–but never one that scared me as badly as the white monster. Things aren’t always when they seem to be, are they. Did you ever have a nightmare?

Next time I’ll tell you a strange sleep story—a calf calling for its mama in the middle of the night. Well, take care, dear Alice. You’re special and I love you.

A Calf in the Parlor

’ve been telling you about the first home I remember when I was not quite four. I told the scary story of nightmare monster. Well, about the same time, I had another scary night. I dreamed I heard a calf crying for its mother, only it wasn’t a dream.

Late that afternoon, two uncles had come to spend the night. They had bought a small calf for their farm, but it was too cold for the calf to stay in the car. Father built a pen in one corner of the living room using newspaper, chairs, table leaves, and Mother’s ironing board. I remember she wasn’t happy. The calf wasn’t happy either. It banged and bawled and finally settled down.

At bedtime Mother took me upstairs. I was sleeping hard when the calf started crying for its mother. At first I was scared; then I remembered the calf.

The uncles left early and Father took down the pen, but Mother was still sort of mad.

Big people think little kids don’t know when they get mad, but you and I know better, don’t we, Alice?

Next time I’ll tell you about our next house and my backyard sandbox.

My First Car Ride

Hi Alice!  I’ve been telling you stories about my first home when I was not quite four.  Hazel, my sister, was 14 months older. Our father worked as a streetcar conductor He wore a uniform and stood in back, taking riders’ money. We didn’t have a car yet, so Hazel and I were always home and our mother was always with us.

One summer day, two uncles came and started carrying our furniture and many boxes to a truck. Mother said we were moving, but what did that mean? When the men finished loading the truck, they took Mother and Father and drove away, leaving Hazel and me with an aunt! After a short time, our aunt put Hazel and me in her car and away we went.  That was the first car ride I can remember.

We drove and drove, passing big stores and big houses then smaller houses with yards.  Finally we stopped in front of a small house with big trees and a long cement walk to the porch. There stood Mother. Did she ever look good! We were at 4921 Oneida Street in the Lakeside neighborhood. Inside we found our furniture and the boxes jumbled together.

Mother took Hazel and me to see the backyard with clotheslines and a garden. A white garage with big doors that swung outward was in one corner; a small building with faded red paint was in the other. Mother said it was once a chicken coop.  I would have a big back yard to play in!

Father joined us. He said, “I’ll build you a sandbox in front of the chicken coop,” My very own sandbox!  I’d let Hazel play there once in a while.

 My Sandbox

Great grandpa Lloyd again, Alice. The sandbox Father built for me was a little bigger than a card table and about six inches deep. He filled it with clean, clean sand from Park Point, hauling it home in his Model T Ford in big pails and a washtub. Taking sand was legal then; today you are no allowed to.

Whenever I wasn’t doing something else, I would play in my sandbox with small trucks and a little red fire engine I got for Christmas.  Most of the time I played alone; no kids my age lived in nearby, and I was not allowed to go very far. But I was content to sit in my sandbox imagining stories. I wondered about a lot of things.

I wondered what it would be like when I was grown up and had a wallet with a dollar in it, like my dad. I had never had a dollar. I had a nickel once in a while and a dime once. Sister Hazel and I would walk three blocks to Ole’s Store with just a penny! Ole had the best penny candy counter in the neighborhood.

When I was seven, I found a quarter in the grass by the sidewalk. By then I was allowed to walk alone to Ole’s. I spent the whole quarter at the candy counter. I bought jaw breakers, Black Jack gum, red and black red licorice rope, lollypops with candy on both ends of the stick. They were nice to share with a girlfriend, when you got old enough to have one. I even bought a Three Musketeer bar—three little bars. Cost a whole nickel!

I sneaked to the gunnysack tent in my woods and stated on the candy. Pretty soon I didn’t want any more, and the bag was still half full. That was the only time I couldn’t eat all the candy I bought from Mr. Ole.

Next time I’ll tell you about my woods and my spruce tree hideaway. Love you, Alice. Great-grandpa Lloyd.

My Crick

Hi Alice, great-grandpa Lloyd here. It’s sure fun remembering when I was a kid. My play world grew year by year. At first I had to stay in the yard. Then I was allowed to check out the woods back of our garage. Next, Mother and Dad let me explore the woods just beyond my woods.

Those woods ended in a large field that sloped down to a little crick—big people would call it a creek.  Beyond the crick, the field sloped upward, and my favorite wild strawberry patch was there.

There was a big flat boulder next to a deep pool in the crick about the size of Mother’s washtub. I loved to lie on the boulder and watch tadpoles and odd swimming critters. I saw Jesus bugs–they could walk on water! Frogs hopped around, easy to catch.  Dad told me tadpoles turned into frogs, and I watched it happen

Upstream from the pool I found a thick spread of red osier dogwood brush. A perfect place to make a hideout from rustlers—I was just starting to play cowboy. My hidden passage led to a cleared circle ring just big enough to hide in. I kept my six-shooter handy; I could draw fast.

I spent a lot of time at the crick that summer, but I kept looking at the hill a half-mile to the north. It was my mountain, like in the song Mother often sang: The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see. I wanted to climb the mountain more than anything. One day I did, and I’ll tell you about it. But next time I’ll tell you about warm summer nights in the field behind our neighbor’s garage.

Love you. Great-grandpa Lloyd










Mysterious Ways

Mysterious Ways   

God moves in a mysterious ways; His wonders to perform;/ He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

My writing career began in 1962 through a remarkable chain of unplanned events, beginning with a three-hour stint one night in Alaska. I could not have dreamed how technology one day would broaden my literary outreach. It seems I may have some distance yet to go.

Occasionally I learn the God of Harvest used something I wrote to plant a seed of faith. Poet Longfellow’s archer  is my guide:

I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth, I knew not where;/ For so swiftly it flew, the sight could not follow it in its flight./ I breathed a song into the air, it fell to earth, I knew not where;/ For who has sight so keen and strong, that it can follow the flight of song?/ Long, long afterward, in an oak I found the arrow, still unbroke;/ And the song, from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend.

The Wordshed Mission

In 1986, Elsie and I took early retirement to pursue a dream. Our Alaska visits had acquainted us with quiet servants of the faith whose stories cried to be told. We put together the Wordshed Mission to achieve that goal. We would give half the books to those we wrote about, the other half to friends and relatives, leaning on interim-pastor income to fund printing and distribution.

We began our mission with one title, an anthology. But it soon became apparent one book would not begin to hold the stories we found. We settled on two small books: one about Don and Lorene Stump, pioneer Alaska missionaries; the other about Paul and Nattie Boskoffsky, a Native couple we had come to love.

The books were well received and we reprinted several times, distributing about 13,000 copies. Along the way, we turned Paul and Nattie’s story into a three-CD audio book.

Then we broadened the vision and added three more titles, then three from my memoir series. All told, the Wordshed Mission distributed 32,000 copies of eight titles, plus 1,500 audio books. From somewhere, over $100,000 came in to cover costs.

Now my book-printing days have ended. From now on, I’ll hang writings I wish to preserve on my Story Tree–

A New Path for Words

Our retirement dream outstripped anything Elsie and I could have imagined. But as the Wordshed Mission began to run its course, a second and vastly broader outreach came along.

In late 2008, as Elsie began to fade, I began a nightly group email to keep family and close friends informed. When she died (mid-February, 2009), I continued the emails as therapy, writing during the inevitable sleepless hole each night brought. Hence, Hole News.

Readers began sharing my notes with friends, who wanted on the list. Soon, I found myself wrestling with 250 names. Jackie McBride of Sun City, Arizona followed the Hole News. She was a webmaster. “Lloyd, you’re wearing yourself out,” she wrote, and set up The web server automatically emails posts to subscribers. Today, about 400 friends at home and abroad get the blog in their Inbox. Then Facebook, exposing the Hole News to the world.

The Story Tree

Awhile back, webmaster Jackie, knowing I wanted to get out of book-printing, created a second website: Now I hang my choicest adventures the Story Tree, including the full text of Epilogue. One day, I’ll add all the Wordshed Mission books.




The Ghost of Snail Lake

The Ghost of Snail Lake      Lloyd Mattson

I don’t believe in ghosts; never did. But for a few minutes one dark night in 1944, I wasn’t sure. The setting: Snail Lake Camp (now Gospel Hill Camp), an outreach of the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission where I worked on and off during college and seminary years.

The camp’s 17 acres included expansive lawns, a large garden plot, wooded pastureland, and a handsome, three-level brick lodge overlooking the lake. The ground floor housed the kitchen and dining hall, with the chapel on level two. The third level was one room with three rows of cots. On the night of the ghost, 58 boys grades four through seven slept in the dorm.

The annals of Christian camping have never recorded a more precarious scene: a staff of two staff looking after 58 kids. Bill Jansen was the cook. I was everything else, and I had never directed a camp. I was 21 and hurting with an ear infection and fever. Later on I’ll tell you how that dangerous week came about. As you can imagine, I lived in a constant state of exhaustion. My only time alone came when the campers finally slept. Then I would slip down to the kitchen for a snack Bill prepared for me.

The dormitory was dark save for red-glowing exit lights. Outdoors, faint skylight showed through the mist. My sleep-inducing strategy was a long, spooky story, made up as I went along. I was working on the Ghost of Skull Island, sparing no gore. The story droned on until boy sounds finally ceased.

Eschewing a flashlight, I groped down the dark wooden stairs, stepping carefully. Reaching ground level, I felt my way through the dark to the screen door leading to the totally dark dining hall. Then I froze. Heavy boots shuffled on the far end of the flagstone floor.

My first impulse was to run for Bill a city block away, but that would leave the campers unprotected. I eased the screen open and slipped into the dining hall. Unfortunately, a design error had placed all the light switches at the other end and the room near the kitchen.

A clutter of benches, chairs, tables, and mop buckets rendered a dash through the dark far too risky. Easing along with my back to the wall, I called out, “Who’s there?” The shuffling stopped. As I inched toward the switches, the shuffling resumed. Again I called, “Who’s there?” Silence.

The skylight was barely sizable through the upper part of the row of windows that lined the opposite wall. I strained to catch a glimpse of the irregular shuffling but nothing showed. Centered between the windows were two concrete steps leading up to an exit landing. Double screen doors opened onto the outside flagstone patio. It seemed the shuffling was moving toward the landing.

I thought I heard the boots climb the steps. Something brushed the screen doors. Still nothing showed. Risking the clutter, I broke for the light switches, flooding the dining hall with light, temporarily blinding me. When my vision cleared, the screens had not opened, but the dining hall was empty.

Again I almost ran for Bill but I forced myself to the screen doors and peered into the darkness. There, looking up at me, were three Black Angus calves, escapees from the camp pasture. They were too small to show against the skylight; their hooves shuffling on flagstones echoed through the screen doors.  I made my way to the kitchen and collapsed at the table where pineapple coffee cake and canned peaches awaited, fully aware how close I came to believing in ghosts.


Looking back, it seems incredible that such a dangerous camp week could happen—I shudder to think of it. Blame it on my youth and ignorance. Here is the story:

During college and seminary years, I worked off and on for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission. I directed the downtown boys club during the school year and filled various roles through the summer, including Snail Lake Camp.

Traditionally, the Mission conducted three six-day camps each summer: one for the downtown boys club; one for the Ober Boys Club, which served a primarily black community; and one for the girls club. Camp cost fifty cents—if you could afford it.

In 1944, as the integration movement gathered steam, legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane (Mac) decided to merge boys’ weeks. Attendance plummeted. Mac assumed the cause wad racial tension and called me to his office. I felt the problem was community tension, not racial. Our downtown club served a broad ethnic mix, kids who attended school together. Ober Club kids attended a rival school.

In a reckless moment, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He of course would not hear of a bet, but gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. Hustling campers was no problem, but with World War 2 creating good jobs and sweeping young men into the military, finding a volunteer staff proved impossible.

I turned to our club basketball team—teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to help. On camp day, 83 kids lined up at the Mission for a quick physical and bus ride to Snail Lake. The staff: Bill Jensen the cook, four inexperienced teens, and me. And I had never directed a camp. Red flags flew all over the place, but my ignorance and youthful zeal could not see them.

The long line of kids pleased Mac. He asked me if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He placed more confidence in me than I deserved. Following brief checkups by a nurse, the Mission bus hauled the kids to camp. They settled into the dormitory then roamed the camp.

To manage that number of campers, I whistled them together and formed four squads, each with a counselor. I told squad members to look after one another. Wishful thinking! Supper turned into near chaos; dish washing, total chaos. The first evening chapel signaled trouble: the counselors were absent. Bill took over the meeting and I went to look for them.

I found the four teens at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere—they were sure I wouldn’t send them home, but I arranged for Bill drove them home first thing the next morning.

More trouble brewed at bedtime. Influenced by the unhappy counselors, several older campers showed signs of rebellion, with the next age tier joining them at morning lineup. These were mostly street kids, not given to accepting authority.

To head off mutiny, I invited any camper unhappy with the way I ran the camp to step forward. A bunch did. I sent them to pick up their stuff and Bill bused them to town. That left me with 58 younger campers. Among them was a curly-headed first-time camper who was new to the boys club. His name was George Verely.

With the kitchen consuming all Bill’s time and energy, I became the counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor and everything else. Add a painful ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost. But the Lord looks after fools and innocent kids and we survived the week with no major mishap.

I returned home wiped out, convinced it had been a wasted week. I could not identify one spiritual gain.

Fast forward 20-plus years. I’m at my desk in Chicago fulfilling my duties as director of camping and boys work for our denomination. A staff colleague just back from a trip to Minnesota trip stopped by. “Lloyd,” he said, “your name came up in a meeting. The new superintendent of the St. Paul Mission was speaking. He told us he came to the Lord at Snail Lake Camp when he was nine, the summer Bill Jensen and Lloyd Mattson were there. His name is George Verely.”


The Song of a Man and a Land

The Song of a Man and a Land
Lloyd Mattson

I am the nation that gave to the world
The man who is called Abe Lincoln.
I watched legend born in fire-lit books,
River rafts, the smooth shovel slate.
Quiet myth, gaunt truth,
The sad portrait speaks
Of Lincoln, Head of State.

Abe Lincoln and I are some alike,
A hybrid, a mingling of seeds.
The tall rebel man who freed other men
And the Nation most nearly free.
Note well this mingling of seeds in the land
That sent the tall man to his task,
Else tyrants will rule over slaves anew.
Even now some drink from death’s flask.

Abe Lincoln’s kind was not known in the world
When men first walked my valleys;
Not among my copper-skinned tribes
Nor the people of distant lands,
Where the rich were born to riches,
and the poor to servitude.

My first people lived in shadowed days
With crude tools and simple ways.
Hogans and wigwams, mystic longhouses;
Shrill cries, soft chants,
drums and dance
Called men to war and to hunt.

Then, a west-blowing breeze
Brings to the lea
The sea-weary Santa Maria,
With a new kind of folk,
milk-skinned and bold,
Who call my people Indians.

More ships come to probe my coasts,
To explore each river and bay.
They leave on my beach men, cargo and guns.
The ships sail eastward, away.
Red man stalks white man.
Death stalks them both.
I saw no wise man to guide them.

The white man came lusting for wealth,
His passion: power and treasure.
Before him I lay, a new world to gain,
But empire and gold was his pleasure.
He robbed my people, who fought back and killed.
Red women trembled in wonder
That the sure arrow’s whisper so soon was hushed
By the musket’s deadly thunder.

The Old World men unfurled gaudy flags
And plunged their staffs in my soil,
Claiming the land for England or France,
For Spain or Portugal.
This dull people dared to think
That man can own a land.
Dull indeed.
Did they not know? The land possesses man.
And this land claimed a man, Abe Lincoln.

Treasure and empire, the hunger for fame,
Lured Old World men to me,
But another kind came with a Book and a song.
They spoke of a Man and a Tree.
They clung hard to life, but many died
Building homes where men could be free.
Free? Idle dream, Old World men,
Yet a seed of promise for me.

Freedom swelled in the heart
Of one Roger Williams,
He thrust the seed deep in good soil.
In Rhode Island earth lay hope for new birth,
Ancestral seed for Abe Lincoln.

More nations sent their ships to my coasts
And spewed on my shores ten thousand.
I shuddered to see the plunder and waste
Of my creatures and their homeland.
Forests fled. Plows ripped the sod.
I saw my wild beauty fade
As hamlets grew bold,
Stretched their bounds to be cities,
Then spilled out the hardy beyond
My mountain defense toward the Great River.
Boone and more of his kind.

From the North Hampton pulpit
Of Jonathan Edwards
Rose a tide that swept down the land.
Wesley flint, Whitefield steel,
Gospel fire, God’s command.
A light in the night of gospel decline
New seeds for the needs of mankind.

My soil spawned a hybrid, hardy and bold;
A blending of spirit and might;
Ideas more daring than men ever dreamed
Put British Redcoats to flight.
But the time was not right
For Abe Lincoln.

Then I opened my gates and the people poled
Their flatboats down the Ohio.
The rafts bore scant goods,
But their hearts bore great hope,
Nourished by seeds from Rhode Island.
Man’s worth as a man,
Man’s right to be free;
The stalk and the branch of that hybrid.

I watched the frontier push westward and north.
A man rode out on his circuit.
A thousand miles alone he rode
To marry and bury and comfort.
He fought demon rum, the Devil and greed.
His Bible, his prayer, his sermon, more seed;
The leaf and the bud of the hybrid.

He summoned his flock
From the woodlands and fields;
They came, child and man, saint and sinner.
I swept clear the skies
That the great moon might rise
On the camp meeting hard by the river.

The tapping of feet to a staunch gospel beat;
Glory shouts rose to heaven, dulling the ear
To the chill cadence of fear
Already finding its rhythm.
My valleys caressed
And returned to the blest
In echo the song of the camp.
No lark sang so well as the music that fell
On the air in the night by the river.

A penitent wept at a hand-hewn bench,
Seeking peace with the price of tears.
Camp meeting seeds, swept by faith’s breeze,
Added the worth to the hybrid.
The Cross and the Book,
And the man who found God
Tore down the gross pride of high birth.
Freedom’s cup filled,
Slowly filled, then spilled
To bathe the new Nation with might.

A land of the free!
A home of the brave!
Almost, almost, but not quite.
A sore marred the health
Of the yet fledgling State,
A people come not by choice;
Bowed with a chain, dark children of pain,
They bore bitter seeds and a voice.

From the hold of foul ships;
Fettered, naked, for sale.
A cancer arose in my throng.
Their anguish-born prayer
From hearts torn with care,
Moses surely soon must come ‘long.
Labor and suffer, weep and more toil,
Dark seeds of shame in my soil.

Now, three hundred years
Since the white man came
To mingle bloods in my land,
The seeds sown and grown, and sown yet again
Swell. Nolen Creek, Kentucky.
Tom Lincoln paces.
Nancy travails.
A cabin of logs hears the cry!
Moses? Aaron?
No, Abraham!
Tom could scarce lift his eye.
An uncomely babe, new-born Abe,
But a son! The darling of Nancy.

Now kings are born on palace beds,
Lords from the ranks of peerage.
Caesars inherit the toga of power,
The garland festooned brow;
Abe? Abe was a clod,
Born to the sod,
His hope lay in the plow.


Yet the soil Indiana then Illinois,
Betrayed a mystic rare fragrance.
The straw Abe chewed, the rail he hewed,
Nourished and wrought a wonder.
Abe jumped and wrestled and swung his axe.
Abe listened and thought and read.
He learned of a Book left behind by poor Nancy.
No longer poor, now dead.

The clod caught the echo of dead Nancy’s prayer
For her cabin-born, uncomely waif.
From the fruit of the seeds of three centuries
Prayer brought forth a sweet wine of life.
Rough Abe drank deeply this nectar of God,
And allowed he was more than a clod.
The boy stood tall and became a man,
Taller than men around him.
He stood so tall he looked one day
To see the White House before him.


But it is not a hymn or camp meeting air
Or a mighty anthem I hear,
But a martial air, hot oratory,
The reticent marching of fear,
The retching of my child-State,
Sick with the gall of her slaves.
Those are the sounds that fall on my ear
As Abe takes the President’s chair.
Half slave half free?
Secede! Secede!
The boom of the guns of Fort Sumter.


I watched from a mountain my people at war;
Homes torn, lands ravaged, men fell.
I grew sick from the stench of Andersonville
And the northern dungeons of hell.
Spades tore my sod.
The weight of the dead!
Men hid their shame in my soil.


Then peace. No, not peace,
War never brings peace
But a stupor before the next conflict.
Abe, tired, faced the taskOf mending his land,
But one shot was yet to be fired.
The last soldier to die
In that most tragic war
Was the man from the cabin of logs.


Yet Abe Lincoln stood tall,
North and South lowered flags that day.
The Union reborn in hearts called to mourn,
They wore blue coats and gray.
A dirge from the South,
A moan from the mouth
Of the people Abe Lincoln set free.
Men gathered the Clod,
Turned back the sod,
My earth folded close.
Abe was gone.


From the north Arctic snow
To the summer green South
One flag, Abe’s flag, was unfurled
To remember God’s Clod,
A new kind of man
In a new kind of land in the world.
A mingling of earth and faith and breath
Wrought by God for the dark and the fair

From bold hybrid seeds
Of hymn tunes and creeds,
Of courage and daring and prayer.
In the Man, in the Land,
See the Book and the Cross.
Don’t lose them.
Freedom lies there.

And He Did!

Two or three years after the Allagash trip I was back in northern Maine, this time for a father-son backpack trip in Baxter State Park. We planned to climax the trip by climbing Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. Though the climb failed, Katahdin gave us our most memorable campfire.

Our guide was Alton (Beaver) Wardwell, Christian Service Brigade leader for the Stockholm-New Sweden Baptist churches. He also led the Allagash trip. Tall, rangy, in his 50s, I admired his spirit and woodsman skills.

Baxter State Park is 200,000 acres of mostly-unspoiled forest, ponds, and trails. Moose and other animals abound. Imposing Mount Katahdin, the park’s centerpiece, is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  Thoreau explored the region and wrote about it, referring often to Katahdin.

Our hikers came from several New England communities. They rendezvoused the afternoon before the trip and set up camp by a small a cabin where the Brigade battalion met. Upstairs was Cap Matt’s room: a bed, a chair, and a rustic-curtained window. The boys hoped someday Cap Matt might sleep there, and I did. My long-running column in Venture, Brigade’s magazine for boys, made me something of a folk hero to some kids.

Campsites were assigned for each night in Baxter Park, controlling the number of groups to preserve the sense of wilderness and determing the length of each day’s trek. We headed for our first campsite Monday morning, a dozen men and boys. The oldest hiker was George, my 70-year-old tent mate. He had climbed the highest point in many states and looked forward to tackling Katahdin with his grandson. The youngest hiker was a red-haired, freckled lad of ten or eleven. His father, a small man, had never backpacked. We hadn’t gone far before both were hurting.

We enjoyed great weather and well-marked trails. The red-haired kid and his dad soon cheered up. My tent mate hiked with his grandson; I usually hiked with seminary classmate Bob Dishinger, now pastor at the New Sweden church. Bob had a philosophical turn of mind.

At one point our conversation turned to longevity.  “If we keep fit in mind and body, there is no reason we can’t live to 100.”  I proposed we get together on our 100th birthdays and reminisce, but Bob copped out. A few years after the hike, he died shoveling snow.

Daily Bible input followed a simple pattern: one brief Bible passage per day. During morning briefing, we explored the day’s passage asking, what does it teach? No preaching; just a simple search for meaning. You don’t dawdle over theology when you have miles to go before you sleep.

After lunch, dads and sons spent a brief time together, reflecting on the question, what does today’s passage say to us?  You put yourself in the story or passage. I taught a prayer technique I called Pray Back. Phrase by phrase you talk through the passage with God.

At evening campfires, we encouraged campers to share personal discovery from the passage and adventures of the day. Sometimes I told a story.

We reached our third campsite late in early evening; just time for a quick supper and the campfire. The skies were clear and we decided to sleep under the stars. Campers unrolled sleeping bags in random fashion. I picked a spot among them.

It was a beautiful, star-filled night. A half-moon reflected off the small lake bordering our camp. The campers had covered several miles, and silence soon settled over out camp. I settled in and slept. Well into the night, something woke me. I eased up on an elbow. At the edge of campsite stood a huge, dark form—a bull moose with a full rack. He eyed our camp then headed for the lake, picking his way among the sleeping campers. I watched him wade into the lake and drink. A page from God’s other book.

We reached our final campsite in good time. We would spend two nights there. Clouds thickened as we set up camp. In the morning we would climb mile-high Katahdin. At the evening campfire, Beaver Wardwell briefed us on the climb and told a sobering story.

Some years before, he was leading a group up Katahdin when his hikers came upon a tragedy. A lad from another party had taken a risk and fell to his death. Beaver volunteered to retrieve the body. Improvising a litter, he took his three biggest boys and followed a difficult route to the body. The lesson: stay close to your leader.

I had focused devotional times throughout the trip on the first part of John 15. We had reached verse 7:  “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” We reflected on that around the evening campfire and again the next morning. Then we organized to climb Katahdin.

The shortest route would take us through a steep jumble of huge rocks to a plateau. From there the going would be easier. Ahead lay the Knife Edge, a safe though scary trail to the top. Beaver led, kids followed like squirrels, and those of us more years and proportions to match worked harder.

My tent mate struggled, his 70 years showing. For his safety, we counseled him to return to camp, a deep disappointment, but safety is always paramount. As we climbed, the temperature dropped, bringing the cloud cover lower. We reached the plateau in dense fog. We could no longer see the peak. Beaver called us together. “Doesn’t look good, boys” he said.

Within minutes, a whiteout enveloped us, forcing us to abandon the climb. Visibility shrunk to a few feet. Admonishing the campers to stay close together, Beaver guided us along the plateau trail toward a safer return route. I brought up the rear. The whiteout made hiking slow and difficult. We dropped below the whiteout and worked our way safely to our campsite.

A trip’s final evening is always special. Campers have bonded. The park provided ample firewood and we huddled in jackets around the blaze, sharing thoughts on the trip and the hike through the whiteout, a first-time experience. We sang and said John 15:7 together. The red-haired man sat close to his son.

The fire was burning low when the lad spoke. “Cap, you’ve been teaching us about pray-back, talking the Bible back to God? Well, today I found out it works!”

“It got really hard to see and I was really scared. I stuck as close to my dad as I could, but I had to slow down and I got off the trial. I could hear the guys getting father and farther away. I didn’t want to yell. I wasn’t sure which way to go. Then I remembered what you said about talking the Bible back to God.”

“I prayed, “God, you said if I remain in you—well, I believe in Jesus. Then you said, and my words remain in you. Here they are, Lord; I know the verse by heart. You said, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. God, get me off this mountain!”

He paused and grinned. “And he did!”