by Jim Bates
On April 19, we got word that the Pfizer vaccine was available for our age group and we took advantage of it. Meg called down to the clinic in Park Rapids and made and appointment for us. We drove there on April 22nd and got our first shot. It was an interesting experience.
The clinic was on a side street, one block off Hwy 34, one of the two main roads through town. It was a low slung, tan brick building built (the sign said on the side of the entrance) in 1934. It was one of the Works Progress Administration projects (WPA) provided by President Roosevelt’s New Deal which brought jobs to the area. The building had obviously seen a lot of history and today was no exception.
We showed up at our appointed time, 10 am, and stood in line with Andy and Allie, both of them masked up and quietly standing with us. There weren’t many people, which was too bad. We wore our Covid masks and nodded to those in line that made eye contact with us. Not many did, but that was okay. We weren’t there to make friends. Or in the north country, for that matter (even though we had.) There was still a huge stigma in rural Minnesota about mask wearing and people freaking out about what they felt was the government infringing on their right to do whatever they wanted to do. Like suggesting citizens wear a mask to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It was a heated discussion, let me tell you, with unwavering lines drawn on both sides of the argument. Meg and I had long ago given up trying to convince people of the right thing to do: follow the science, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands - that kind of thing. And, now, finally, we could get vaccinated! For us, it all came down to doing what we could to keep our kids healthy and safe.
I should say that we hadn’t entirely given up. Meg had been talking to Linn and Amber over the last month or so about not only the advantages of the science side of Covid, but also of the benefits of being safe and doing the right thing for the sake of the kids. The two women had finally seen the light about what Meg was talking about and had made a commitment to wearing Covid masks in public. Same with their kids. They also had agreed to get vaccinated. That was a big step for them. Even more so when they informed Meg that they’d talked their husbands into getting shots, too.
“For Linn and Amber, once we talked about the good science practices, it made perfect sense to them,” Meg told me. “Plus, of course, it’s good for the kids. And that’s what got Jack and Arnie on board.”
“That’s great,” I told her. “Linn and Amber get much of an argument?”
Meg smiled and shook her head good-naturedly. Like me, she liked her friend’s husbands. “You know Linn and Amber. If the boys did put up an argument, it probably didn’t last for long, if you know what I mean.”
I kind of did. I was getting to know Meg’s two new friends fairly well. All three of us couples were getting together pretty often and I could see how strong-willed the two women were. Even though Jack and Arnie were big, husky, powerful woodmen, petite Linn and tall and thin Amber were just as strong but in their own ways. It was obvious each woman ran their family with an assertive, ‘take no prisoners’ kind of love that bordered on the obsessive. But in a good way. It was great to see that aspect of their personalities because Meg was that way as well. With all those shared traits, it was easy to see why the three women were forming a strong bond.
At the clinic, the line was slowly moving forward. I unzipped my jacket and did the same for the kids. It was kind of hot in there. “When are they all coming in for their shots?” I asked Meg, referring our Linn and Amber and their husbands.
“A couple of days from now. I guess the boys are trying to get some more trees cut before the snow gets too soft.”
Over the last few months, I had been finding out a lot about pulp word cutting from my two new friends. Not only was it hard work, but it was work that could go on almost all year long. The ‘boys’ as Meg referred to them, applied for permits with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and cut where they were told. They especially liked cutting in the winter because it was relatively easy to get into and out of the forest. Plus, there were no black flies and mosquitoes, the bane of the north woods, to contend with. Just the cold, the mind numbing, fingers freezing off if you weren’t careful, cold. But they were tough men and could easily handle the frigid conditions. They just dressed for it in wool long underwear, wool pants and Carhartt Overalls. Often times, they told me, they’d break out in a sweat even if the temperature was twenty degrees below zero.
When working in the woods in the winter, they’d ride snowmobiles over the snow to pack it down and then use them to drag the felled trees over it to their huge truck when they used a claw-like crane to load the wood. Then they’d haul it to either Bemidji or International Falls for processing. Once set up, they might be at a site for day, sometimes a week. However, when the temperatures warmed and the snow started melting, moving heavy logs through the forest was hard work due to the soft conditions.
Or so I was told. It was the third week in April and the snow wasn’t melting yet, but it was getting soft, with daytime temperatures sometimes getting into the thirties. Sometimes.
“We’ve still got a few weeks,” Jack told me a few days ago when I last talked to him. “There’s a good two or three feet in some places in the woods.”
“Then what happens?” I asked.
“Then we wait for the land to dry out.”
“How long’s that take?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Last year it was done by the middle of May.”
“Yeah, but that’s okay. It gives us time to work on the trucks.”
Don’t ask if they applied for un-employment. I did once and got a derisive look. Question asked and answered. They didn’t.
I’ll tell you one thing: Those guys were proud and independent men.
Anyway, back at the clinic we got our shots and went into town and did some grocery shopping. We’d had no run-ins with any of the locals since that one time in February. I attribute it all to Jack. Apparently, he was quite well known in the area as a tough, fair, but no-nonsense person. It was nice to know he was friends with us.
With our errands run and feeling good about being vaccinated, we headed home to Esker. The temperature was in the high thirties, the sun was shining and the snow was melting. There was a definite feel of spring in the air. We even stopped at the drive-up Dairy Queen on the way out of town and got the kids each an ice cream cone. Us, too. What the heck, why not? We’d gotten our first shot. Why not celebrate?
Heading north on the highway, Meg was driving and I was checking my messages. Nothing new or out of the ordinary. I set my phone aside and was chatting with the kids in their car seats in back when I received a ‘ping.’ I picked up my phone and took a look.
“Oh, oh,” I said.
“What?” Meg looked over, concerned.
“It’s from work.” I was a research scientist with the Zylon Group, a company that was dedicated to searching for ways to help make plastic degrade faster in the environment. I’d been there for nearly six years, ever since I’d graduated from college. The president of the company, Bob Jenkins, was in his mid-forties and a dedicated environmentalist. He’d built the company from scratch and employed about two dozen of us like-minded people. Since the pandemic had begun, he’d had to close the door to business but kept us all on payroll. He also kept in touch with us all with a monthly newsletter.
I could see Meg’s knuckles turn white on the wheel. “Better check it.”
I did, readying it quickly. When I was done, I turned to her. “Shit.”
She glanced at me. “What?”
“It’s from Bob. He’s got news for us. He’s closing the lab. For good. I guess there are supply chain issues right now and we can’t get what we need to do reliable work.”
Meg kept her eyes on road, but slowed down considerably. “Does he say if they might re-open?”
I read further, the sinking feeling in my stomach growing heavier with each line. “He’s hanging it up, I guess.”
“What’s that mean?”
“He says, and I quote, ‘I’m leaving to pursue other avenues of environmental work.’” I stared at the email. Not really seeing the screen. “Damn. This is not good.”
“Don’t you get some kind of severance or something?”
I read further. Whew. “Oh, good.
Yeah, I do. Three-quarter salary for a week for each year I worked there.”
Meg did a quick calculation. “So, until the end of May, early June.”
I looked out the window watching the forest go by. I was thinking about Jack and Arnie and the independent loggers that they were. The hard work that they did. At least they didn’t have to worry about being laid off.
Meg interrupted my thoughts. “Hey, don’t worry about it, okay, Lee? I’ve still got my job with the editing company. We got money in savings. We’ll figure something out.”
“Oh, I know,” I said. Although I had no idea what form ‘figuring it out’ would actually take.
I turned and used my thumb to wipe some ice cream off Allie’s chin. She grinned at me. So did Andy.
“Can we go sledding when we get home?” he asked.
“Yeah. That’d be fun,” Allie said, excitedly.
In spite of having just been let go from my job and having no prospects for another one, my kids’ suggestion sounded awfully good.
“You know what? That’d be a great idea.”
I looked at Meg and she gave me the thumbs up sign.
So, when we got back, we went sledding on a little hill overlooking the lake. We all had a great time. Then we went back to our snug cabin, made some hot chocolate with tiny marshmallow’s and played Candyland. Our little family. We were healthy. Meg and I had our first jab. We were together. So what if I didn’t have a job anymore? Somehow, we’d figure out a way to make ends meet.
We really didn’t have a choice.
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