Posted 6/21/22

WOODWORKING BY DAVE WOOD The murky and muddy Trempealeau Earth Day has come and long gone and I’m past due thanking our former Wisconsin Senator from Polk County, Gaylord Nelson, for coming up with …

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The murky and muddy Trempealeau

Earth Day has come and long gone and I’m past due thanking our former Wisconsin Senator from Polk County, Gaylord Nelson, for coming up with the idea and putting his shoulder to the wheel and making it happen more than half a century ago.

Without Nelson, Trempealeau River that runs through my hometown would be the same as it was when I was a wee lad 75 years ago and moved to town from the farm. Of course, I didn’t know how to swim as there were no pools within walking distance to learn how; the headwaters of the Trempealeau were so shallow as to call it a site for a mud wrestling contest.

But June rolled around in 1945 and my cousin Billy Steig came over to Grandma’s, excited and announced that “the beach house as well as the beach on the Trempealeau River is being opened for the summer season and Coach ‘Colonel’ Larson will be the town’s new lifeguard and swimming teacher.”

“Colonel” Larson!!” Even a hick like me knew about him. He came to town as a coach and science teacher, which was a big deal because he was a member of the 1938 College All-Star team and played with guys like quarterback Sid Luckman in 1938, right out of River Falls State Teachers College. Older readers may remember in the 1950’s when “Colonel” starred as “The Marlin Man, a sharpshooter who performed miracles shooting at moving targets with his Marlin .22 rifle.”

Just think of it! Swimming lessons, and from “Colonel” Larson!

Grandma would have none of it, what with polio on the loose, but Aunt Alma, Billy’s mother went ahead and bought me awful navy blue swim trunks of prickly wool and sent Billy and me off to the pool below the mill dam. Larson was there to greet us and show ou his own swimming prowess by crossing the turbulent Trempealeau in every style known to man and otters. He was a fabulous athlete, having thrown the javelin in the Olympics and playing for the Chicago Football Cardinals before polio struck him down during his first season. Over the years, he liked to show us kids a yellowed Chicago Tribune that announced: “Cardinal Leon Larson (his Christian name) Dies of Polio.” And now he lived a few blocks from Grandma’s house!

But now it was time for him to teach us kids to dog paddle. His method was simple. He made us lie on our bellies on the beach’s dirty wet sand and dig a hole with our paws, like a dog searching for a bone, and kick our skinny legs until he was satisfied that we had the drill down pat.

What, gentle reader, you may ask, has this to do with Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day?

The Trempealeau River, that’s what. Today the Trempealeau is clean and sparkling and folks even fish for trout, pike and bass in its shiny waters. But back in 1945 the only piscatorial denizens were carp and red horse and mudcats. So when Larson tossed us in after we mastered the basics of dog paddle, the mighty, muddy, malodorous Trempealeau was our only choice if we didn’t want to remain landlubbers.

So we swam and we swam all over the dam, as a song goes from the Roaring Twenties. And when we weren’t paddling, we were diving under the surface to open our eyes and glory at the water that surrounded our eyeballs. And not only water, but limpid strands of cow intestines and other interesting offal that Peters’ Meats Incorporated tossed into the murky stream from its large slaughterhouse a half mile upstream for the phantasmagorical entertainment of us kids downstream.

After our premiere nautical adventure, we retired to the old beach house, grimy from kids peeing on the concrete floor and wondered why the older kids were peeking through knotholes to catch a glimpse of the girls undressing or dressing in the adjacent female section.

The next morning, Bill and I both awakened to find our skin covered with rash. “I told you so,” scolded Grandma and packed us ou to see Doc MacCornack, the town’s medical officer and chief surgeon, who didn’t seem surprised to discover that we had Impetigo. He painted us with a potent blue ointment and sent us on our way down Dewey Street, looking like a pair of latter-day Druids. In a few days our skin cleared up and we headed back to the mill pond for one of many more dangerous dips.

So, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, thank you, thank you, or as your ancestors in Clear Lake might say “manga tusen takk.” (Many Thousand Thanks!)

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.