The Canning Jar Pine Cone Museum

“Look! Look!” she screamed, eyes wide, smiling from ear to hear.

Each time we arrived at the spot on the side walk on our block, she said the same thing with the same excitement as she had the first time she saw them.

“Pine cones!” Arya would point and exclaim, as if she had just unwrapped the perfect gift for her birthday. Or Christmas. Or both.


We would then spend what seemed like hours beneath the mature pine trees, as we searched for the latest cone or two to be added to the growing collection.  Throughout the years of navigating our block with Arya, the exact standards that made for an acceptable pine cone have always been kind of a mystery, but that’s been part of the enjoyment of it all.

We had started gathering pine cones, a few here and there, in her stroller. As time went along, we would store a few in her little wagon. Then it was her tricycle basket, and most recently it has been her bicycle basket. After a while, it seemed that they were everywhere.

In an effort to try to keep them all in one place, and after making a promise that I would keep them safe, I found an old canning jar on a shelf in the garage.  I figured that the old jar was as good a place as any to temporarily keep her treasure.  Besides, soon enough, she would grow out of it and forget about the cones.  But, for the time being, I had a promise to keep.

After a walk during her most recent visit,  six (and a half…) year-old Arya awarded the last two pine cones their rightful places in the now-filled canning jar. 

After she had gone home, I picked up the jar from the dining room table and looked at the cones through the glass. It needed a place to sit for now, but the dining table was not that place.

At first I thought I’d take it down to the spare room, where the grandkids play and sleep when they stay with us. Upon reaching the doorway of the room, I played out all the scenarios in my head where a big glass jar, pine cones and grandkids might end badly.  So, I decided to put the jar down in my little den on a bookshelf with some other artifacts.  It wouldn’t be there long, I thought to myself. Soon enough, I would be able to throw the whole works away.

I always thought it was kind of silly that we would stop the world to look at something as random and plentiful as pine cones. They aren’t what one would associate with being rare, beautiful or valuable. It would seem that they are none of those things, at least in the world of items to collect, anyway.  I was humoring her, I thought, engaging in play time and exploring the neighborhood. It was simple as that. That is, until recently.

A funny thing started to happen whenever I returned to my den.  Each time I’d go in there, my eyes would be drawn to the jar.  In a small room filled with thousands of my own exhibits of things and stuff, I found myself spending time gazing at the jar.  It seemed odd that the one thing in the room I almost couldn’t wait to get rid of had become quite interesting.

Then it hit me.  How could I have missed it?  It was right there, right in front of me. 

Why was I so ready to discount what we had taken so much time to collect?  Why did I not see the magic in it all?  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t immediately see the possibilities, and grateful that I finally came around to them.

What I have on my bookshelf today, indeed, is an old canning jar filled with little pine cones.  No one would argue that.  However, thanks to the foresight and imagination of our six (and a half…) year-old grand child, it is also a time capsule, a museum, a record of events.  It is a magical vessel containing pieces that tell a story, the epic four-year tale of a little girl and her adventures.

Each pine cone is a separate entry in a journal filled with an unforgettable journey.  This cone was from the time she saved the pet horses and dogs from dragons and other imaginary villains.  Another cone was from the day she shared with our neighbor the details of the day’s adventure.  A larger cone was from the day we solved the mystery of time travel with sidewalk chalk.  One cone was from the time we crossed a bridge above lava alligators to get to the princess in time to take her to the dance to meet the prince; the one next to it was from the day she took her stuffed animal friends on a trip to explore space in the red wagon rocket ship.  Another cone is from a sidewalk grocery shopping expedition because, after all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat. 

For every cone, there is a story, and a memory that will be with me until the end of time.  As for the jar and its contents, it has found a permanent place within the walls of my den, enshrined with other relics from days gone by.

In the end, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from the old jar of pine cones, and from the experiences contained within.  When I deny my ability to see things not only as they are, but as they could be, I am blind to otherwise endless possibilities.  Likewise, when I deny myself creativity or play, I also deny a large part of who I am.  To be able to see the magic in something so simple is a priceless gift.  And those priceless gifts, it seems, are everywhere, if I remain open to seeing them.  Lastly, I have learned to be aware that almost anyone or anything, at any time,  can be a portal to the priceless.

There will always be adulting to do.  Bills must be paid, lawns must be mowed, and oil must be changed.  But in between laundry days and pay days, between commitments and errands, requirements and standards, there must be time to play. 

So, I encourage you to set the weight of adulting down.  Turn off the news and leave your phone in a drawer somewhere.  It will all be there when you get back. 

Hunt for your very own pine cones.  Put a few here, and a few there, as a reminder.  Explore space.  Save horses and pet dogs, or vice versa.  Find a princess or prince.  Share with a neighbor.  Cross bridges.  Grab some chalk and travel through time.  Experience the thrill of seeing lava alligators in their natural habitat.  And don’t forget to set aside time for a grocery shopping expedition.  After all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat.

Glove Day, Oscar’s gift, and the Si Johnson Special

The Si Johnson Special

I paced the driveway outside the house on Eighth Street, not knowing whether to start off without Dad, or to continue to wait for him.  It was like Christmas morning in May.  I couldn’t stop pacing, as if doing so would somehow speed things up.  I looked at the front door for any sign of movement in between glances down the street to try to estimate the time it would take for a grown man and an adrenaline-fueled ten year old to walk the six or seven blocks down to the hardware store.

This day was special.  This day was baseball glove day.  Glove day is generational and ceremonial.  It is celebration and reckoning.  Generational, in that often a father’s father had also once participated in glove day, and someday the son will get to share glove day with his own son.  Ceremonial, as when the first ball hits the glove for the first time, and celebration comes with that first opportunity to play catch with Dad using the new glove. The reckoning portion would come soon enough.

After standing out in the driveway for what was a childhood eternity, I heard the familiar sound of the screech of the old screen door. I abandoned my time estimation experiment and turned around to see Dad standing at the top of the steps, smiling. 

“Ready?”  Darn right.

Dad quickly and flawlessly covered the reckoning portion of glove day as we walked down the main street in town. 

A new glove was an investment, and for our family at the time, it was quite an investment.  It was something to take care of and look out for, and if I did those two things, I would have that glove for a long time.  I should be careful not to leave it anywhere, and to always double check before leaving a game or practice.

Dad’s talk turned out to be necessary.  A few years prior to glove day I was playing out in the yard with Dad’s circa 1954 baseball glove, and I left it out in the rain.  It rained and rained for two whole days, and the glove wasn’t discovered until several days after that, lying in a corner of the back yard.

The glove Dad had used for decades in all kinds of baseball and softball games had been destroyed by carelessness.  I don’t remember him being mad about it.  Disappointed?  Sure, but not mad.  There was a lesson to be learned in it all I guess, and apparently that glove was the price of the lesson. 

Although it had long ago left for old sports equipment heaven, I remember that glove fondly. For me was like trying to catch a ball with a garbage can lid, but Dad worked that old thing like a magician.  It was an old “two-hander,” where there was no real fold or crease in the glove for easy open and closing. No, with that glove, there was a timing and finesse that involved a three step process:  Aim glove at ball, ball hits glove, cover ball with throwing hand.  Funny thing is, I had thought quite a bit about using that glove for baseball, until it succumbed to the devastating combination of Mother Nature and an absent-minded ten year old. Rest easy, leather trash can lid…

I took three steps for every one step Dad took on our walk to the hardware store that day.

I was trying to set a pace, my impatience and excitement clearly getting the best of me.  It was always fascinating to me that Dad could cover so much ground with each effortless step, and on that day I was glad he could.  I always wondered if his unearthly ability to cover ground like that was one of the many reasons for his nickname, Moose.

When we finally arrived at Si Johnson’s hardware store on the end of main street,  I could hardly wait to get inside.  That little store had everything, or it seemed to, anyway.  The glass store front gave a glimpse of the wide array of items one could get with just one stop.  Kitchen knives and toasters, nuts and bolts, toys and candy bars, masking tape and paint were some of the things that would sometimes be in the window. 

“Ready?” Darn right.

When Dad opened the door, the bell above it  jingled to signal our arrival.  As we stepped inside the store, the first thing I saw was our neighbor, Oscar Torpen.  Oscar and his wife, Miriam, lived two houses down from our house.  Back then, everybody knew everybody in our little town, that’s just the way it was. Oscar had worked at Si Johnson’s for as long as I could remember.  It seems like we were always running down there, or to one of the other hardware/everything else stores in town.  Oscar was always one to meet you with a smile, and always seemed to take a genuine interest in people, whether down at the store or in the neighborhood.

We walked down the main aisle to meet Oscar at the register as he and my Dad exchanged greetings and the object of our mission that day.  I don’t remember exactly what was said during that conversation some forty years ago, but I remember Oscar showing the way through the aisles of the store while I followed him, and while Dad followed me.  Navigating what was to be the last corner on our journey through the store, we passed an end cap full of canning supplies when Oscar stepped to the side and raised his arm to what was the sporting goods portion of the of that particular aisle.  And there it was.  In the midst of a few softballs and baseballs, a frisbee or two, pairs of long, white tube socks with bright stripes in a variety of colors, and cans of tennis balls, sat the glove.

I could hear angels. Heaven’s light shined on that glove from the moment I saw it.  That was the one, never mind that it was the only one in the entire store.  That one glove was the perfect glove.

I stood there not knowing exactly what to do, while Dad and Oscar continued to talk about whatever they were talking about.  Oscar asked me if I saw anything I liked, in the way that a kindly, gentle older man would point out the obvious by using humor. 

“Well, try it out,” he said.

I’ll never forget the moment I reached onto the shelf and carefully lifted the glove off of its perch on the display.  Finger hole, soft leather, cross stitch weave. The scent of the leather. It wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small.  Out of all the gloves made on a given day and shipped around the world, different sizes and shapes, different colors and stitches, somehow the perfect glove had made it to the store on the end of main street in my hometown.

I remember looking up to Dad and showing him the glove.  He smiled and did whatever it is that us dads do to make sure a child’s glove fits half way decent.  I have found that I also have learned to do whatever that is over the years, first with my son, and now with the grandkids.  You know, turn it over, pinch and push it, bend it, punch it a few times, flip it back over again, ask them to try to squeeze it closed, turn it over again, and so on.  During that day’s exercise, it seems that Dad and Oscar had reached the same conclusion: the glove passed the test.

“Sure this is the one?” Dad asked, following up Oscar’s humorous take on that particular glove being the only one in stock.  

As we followed Oscar back to the register, he grabbed something off one of the shelves along the way.  When we arrived at the register, he said, “What you have there is the Si Johnson special, and with the Si Johnson special, you need something to take care of it, to keep it new.”

“Saddle soap,” he said, reaching up to give Dad the round metal container.  “Your dad will have to show you how to use that stuff.”

Dad and Oscar continued to talk as I stared in wonder at the new piece of leather artistry covering my left hand.  Dad then opened his wallet and took out what seemed to be an awful lot of money and handed it to Oscar.  With a few clicks and the opening and closing of a cash drawer, it was done.

“One more thing,” Oscar said, reaching to the back table again.  He turned back with his hand closed. 

“Open your glove,” lowering his hand to the glove.  He placed whatever was in his hand in the glove and carefully shut it.

“Now, that’s from me.  Don’t open your glove until you get home, can you do that?  Then you and your dad share it while you break in that glove.”

“Thanks, Oscar!” I remember saying, and we left the little store on the end of main street.

I held that glove closed, with the help of Dad’s watchful eye, until we got home. I ran the last few blocks as fast as I could, then I turned and waited for Dad.  Breathing heavy, and bent down with my arm outstretched as to show Dad the glove was still closed, he finally reached the yard and stood in front of me.

Opening the glove, we found that Oscar had placed one pack of spearmint gum safely in the webbing. 

Dad smiled as he picked up the pack from my new glove.  He carefully unwrapped it and pulled out two sticks, one for each of us.

“Ready?”  Darn right.

As with many days from my childhood, I had no idea at the time the impact this would have on my life, even decades later. Memories of grass and dirt, dugouts and bleachers, bats and gloves. A brand new ball. Rivalries. Teammates. People and places, snapshots in time.

For whatever it’s worth, I still have the old glove and the memories that radiate from it. It has spent a lot of its most recent years in an old duffle bag, until recently. It’s worn and it could use a few new laces and a good oiling. I think I’ll take the time to do that this weekend, after a trip to the hardware store for some saddle soap and a pack of spearmint gum.

Darn right.

The Beauty of War, Barber Chairs, and Missing Buster

I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal.  My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock.  Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down.  I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it.  I hoped I could make it there on time.

I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning.  I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there.  I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front.  As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push.  The door didn’t budge.  As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.”  There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.

As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open.  Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile. 

As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.


To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat.  I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited.  Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave.  It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect.  Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent.  Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door.  Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs.  To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.

This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use.  The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art.  White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself.  These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned.  Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift.  Swivel.  Style and grace. The perfect chair.

I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop.  He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943.  Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information.  As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way.  As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific.   He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do.  He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds.  He described trees in colors and shapes and textures.  Experiences with the food and drink, even candies.  Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint.  Wartime in the South Pacific.  Beautiful.  And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.  

I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street.  Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years. 

Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway.  And it was authentic.  Genuine.  A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community.  The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver.  The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.

The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile. 

There was always chatter, at the very least.  No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War.  From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies.  All sorts of sports were discussed.  From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored.  Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by.  From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.

But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments.  I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there.  People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter.  The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something.  In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong.  After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver.  We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.


Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth.  Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there.  In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc.  I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse.  I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once.  Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.

In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase