Monday, August 31, 2015

58 More Minutes

By John S. Mickman

I worked for 10 years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska beginning in 1972. For most of those years I was a deckhand on a family owned boat, the F/V Marcy J. She was a 100 foot, steel hulled combination dragger and crabber. As a dragger, we were always one of the Highliner’s in the Kodiak Shrimp Fleet, able to bring in 250,000 pounds of shrimp per load; in our best trip, we loaded the boat in Deadmans Bay at the south end of Kodiak Island in a day and a half. We were always successful fishing both Tanner Crab and King Crab too.

Chris Jones
Life on the Marcy J was one of the most rewarding times of my life. We always had a great deck crew, led by my best buddy Chris Jones. Although he was unquestionably the leader of the deck crew, he led by example. There was no job that Chris wouldn’t tackle, from mending nets to swabbing out the hold after a shrimping trip. We use to sing old rock ‘n roll songs at the top of our lungs while swabbing out the hold because we thought we sounded just like the musicians did in their albums (not!). I’m sure that anyone listening thought we must have been couple shrimp short of a full shrimp cocktail!

Captain Harold Jones owned the Marcy J, and his sons, Chris and Tony fished with their dad during the first couple of years I was onboard; the four of us made a fabulous crew. We each had our respective specialties/skills and we filled out a very efficient team.

It was only by luck that I was able to get aboard the Marcy J. I had fished with Tony for one trip on an old, beat up dragger called the Pacific Pearl the year before. The Pacific Pearl sank the next year and 2 men of the 4 man crew were lost at sea. Our friendship grew to the point that Tony asked me to crew on his dad’s new boat, the Marcy J, not long after it arrived in Kodiak in the Fall of ’73. I soon made fast friends with Tony’s older brother Chris too. The three of us were all short and stocky and all were about the same age. Many people in Kodiak thought that maybe Harold and his wife Marcy had 3 sons instead of two.

Harold was the ship’s Captain, and the Captain is the final word at sea, for a good reason. This was not a democracy, and although Harold would listen to our input on an important decision, he would always decide the best course for his ship and her crew. The system works well.

Harold is a man of honor and has a strict code of ethics. There was no alcohol on the boat and we had to watch our language when he was near. On deck, we spoke like seamen; around Harold we spoke like gentlemen. The other skippers in the fleet also respected Harold for his clear thinking and unabashed, direct way of making his points during discussions. Over all the years I fished with Captain Jones we had developed a close friendship, and I literally spent years up in the wheelhouse with him talking about virtually every topic imaginable. We told stories, discussed politics, religion, economics, fishing, hunting – everything. A mutual respect developed and to this day, 30 years later, I still value his friendship.

On opening day of the King Crab Season in 1980, we were 150 miles offshore in the Bering Sea, waiting until noon – the official ‘starting time’ for each Crab Season. The quota for the season was about 30 million pounds of King Crab. With over 150 boats in the fleet, we all wanted to get our share of crab. That morning we ate breakfast, chopped all the bait we were to need for the day, double checked the engine room, the lines, the hydraulic systems; by 11:00 o’clock, we were completely ready to start fishing.

Although there was a good sized ground swell left over from the last storm, the air was still and a dense fog had settled in around us. As Chris and I stood on deck, with all of our chores finished, we began talking about how we knew that the rest of the boats in the fleet were beginning to fish, in spite of the fact that they were supposed to wait until noon. We knew dozens of crewmen on other boats, and they all thought it was crazy that the Marcy J would actually wait until noon to even start to bait our crab pots. Many of the boats would actually be putting crab in their holds on opening day before noon. Enforcement is very strict now, but back then, there was really no one to enforce that part of the season - with hundreds of boats in the fleet and the whole ocean to patrol. Our competition would always ‘get the jump’ on us because they would break the rules and start early.

Chris and I, and the other two crewmen were pretty much broke that Fall, as the shrimp fishery had collapsed and we had made hardly any money since the previous winters’ Tanner Crab (Snow Crab) Season. As the crew and I talked on deck, we decided that one of us should talk to Captain Jones about starting to fish early too. I was elected to talk to the Captain about it.

So, I went up to the wheelhouse and started making small talk with Harold, working my way into the conversation about starting to fish early. “Well Harold, I can’t believe how thick this fog is’, I began. ‘We can’t see even 50 yards into this pea soup”. “Yup”, Harold said, “and I don’t think it will lift any time soon either. There isn’t a breath of wind and the barometer hasn’t moved a notch for hours”. I walked over to the radar and took a look to see if there were any boats near us. “Look at that Harold” I commented, “the closest boat to us is over 14 miles out and moving away. No one is anywhere near us.” Harold replied, “It’s a big ocean but I’m surprised no one is fishing closer. This is the spot we had our great season last year. I know we’re sitting on top of huge school of crab just waiting to crawl into out crab pots.”

This was the opening I was waiting for, so I said, “Yeah, that’s what the crew and I were just talking about Harold. We’d sure like to start baiting this string of gear we are jogging on. The crab won’t crawl into our pots until we put bait in them. What do you think about starting to bait some pots?” Harold looked right at me, kind of cocked his head and said, “the season doesn’t begin for an hour yet; we’ll start baiting our pots at noon.’ I knew that is what he would say, and I was ready to propose the new plan. “Yes I know Harold, but in this fog no one would see us and there are no boats close enough to get to us within an hour. No one could possibly know if we started baiting pots a little early. We won’t actually be fishing until we put some crab in our hold. Surely, starting to bait pots wouldn’t be so bad. No one will ever know!”

Then Harold spoke slowly, carefully, and looked right at me with a heartfelt gaze. I’ve never forgotten what he said, and I’ve tried to live my life accordingly ever since. “John”, he said, “You and I will know, and we are really the only ones that matter aren’t we.” He looked at his watch and said, “We will start baiting pots in 58 minutes, not one second earlier.” I looked back at Harold, and knew he was right.

The 1980 King Crab Season was one of the most successful seasons we had ever fished. I had never made that much money in my life. Captain Harold Jones has more integrity in his little finger than most people can even imagine. He has had good times, and some of the worst times of anyone I’ve ever known. But win or lose, Harold always did the right thing – because he would know. The world would be a better place if we were all more like Captain Harold Jones.

My Captain still is not shy about letting you know if you’re doing something wrong - and when you do something right. We should all be so lucky.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Glittered Cones

by John Steven Mickman

Our grandmother learned how to make wreaths from her mom in the late 1800’s while growing up on a fjord in Norway. Then during the Great Depression, she started her own wreath business in St. Paul; this extra income helped immensely to sustain their family. She and my grandpa never worked for anyone, and always earned their living with a string of small businesses.

By the time my brother Mark and I were old enough to work (in the mind of our family) at the ages of about 8 or 9, we were borrowed to Gramma and Grampa to help during the summer in their various businesses. Grampa’s Bleach business (Hydro-Bleach) as well as Gramma’s Wreath Business were two of the pursuits we worked at during those years in the 1950's.

What did we do in the Wreath Business during the Summer? Well, painting and glittering pine cones of course. It went like this:

Grampa would get his old 50 gallon drum that had a lid, and bring it to the top of the slope that descended to the lake they lived on, Lake Owasso in Shoreview, MN. Then, Mark and I would dump a bunch of cones from burlap sacks and pour some white paint into the drum. After securing the lid, we would roll the drum down the hill, mainly holding it back so that it didn't roll over us and end up in the lake!
On the trip down the slope, the cones would bounce around inside the drum with the paint so all the tips would be painted. When we got the barrel safely to the flat spot just before the lake, we'd stop the drum, pop open the lid and dump the cones on the big sheet of plastic. Gramma would then use a shaker to shake silver glitter onto the cones. Mark and I thought they looked pretty cool! Then, he and I would roll the drum back up the hill to do another batch.
In the hot summer sun, the cones would dry rapidly and the four of us would periodically gather them together and put them back into the burlap sacks. Grampa kept the supplies coming and carried the finished cones to the top up the hill. "Boyz-oh-boyz, those cones are heavy" he would say to Mark and me. During those years Gramma made about 5,000 wreaths a year, and wired 5 cones on each wreath - we painted and glittered 25,000 cones each summer!
Gramma and Grampa made this project fun and we could easily see the fruits of our labor. When we got too hot we went swimming. When we got too tired we all rested. There was no rush, but Grandma was very picky about the 'look' of each cone. We always did a good job, and although we didn't earn much, my brother Mark and I always had our own money.

Today was one of many 'Pine Cone Painting' days at Mickman Brothers. We do semi-truck
load per day with a machine we invented that does a wonderful job. Some years ago I remembered glittering cones with Gramma and experimented with adding that process to our pine cone painting program. Our Wreath Production Supervisor, Berta, came up with a couple of good ideas that helped the process immensely. 

So now, all of the Classic Style Wreaths and Sprays you order have white-tipped, glittered cones and they look awesome. To my knowledge, we are the only large wreath company in the nation that adds this, what I think is a great accent, to their pine cones.

All thanks to Gramma. I hope you like them! 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Rice Creek Rancho Part II

Even though my brother Mark and I were still little kids, right from the get-go dad got us up on the burro’s and away we went. He had purchased some really cool leather saddles with brass and chrome studded medallions accented into the inlaid leather work. All the saddles he brought home had ‘horns’ on them, were very shinny and initially that was how we stayed on the burro’s; after we learned to ride, we just held on with our knees, many times without any saddle at all.

8 Year old John Steven
with baby Burro

However, the big problem was that all these creatures were wild, right out of the Mexican desert, and had never been ridden. Although not nearly as big as a horse, or even a mule, these burros were whirling dervishes in every way. Kids came from miles around, jumped over the fence, snuck up on the burro’s and took them for bare-back rides.  Much of the time the bucking burros would run directly toward the low hanging branches of the numerous Box Elder trees which studded the field. Many a rider was knocked clean off their wily burro as it galloped under a tree branch. All told, I can only remember one kid getting really hurt, but he only broke an arm. Considering the big picture, not too bad…

Of all the burro’s back then, ‘Jock-O’ was the absolute wildest burro in the corral. He was jet black with a pure white star on his shoulders, and a longer black mane than the rest of the burros. We couldn’t even get on Jock-O. Somehow, without looking backward, he could tell when we were in range, and quicker than quick, Jack-o would whip a hind leg out and kick you in the ribs – hard. Nope, none of the kids bothered with Jock-o, for a few years anyway, but that’s another story…

In the meantime, little by little, dad’s herd of burro’s started dwindling, although we had burros for over 20 years (they kept multiplying!). So, dad thought to himself, ‘with sales lagging a little more than the initial business plan had taken into account, how else can I make money with these burros? How about a concession at the Minnesota State Fair! Now there’s a great idea!’

So started our many adventures working the burros at the State Fair. Our concession was on top of the knoll at the west end of where the Sky Ride is now located. For a dozen years we would go to the Fair and dig 2 concentric circles of fence posts, and string rope between the two circle outlines – making a circular, rope ringed track. It was a pretty big track, probably about 200’ in diameter. Dad had an old, rickety, white washed work bench with a drawer that he kept the ‘money box’ in. He painted a sign of sorts that said,
Mexican Burro rides, 25 cents  
We were in business. To attract attention to his fabulous State Fair Exposition, in his HUGE, LOUD VOICE, dad would yell out:
“2-bits for a ride on a Mexican Burro. Who’s up next?”

Honestly, you could hear my dad from over a block away, even with all the commotion of the fair. (For those that don’t know, 2-bits equals twenty-five cents.)

We had a very busy concession. Like all of these businesses, dad did all the thinking, as well as the working part that we little kids couldn’t handle. But he was a great mentor, and showed us how to do as much work as possible, as soon as possible – and have fun doing it. However, there were many things to think up and dad was a great delegator. For instance, why waste $.50 on buying tickets for Mark and me every day when we could just stay over night in grampa’s miniature travel trailer? And, we could watch the burro’s at night to feed and water them. So, even at the tender ages of 10 and 8, Mark and I would stay at the Fair almost throughout. It was great fun, and the burro’s only escaped one time (boy, was that a circus!)

However during the daytime, our main job at the fair was to keep the stubborn burros moving around the ‘ring’ with all the little kid riders, which was from dawn to dusk. The burros would get tired, and we had some extra’s in the corral to the west to trade off during the day. But even so, many, many times each day one or more of burros would just stop. Well, this was a perfect job, not only for Mark and me, but also for little brother Jimmie and best friends Cris and Brian Archibald (who lived across the street in Fridley). This really was a good job for kids that were from 6 or 7, all the way up to 10 or 12 and beyond. I mean really, can you picture a grown man walking around behind these little burros just to keep them going? I can’t, but then, I was kind of protective of my job back then too…

Anyway, we each had our own favorite stick to slap the behinds of the burros when they wouldn’t cooperate, and 95% of the time, we could get them going again. However, if we simply couldn’t get one or more of the burros started, ‘the big gun’ would be called in: Dad. Our dad had huge, strong, callused hands and when he slapped the butt of a burro you could hear it for a hundred yards. Right when he would make the connection, huge hand to butt, he would yell out, “On delay” (it’s Spanish; we didn’t know what this meant either?). The little burros ears would go back and they would leap into action, not to stop for quite some time.

After one or two of these encounters, the stalled burro in question would crane his head, and roll his eyes all the way back to see if dad was indeed coming after him. When the stubborn creature was sure it was the target of ‘the big gun’, the burro would tuck his tail between his legs and start running around the ring – with a little kid on board – bouncing (and sometimes, crying) all the way around the ring until dad could catch up to the now stampeding herd of jackasses. Are we having fun now, or what!? The show was just beginning.

Most of the time our days were spent taking turns walking burros around the ring, and when it wasn’t our turn, we would go down to the Midway where we had made friends with the kids of the professional ‘carnies’, the guys that ran all the Midway rides. We kids became compatriots because we all ‘worked’ at the Fair and our gang would get free rides in the Midway, and the Midway gang would get free rides on the burros. It was a good deal, and very cool indeed, for young boys!

If you can imagine being a little kid whose job it is to walk behind burros in a circle for 12 hours a day, you can get a taste of working at the fair at the Mexican Burro concession. We liked it, and were able to go down to the Midway and everything, but it was still a lot of boring work. So, we had to make up some games. One of them went like this:

Of course, being creatures that ate, the burros of course had to poop too. Because we all did such a good job keeping the burros moving, they could poop on the fly. Many people, maybe most, haven’t really had the opportunity to study the hind end of a burro for days on end. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a certain sequence of events that occurs as the burro is working up to this particular project.

Our ‘honey-bucket’ was a wheelbarrow that we kept in the middle of the ‘ring’; we kept the show shovel in the honey-bucket for picking up after the burros. The contest was that the kid that was ‘up’, had to recognize the symptoms of the next bowel movement for one of the 6 or 7 burros working, run to the honey-bucket, get the snow shovel, run back to the burro in question, and catch the poop in mid-air, before it hit the ground. We developed a point system for winning points for perfect catches, and losing points when the one that was ‘up’, got the snow shovel and there was no action; this was a serious loss of points. The winner wouldn’t have to put the burros away that night. I really hate to brag, but I usually won this contest.

When I think back on this whole affair, I’m pretty sure that the parents had just as much fun as the kids did when they visited our dad’s Mexican Burro Concession. There was always plenty of action and interesting things happening.

As for our wages, ‘we weren’t cheap, but we could be had’. Each day we earned $3 each, and all the chili-con-carne and Dinty Moore Beef Stew we could eat. Of course we got free rides in the Midway, and we had an old, miniature travel trailer on the site that we could sleep in; we didn’t have to take baths when we slept over, were able to play around at the Fair, and got to spend all kinds of extra time with the burros. We loved the Minnesota State Fair!

By the time the fair ended, we were all pretty tired, but rich. We all had the money we earned at the fair and for the set-up/tear down, and on really good days, dad would give us more money as a bonus. He would take out all the money he earned and we would help him dump it on the big bed in mom and dad’s bedroom. You’ve never seen so many quarters in your life (at least we hadn’t). Then we helped put all the money into the little paper tubes so dad could bring the money to the bank, in bags. A lot of bags.

To all of us kids, our dad was the richest dad on earth, and as I came to realize when I became a father, he was richer in more ways than one.

John Steven Mickman
MN State Fair Concessionaire 

Rice Creek Rancho Part I

In the mid 1950’s he and our mom, Lucy Mickman, decided to drive down to Mexico for a vacation. Why? I’m sure the original intent was simply for pleasure. However, dad was one of those rare individuals that learns foreign languages easily, and while in Mexico for those two weeks, he learned Spanish.  40 years later in the mid 1990’s, Mickman Brothers hired two Hispanic workers through a temp agency and none of us spoke Spanish.  So, I called my dad and asked if he could remember enough Spanish to ask these workers if they were getting paid properly, how they liked working for us, etc. He said, “Well, I don’t know if I can remember enough Spanish, but I can try.” He met with the two workers and said, “Hola, Buenos tardes.” The two guys looked surprised, replied in Spanish, and off they went on an hour long conversation…….. Amazing!

Anyway, after he picked up the language during the vacation, dad was driving mom through the Mexican countryside and stopped to get gasoline. While he was fueling up, dad looked to a mesa not far off and spotted a small herd of burros. Dad asked the attendant what they were, and was told that they were wild burro’s; no one owned them, they just lived there in the semi-arid land. “Well”, my dad said. “I wonder how much they are worth if a guy wanted to buy them.” “Buy them?” the Mexican replied. “Why would anyone want to buy them? You can just go out there and get them if you want them!” he replied in Spanish.

My dad said, “I don’t know if I want them or not right now. But, if I do want them, how much would it cost to have you or your buddies go get them and put them on a truck? I’m going home from my vacation with my wife and don’t have time to get them right now.” The Mexican began stroking his long black mustache trying to come up with the right number; too much might scare this gringo away, but it would be silly to ask too low a price. “Amigo, I think my brothers and I can get some of those burro’s for $2.50 each. What do you think about that?”

Boy, this seemed like the deal of a lifetime to my dad. $2.50 each plus somehow getting them up to Minnesota.  He was sure he could sell them for over $50 each, maybe more. “Mi amigo, how many of those burros do you think you can catch?” The overwhelming opportunities seen by the Mexican were similar to my dad’s. “Senior”, the Mexican replied with a smile, “How many burros do you want; that’s how many we can catch.”

So the negotiations and logistics were worked out standing there at the gas station in northern Mexico. My dad gave the Mexican a small down payment to show that he was serious about this business opportunity, and the Mexican assured dad he would take care of everything. “Don’t worry Amigo, this is going to be a good thing for you…”.

My mom (a very nice, very clean lady) was extremely surprised (and concerned) when dad got back in the car, drove away, and told her of his grand new plan. The problem was that we lived in a subdivision in the new suburban community of Fridley, MN. Mom was sure we couldn’t keep burros in our back yard and we had no other place for any livestock. Dad was an aeronautical engineer at Honeywell and it was important that he stayed focused on his job since she was busy with 5 kids under six years old at home.

As it turned out, there was an undeveloped 40 acre field across the street from our house that had an old dilapidated barbed wire fence around it. When they returned to Fridley, dad met with the old farmer that owned that field and asked if he could rent it for a year or so. “Young man”, the farmer said, what are you going to do with 40 acres? You’ve never farmed a day in your life.” Here was a critical time in the new enterprise for my dad; he didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag with his new idea in case someone else heard about it and captured the market before he even got started. But, after going back and forth a couple of times, it became apparent that the old farmer wouldn’t lease the land to dad until he knew what he was going to do with it.

Finally my dad told him the plan, but that the plan was to be held in strict confidence. “I’m going to keep burros in the field” dad explained. “What burros!” the farmer asked. “What are you talking about? How many burros?” Dad replied, “Well, I was thinking about 50 or 60 burros, from Mexico.” “From Mexico!” the farmer exclaimed. “What in the name of Pete are you going to do with 60 wild Mexican jackasses?” This seemed to be a funny question to my dad, because, from the instant he had the idea, he was certain his plan was a fabulous business opportunity. “I’m going to sell those burro’s, for $75 each!” dad announced proudly. 

So the deals between the Mexican and the old farmer were struck (much to mom’s dismay).  I’m not sure about the logistics of getting the burro’s to Minnesota or how the money was exchanged with the Mexican, but somehow dad arranged the whole thing. He repaired the run down barbed wire fence and fashioned a corral from some old lumber not far from our house. My younger brother Mark and I tagged along behind dad much of the time, but we were only 5 or 6 years old so weren’t able to help much. We really didn’t even understand what was happening – until THE BIG DAY!

So on one fine, early summer morning in 1956, our dad woke Mark and me up and while walking across our dew covered lawn, we watched the biggest truck we had ever seen, back up next to the corral in the 40 acre field. Then, when we reached the back of the truck, our dad yelled out to the truck driver, “Let ‘er go!” and the trailers huge tailgate dropped down to the ground, making a steep ramp. As it dropped, 60 wild, Mexican jackasses began stampeding down the ramp. They had not seen the light of day since they left the old country and were raring to go, literally. They jumped, and bumped and farted their way from the truck and ran away into the field like there was no tomorrow, happy to be free again. They were wild indeed and had never been fenced in. Mark and I crawled through the barbed wire and started running after these wild creatures; what fun!

Dad with burro’s

My dad called this operation, RICE CREEK RANCHO, and he made the newspaper many times over the next few years as word spread about all the Mexican Burro’s in ‘friendly Fridley’. Even now, whenever I see a burro in Minnesota, there is little doubt in my mind that this is a descendant of one or more of those first 60 burros my dad brought to Minnesota in the ‘50’s. And, the good news is that this business turned out to be a pretty lucrative venture for our dad, and certainly a learning experience for all of us kids.

But to my little brother Mark and me, this wasn’t a business, this was by far the most exciting event in our young lives; we were going to be cowboys! We simply couldn’t believe that all those ‘little horses’ were ours. But, as you can only imagine, the fun was only beginning…

John S. Mickman

Mexican Burro Bronco Rider