When is a Bridge a Bong?

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The Bong Bridge as seen from the water.

I was giving directions to an out-of-town acquaintance the other day when I told them they’d need to drive over the Bong Bridge. They looked at me, wide-eyed, and started snickering.

Yes, it’s true. In Duluth-Superior we have a bridge by the name of Bong. The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge, to be exact. It’s named after a World War II flying ace, but out-of-towners and the uninitiated don’t know that. The name always provokes some kind of reaction.

I was away at college when the bridge was being built and named in the early 1980s. Whenever I returned home and drove on the freeway down the hill into town, I would notice more bridge pillars in the harbor as it slowly came into being. I can’t recall if there was a lot of controversy about the name, but I assume there must have been some.

Although the name is a nice tribute to a local war hero, the people who thought up the name HAD to know it would get shortened to just “Bong Bridge” or just “Bong” in the local vernacular. After all, we have another bridge that spans the same body of water, which is named after John A. Blatnik. Everybody just calls it the “Blatnik.”

“Take the Blatnik to Superior,” we say. Now we can also say, “Take the Bong to Superior.” Most locals know that won’t get you into trouble with the law.

It’s just such a questionable name. I can’t believe it got through the transportation department’s approval process. But Richard Bong must have had a big fan club that overwhelmed common sense when it came to bridge names.

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A mural of Richard Bong and his wife Marge from the Bong Museum in Superior.

We even have a Bong Museum. But it doesn’t contain what you think it might. Not even one. I know. I checked.

The name does make the Bong Bridge easy to remember, I’ll say that for it. While it’s confusing having two bridges that start with a “B” in the area, differentiating between them is easy. The Blatnik is the bridge closest to Lake Superior and it’s named for a guy. Then there’s the other bridge farther inland that’s named for drug paraphernalia.

Maybe the name was a good idea, after all?

The Fox is Guarding the Henhouse in America

It was with great dismay that I read about the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator’s removal of nine members of from its scientific review board. The board in question (the Board of Scientific Counselors, or BOSC for short) is one of two that help the agency determine what issues need its attention and funding.

The dismissals hit close to home because I used to be on the BOSC. From 2010-2013 I served as a communications advisor to the EPA on this board.

I know, you’re looking at me and saying, “Really – you?” Yes me. I know I don’t seem like a high-powered research scientist because I am so fun, witty, and seemingly non-scientific. And besides, I get chased by turkeys and attacked by squirrels. But YES, I really was appointed to this influential federal committee not long ago.

The main point I tried to make to the EPA during my tenure was that they didn’t have public communications components to their programs, and that they needed them. I suspect this is one reason why more people aren’t even more upset about some of the changes President Trump has recently made or proposed for the agency. People don’t understand what the agency really does (other than fining corporations for pollution violations), so they don’t understand the significance of Trump’s actions.

Yesterday’s New York Times article says that administrator Pruitt plans on replacing the ousted members with people who represent industries that are regulated by the EPA. Pruitt spokesman, J. P. Freire said, “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

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My favorite name tag mistake of all time came from one of my BOSC meetings. The name tag makers just assumed I was a Ph.D. because everyone else on the committee is a Ph.D. Alas, I am only a “master.”

This almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But think about it. These people will be in a position of power to change things. Maybe they don’t like all the regulations their corporations are subject to. Gee, maybe they could fix that.

Let’s say the EPA is like a bank — a bank made up of natural resources, if you will. Corporations use natural resources to make their products. The EPA is in charge of protecting the health of natural resources – rather like how a bank vault protects the money from bank robbers. Take the vault away, and what do you have? Free money for bank robbers!

Allowing corporations to control the agency that regulates natural resources is like allowing bank robbers on the board of trustees for your bank. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. It’s the old “fox guarding the henhouse” deal.

Write your congressional representatives, please. Write letters to the editor. Bang on a drum. March in the streets. I’m going to.

Then I’m going to take all my money out of the bank and bury it in the back yard.

Attack of the Killer Turkeys

Today I meandered over to a gathering at the home of some friends who live in the woods outside of town. I had been to their house before, but this time was different. Instead of my friends meeting me once I got out of my car, I was met by some wild turkeys. Two toms and a hen walked up to my driver’s door before I could get out. The toms were both displaying in an aggressive manner and the hen pecked the ground a few feet away.

It unnerved me that the turkeys knew which car door I would exit. “This can’t be good,” I thought. After futilely waiting a few minutes for them to budge, I decided on an alternate exit strategy. I clambered over the stick shift console and went out the passenger door.

20170507_104836The turkeys immediately spotted me and followed. I walked faster. They walked faster. Soon I was running for my life to the house door. Just in time, my friend opened the door. She deterred the turkeys with a big stick and ushered me quickly into the house. I swear the turkeys would have followed me right inside, had it not been for that stick.

She apologized for the turkeys, saying they “just showed up” about a month ago. Although the turkeys live in the woods, they are obviously imprinted on people for food.

Despite trying several methods, the only way my friends have found to deal with them is to carry sticks whenever they go out. My friends say the turkeys also stand at their sliding glass doors and watch them while they watch television. Creepy!

As others arrived for the gathering, our main source of entertainment was watching their various reactions to the attack turkeys. Most people got off easier than I did because my friends made it out there sooner with their sticks.

Once I eventually left, the turkeys chased my car the whole way down the long driveway, as if getting back at me for my earlier escape. They kept at it until I was able to leave them in a cloud of dust on the main road.

Wild turkeys have been in the news lately because they are becoming more common in northern Minnesota. People are wondering if the department of natural resources (DNR) has stocked them or something. Nope, says the department.

In my travels between the southern and northern parts of Minnesota over the years, I have noticed turkeys along the highway. Every year, they are farther north. (Opossums are coming, too. Yuk!) I guess it was just a matter of time before they reached my friends’ yard.

The DNR calls the turkeys’ range expansion “one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories.” Last year, the DNR expanded the turkey hunt to include all of northeastern Minnesota. The spring season is open from now until May 31.

Turkey hunters, if you are having trouble finding your prey, I know where a couple are. Just ask. 🙂

Remembering Black Sunday in Duluth

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As waves threatened to overtop the pier walls and wind whipped the words from people’s mouths, an intimate ceremony was held earlier this week in Duluth’s Canal Park. The gathering marked 50 years since three brothers and a Coast Guardsman who was trying to find them were swept off the pier during a late April blow. (For more details, please read my earlier post.)

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Ron Prei (left) and Tom Mackay.

Tom Mackay, a friend of the Coast Guardsman, organized the Black Sunday event. It was simple – no microphones, no chairs – just a bunch of people who wanted to remember. We stood on the North Pier near the shore and the Marine Museum, where the plaque for Guardsman Culbertson rests. It’s not far from the gates put up after the drownings to discourage people from walking the piers during bad weather.

Mackay talked about why he feels it’s important to remember the events of that night long ago. He talked about his friend who died. He talked about the power of the lake. He painted a picture of young lives cut short.

Mackay laid four flowers next to the plaque as he does every year on April 30 – one for each death, and then invited Ron Prei, another Coast Guardsman who was part of the rescue attempt, to talk. The soft-spoken Prei’s words were lost to the wind, but in a TV news interview, he described the harrowing conditions of that night and how he’ll never forget.

DSC04055The Halvorson brothers were my cousins – first cousins once removed, or something like that. I was too young when the tragedy happened to remember them, but I remember the effect it had on my family, and the Halvorson family. Later, when we would visit the Halvorson home for dinner, there was the sense of the missing brothers – a blackness that hung in the background and was not overtly acknowledged – at least not when I was around. A certain liveliness was missing. Those feelings were quickly overshadowed by the exuberance of the family’s four other children and the warmth of conversation.

It was good to be part of this public recognition for the boys, the man, and the force that is the lake.

Afterwards, the crowd dispersed, hunched against the cold wind. And we remembered.

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The Lake, it is Said, Never Gives up her Dead

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The original newspaper article about “Black Sunday’ as it is known locally. Darn paper got the twin’s names mixed up.

Fifty years ago on this day, I remember by mother and sister crying. I was seated at the dining room table and they were in the living room across the way sobbing their hearts out. I was so young, I didn’t understand what was happening. I only knew this wasn’t usual behavior for them. It scared me.

Eventually they came over and tried to explain. They said three of our cousins had drowned in Lake Superior – 17-year-old Eric, and 16-year-old twins Art and Nate. A Coast Guardsman who was trying to save them also drowned. A wind storm had whipped up the waves on the lake and the boys had driven down to the pier in the evening after a church youth group gathering to watch the power of the lake.

Whose idea was it to try and make it to the lighthouse at the end of the pier? As my family tells it, a common game among teenagers at the time was to run on the pier wall, racing the waves from light post to light post until making it to the end. Then you had to make it back. It was a local rite of passage.

According to witnesses, two of the brothers made it to the lighthouse. The third brother, close behind, lost his footing and was swept off the pier. The other two turned back to save him, but soon they were lost from sight in the frigid water.

I guess it doesn’t matter whose idea it was to race the waves. The brothers can’t tell us, and their bodies were never found.

In response to a call for volunteers to search for the boys that night, three Coast Guardsmen tethered themselves together with rope and made their way to the end of the pier. Finding nothing but wind and furious waves, they were making their way back when one of them, Edgar Culbertson, was washed over the side by a wave. The other two could not save him. I assume he was still attached to the rope and by the time they got to shore, Culbertson was drowned.

In commemoration of my cousins and the men who tried to rescue them, a ceremony was held today at the pier. Since I am the only member of my family left in town, I attended to represent. I’ll write more about that in my next post.

You Know it’s Bad When the Scientists are Marching

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Marchers for Science in Duluth, Minn.

Last weekend I marched with about 1,200 other people along the shores of Lake Superior in support of science. This was a cause I could easily get behind since I work for a water science research organization (Please refer to my previous post, “Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)”).

I walked with a few other Sea Granters and recognized many of the researchers our organization funds among the crowd. It was encouraging seeing so many people upholding the value that science brings to our society and supporting full federal funding for scientific programs.

20170422_082249The sign I made for the march said, “Without Science, Life Itself Would be Impossible!” Does that ring a bell with anyone? I wanted something unique, but maybe it was a bit too unique.

I meant it as a play on a terribly blatant propaganda campaign that Monsanto ran in the 1970s in support of the idea of manmade chemicals. Their slogan was, “Without Chemicals, Life Itself Would be Impossible.” It featured a cute Aryan-haired little boy and his doggie. Surely, Monsanto-produced chemicals are just as harmless as this adorable duo. (NOT!)

Monsanto chemicals adI figured only people alive in the 1970s might “get” my sign. I tested a few of my age-appropriate friends as we made our way to the march, but nobody spontaneously recalled the Monsanto campaign. After explaining it, a few remembered, but they did not immediately start applauding my brilliance. I suspect they just thought my sign was saying that medical science is important to human life. That’s okay. My friend had a sign that was as obvious as mine was obtuse. Hers said “Marching for Science.”

You know these events are all about the signs. If you have a boring sign or one that people can’t understand, you might as well stay home.

While sitting on a bench waiting for the march to start, I was mulling over the lameness of my sign when I noticed a TV news crew filming it from afar as it rested on the ground propped up against the bench legs. Maybe it was my sign’s pretty colors or maybe it was the pithy message – anyway, it lured the reporter and cameraman over to our small group. The reporter asked if she could interview us for a story. My friend, her mother, and I readily agreed.

Little did the news crew know, but they had stumbled into a nest of trained media relations professionals. We were able to espouse our key messages and put in a plug for Sea Grant. We ended up being the only ones interviewed for their story. (Which turned out pretty well, given that it was Fox News.)

What didn’t get into the story was my friend Sharon’s explanation about her year-long climate change art project, “Penguins with a Purpose.” She’s a ceramic artist and after the presidential election, decided to put her skills and frustration to use by making large clay penguins to draw attention to one of the issues the president is trying to silence, namely, climate change.

Her goal is to make 100 penguins by the end of the year, which she will sell and donate part of the proceeds to climate science and policy. Each penguin is unique and has a purpose.

She carried one of her heavy penguins for the whole march. We saw dozens of people we knew and had many side conversations along the way. Even though the march took energy, I completed it feeling energized by the crowd.

For now, hopeful noises are coming out of Washington D.C. that my Sea Grant colleagues and I will still have our jobs after next week. It’s sounding like Congress will pass a continuing resolution on the budget for the rest of the year instead of going with President Trump’s plan to fund his wall on the Mexican border with the entire Sea Grant budget (and those of other agencies).

This may just delay the wall-funding issue until the next budget cycle at the end of the year, but it’s comforting to think we’ll have our jobs for a few more months. Thank you to everyone who’s written their Congressperson. Every little bit helps.

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Standing strong for science in Duluth.