Memories · The Last Half Century

A Penny Seed Packet Yields Life Lessons

Mid-summer in the MidWest. Hot, humid days, warm summer rains and fresh produce from the garden. It reminds me of the summer when I was a kid when my mom first gave me my own row in her garden and a special pack of seeds.

My mom was a master gardener. Each year she planted a huge garden so that she could can enough vegetables to last us all winter. In those days we received a paper seed catalog in the mail around January when the ground was frozen and still covered with snow. It was fun to sit and browse the catalog on a snowy day and dream about spring. Planning for her garden started around March when she ordered seeds via U.S. mail from the catalog. My mom would fill out a paper order form and mail it with a check to the seed company. Weeks later the seeds would arrive.

One year my mom pointed out that the seed company had a special mystery packet of seeds just for kids for one cent. The contents of the seed packet varied — you didn’t know exactly what you would get — which made it fun. I gave her my penny and she ordered the seed packet for me. I don’t think my mom realized that penny seed packet would challenge her gardening expertise.

When the seeds arrived, my mom showed me my special penny seed pack. I couldn’t wait to plant them. When the weather warmed, we set out to plant the garden. I had my assigned row and my mom helped me open the packet of seeds. She stared at the seeds in my hand for a minute. “I’m not sure what some of these are,” the veteran gardener remarked. I was surprised my little one cent seed packet stumped the expert.

My mom helped me plant my seeds in my special row and we waited for them to reveal their identity when they sprouted. Eventually, as the plants matured, my mom was able to identify most everything except one bushy plant that appeared to be a pumpkin or squash plant. When white, gourd-like, saucer-shaped objects appeared on the plant, my mom was mystified. To my surprise she admitted, “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

In those days there was no Internet to help us identify the plant. Even the seed catalog didn’t help. So we took our unidentified object to the 4-H fair where we asked one of the people judging vegetables. “It’s a summer squash,” a judge promptly told us when she looked at it. “What do you do with it?” my mom asked. “You slice it and fry it with some butter in a fry pan,” the judge answered. Based on the face my mom made in response, this was something new to her. I was learning my mom didn’t know everything about gardening and cooking.

Fried squash was not on the menu in our meat and potatoes home. To her credit, my mom sliced the summer squash and fried it up for us, but it was not a hit. Me and my siblings picked at it with frowns on our faces that showed our displeasure with this new cuisine. It may have been the only time she didn’t make us eat everything on our plate.

That summer I think I harvested more than vegetables from my little garden row. I learned not to be afraid to admit I don’t know something even if I think I’m the expert; to not be afraid to seek another opinion; and that it’s okay to step out of a familiar meat and potatoes world to try new things. Sometimes lessons in life come from the places we least expect them.

Current Musings

The Mysterious Attraction of Sunsets

I sit on the beach and watch as the sun sinks low toward the horizon. Already the water glistens as it reflects the brilliant white light. I am here on the shores of Lake Michigan watching yet another sunset. What is it about the sunset that draws us to this daily event?

In more than a half century of living, I have been blessed to see hundreds and hundreds of sunsets. I never grow tired of them — never grow tired of watching the sun sink below the horizon in a fantastic array of oranges, yellows and reds. I am forever in awe of the afterglow after the sun has set, with its shades of pink, violet and purple cast upon a canopy of lingering clouds. I am always amazed as the water turns to liquid gold as if the sun is melting into the lake water.

Through most of my life I have been fortunate to have had wide open places to watch the sun set below the horizon. As a kid I would pause my work, whether from the seat of a tractor, the top of a silo or among the cows in the pasture, to watch the sun set amongst the open fields that surrounded our farm. When I was older I would have to settle for seeing the sun sink behind the tops of buildings or homes, then wait for the afterglow to light up the sky above. Vacations to Lake Michigan also meant beautiful, unhindered vistas of the sunset unless the horizon was socked in by clouds. Over the years I’ve learned sunsets are more enjoyable when shared with others.

I have no answer to what draws us to watch the sunset. Perhaps it is the symmetry of the day; the ending of another day and the hope of tomorrow. It might be the quiet peace we find in a moment of solitude as we watch the daylight fade into a spectacular display of colors. Whatever it might be, I cannot escape feeling blessed every time I view this incredible part of God’s creation; incredibly thankful that I have been given another day.

© 2020 CGThelen

The Last Half Century · The Work World

How Someone Helped Me Get My First Job at Their Competitor

When I look back on my career I recognize that I owe a lot to the people who helped me along the way — people who took time to mentor or advocate for me when there was nothing for them to gain by helping me. One person in particular stands out to me.

A few decades ago, with college graduation a few months away, I began looking for a job by sending out a paper cover letter and resume through the mail to 50 targeted companies – yes in those days we used paper and the U.S. Postal Service. Many never responded, some sent rejection letters, but one person took the time to call me.

Dave from J.I. Case called to tell me he did not have any openings but he would be happy to meet with me. A few weeks later, during a spring break trip to visit relatives, I stopped to see him in Racine, Wisconsin. I remember sitting in his office and talking for almost an hour. I’m sure he had better ways to spend his time, but he told me before I left that he would watch for any potential job openings. I left thinking I would never hear from Dave again.

About a month later an envelope arrived from J.I. Case. I was surprised when I opened it to find an Advertising Age ad from Deere & Company seeking a copywriter in their advertising department. Scribbled on the copy of the ad was a note, “I know they’re my competitor, but I thought it would be worth a shot.” It was signed, “Dave.” I couldn’t believe he actually thought of me and took the time to copy the ad and send it to me. I was even more amazed that he sent me an ad from his competitor! I immediately sent my resume to Deere & Company.

A few weeks later I heard from Deere. They wanted me to go to a John Deere dealer, get a brochure for their hay equipment, and write an ad for their round balers. I secured the brochure, wrote the ad and sent it off. They liked the writing sample and flew me out to their headquarters in Moline, Illinois for an interview. That ultimately led to a job offer and my first job out of college as a writer in Deere & Company’s advertising department.

When I received the job offer, I immediately called Dave and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me and for sending the ad. I told him that I would not have gotten the job if he had not taken the time to send me the ad. He laughed and simply said, “You can thank me by doing the same for someone else.”

More than 30 years after Dave took time to help me land my first job out of college, I still have to be reminded to “do the same for someone else.” In the course of a busy work day, it can be hard to stop and think that there is a person at the other end of a request. Taking a few minutes to respond could change someone’s life.

© 2020, CGThelen

Below: The toy tractor and wagon that sat on my desk at my first job out of college.


Life is Cumulative

When you’ve lived more than 50 years, well, you accumulate a lot of stuff. Like rings on a tree, I can go through my attic and count the years by all the stuff stored under the rafters. Albums from the 1970s, furniture from the 1980s, old computers from the 1990s, and Y2K memorabilia from the new millennium. I think it will take another 50 years to get rid of all this stuff that has accompanied me from one move to another.

Indeed, life is cumulative. After five decades, I wonder how many cups of coffee I drank? I started drinking coffee in college so if I figure about 30 years or almost 11,000 days, that’s probably around 20,000 cups of coffee if I figure 1-2 cups a day. If those were 12 ounce cups of coffee, that would be around 320,000 ounces or 2,500 gallons. That’s like drinking a large swimming pool full of coffee. Talk about staying awake for days.

Then I think about how many cups of coffee I drank to keep me awake while I was driving to get somewhere in a certain time. Like the drive from Chicago to Davenport Iowa; the one-day drive from Maryland to Michigan; a straight shot from Michigan to Colorado; or even late night runs to my girl friend’s college. All those miles inside one of the dozen or so cars I’ve owned with many passing the 100,000 mile mark. All told, I’m sure I’ve logged more than a million miles behind the wheel.

That’s what happens when you start looking back at all those years. You start wondering what it all adds up to. “Where have all the years gone?” You ask yourself as you recall so many things that have come and gone. My wife and I visit places where we lived 10, 20 or 30 years ago and nothing is as it was when we lived there. Everything has changed. The movie theater where we went on our first date is gone. Even our first apartment is gone.

All those years ago, when I tried to envision what my life would be like decades later, I never thought my life would be like it is today. I remember as kids in the 1970s, we once figured out how old we would be in the year 2000. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s really old.” Now, from the perspective of being in my 50s, it seems young. I have lived past the half century mark and I feel very blessed despite some very difficult years. If my life were a swimming pool that I’ve been filling all my life, I would have to say it is now overflowing with blessings.

© 2020, CGThelen