Pastor Walter Mitty caught his first glimpse of Lake Michigan as he drove past the last exit to Port Washington on his way to Herman’s house for their annual Independence Day cook out.
For Pastor Walt, this is where Wisconsin really began, 60 miles north of the Illinois state line, where urban sprawl finally ended and the stench of pollution was replaced by the sweet smells of freshly mown alfalfa and newly spread cow manure. He smiled with satisfaction when he saw that in some fields the corn was a good two feet taller than “knee high by the Fourth of July.” The traffic on I-43 had thinned out enough for him to switch to cruise control. Everything was perfect. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided,” sang Mitty along with the St. Olaf Choir’s rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” coming from the CD player in his Corolla. A red 1960 Thunderbird convertible with the top down passed him. The sticker on the rear bumper proclaimed, “IT’S ALL GOOD.”
As he approached the exit to Oostburg he noticed a sign nailed to a fence post which read, “STRAWBERRIES.” Mitty was no longer driving on the interstate.
He was back in his mother’s kitchen with his little brother, and his dad was spooning Sorge’s vanilla ice cream onto steaming hot baking powder biscuits right out of the oven. His mom was carrying a bowl of sliced and sugared strawberries she had picked the day before at Truettner’s Farm out near the town of Haven. Mitty trusted the force that was mysteriously guiding him and found himself looking for a space among the hundred other cars parked behind the barn at Waldoorn’s Berry Farm.
“Herman and Susan will love this,” he thought as he balanced 13 quarts of strawberries in his arms and headed for the door. With the load of fruit blocking his view, Pastor Walt didn’t see the step down outside the door, landed awkwardly on the side of his foot and pitched forward, berries flying in all directions. A sharp pain shot through his right knee.
“Ya von’t be able ta drive wit dat knee like dat,” said farm owner, a man dressed in overalls who placed a bag of ice on the injured joint.
Herman and Brian wound up coming down to get their injured relative. Herman slid the passenger seat all the way back, so his brother could keep his leg as comfortable as possible. The man in the overalls had scooped the strawberries back into their containers and placed them on the rear seat of Herman’s mini van. Brian followed, driving his uncle’s Toyota. During the 40 minute drive to Manitowoc, Mitty wondered why the man in charge didn’t express any concern about being sued. Then he smiled as he remembered, “I’m in Wisconsin.”
When they arrived in Manitowoc, they went straight to Holy Family Hospital’s emergency room. “Walt has a sprained knee,” Herman told his wife Susan on the pay phone in the ER waiting room. “You can put the brats on. Walt can’t drive, but he can eat. He’s starving.”
As they pulled out of the hospital parking lot, Pastor Walt noticed a guy with a scraggly beard, wearing a black leather jacket and driving an old beater in great need of a new muffler. The bumper sticker on the rear of the car read, “S– HAPPENS.” Mitty sighed and shook his head.
The ER doctor told his patient to take extra strength Tylenol for pain, which Mitty did. But, what took the edge off more effectively were the freshly grilled brats swimming in a pot of beer and onions.
In the evening, Herman found a parking place down by the marina for the fireworks show. He got his brother settled in a folding lawn chair, and Susan gently rested his leg on a pillow on a second chair. The breeze coming of the lake was cool enough to make the invalid put his jacket on.
Mitty became so preoccupied with how uncomfortable he was feeling that he didn’t see the couple approaching his little gathering. It was time for another Tylenol, he was thinking, as Herman said, “Walt, I want to introduce you to some people I work with.”
Mitty turned his head to see a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a woman wearing sunglasses. “Walt, this is James and his wife, Karen.”
“Three feet forward, Karen, and a little to the left,” said the man in the wheelchair.
“They’re my bosses at Oriental Milling,” explained Herman. “They work as a team. James can see but can’t walk; paralyzed from the waist down. A diving accident, wasn’t it James?” The man in the chair nodded. “Karen can walk but can’t see. They make a great team and are the best people to work for.”
“We’d like to see the fireworks with you,” said Karen.
“Mind if I ask what happened?” said James as Sue pulled another lawn chair from the van for Karen.
“Twisted my knee at a strawberry farm near Oostburg this morning,” Pastor Walt explained.
“Bummer,” Karen said as Susan helped her get seated.
As the fireworks ended, Brian turned to Mitty and said, “Uncle Walt, you know those strawberries you brought? How about we pick up some ice cream and Hostess Twinkies on the way home?”
“Hostess Twinkies,” Mitty protested. “That’s not the way …”
“It’s good, Uncle Walt.” Tony cut Mitty’s nostalgia trip short. Herman shrugged. Susan chuckled. “And James and Karen will join us.”