Jim Pagel - Guest Contributor:
Updated: Jun 7
Guest contributor: Jim Pagel
I’m giving Russ a blog break. While doing so, I endeavor to provide a different slant on the Russ that most all of you have known and/or experienced. With Russ’ permission of course. For you see, I have likely known him longer than most all of you readers except for perhaps a smattering of family and relatives. If not longer, then certainly in a different light. Roughly 50 years of friendship and fun times. Regardless, I know the uncensored Russ. Here goes. Some random thoughts and congruous realities.
What follows is true or at least, what I remember to be true. Nevertheless, it’s only a small part of Russ’ story through different eyes. What he was doing as a school kid, when he was not climbing life’s ladder, and beyond.
Russ and I are friends. The very best of friends. A lifetime of friendship and experiences with a long, deep and meaningful connection. It gets no better. All the schmaltzy clichés apply.
We grew up a block apart through the back yards. I don’t recall the specifics of how we met but I suspect it had something to do through school. We forged our friendship heading into middle school. Both our Father’s names were Bob. And both Bobs could be uber strict. I think, in some way that had a lot to do with commonality.
I’ll never forget the first time I walked into his bedroom. A long dark wood paneled hallway into his upstairs room adorned with books. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books. Mostly science fiction, but just plain old books. I thought to myself, who is this guy? Who reads books like this when you’re a teenager? I’m talking a copious consumer of all things books. A big, big reason why he is so very smart in my estimation. At that point ...two very fertile imaginations collided.
We had a very Huckleberry Finn like young adult existence. We lived close to a lake. So we swam, fished a lot and did all the other fun things water brings. We “found” a full length telephone pole and that became our boat. We plotted, for a later time, to raft the Mississippi down to the delta. We played sports. We were always on the basketball court, football and then soccer. Although, we certainly did not stay in our parent’s predetermined designated lanes. We spelunked Madison’s east side sewer system. “Throne rooms” below ground. Trust me, it was much greater than it sounds, especially for a kid. The labyrinth was a whole other universe providing some intense moments and myriad finds. And it was ours. Only ours.
It wasn’t always frivolous fun. We’d pool our resources and ideas to start amassing our first earned pennies. We had simultaneous paperboy routes - and each other as backup if needed. Or, at least, someone to problem solve paper delivery snafus with. *Sorry about that newspaper route finger thing, Russ. Maybe that was the reason I got into health care. We started a lawn mowing gig. My Bob, a printer by trade, printed up our business flyers. And who can forget a summer detasseling corn. Endlessly on and on and on... slogging through miles of corn rows, feet caked with wet, heavy soil, arms sliced by serrated corn leaves, searing summer sun, in farm field after farm field with your arms above your head for the entire day, plucking. A hellish job that undoubtedly has left us with lingering neck and shoulder pain.
We’d ride our bikes to the golf course. Often. Pulling or carrying our clubs. Interestingly, we never did improve our games much. Short on cash and needing golf balls we honed our creative skills. We’d stealth out after dark, on what was an elitist golf course back then that was innervated with a tributary of streams. Searching for balls in bushes is for sissies and short on bounty. So we’d crouch neck deep in the stream water (imagine the coursing chemicals), feel around for a cache of balls up against submerged branches with our toes and then dunk down bringing up handfuls of free, expensive golf balls. Innovation! Despite his other youth jobs, I’m pretty sure this was the inception of Russ’ business acumen.
Venturing farther away, we started riding our bicycles to Devil‘s Lake State Park, approximately 45 miles away. At times an extremely hilly and challenging go. Panniers filled with stuff. Steel poled tents strapped to bike racks with no sag wagon. It was an idyllic getaway from the routine. Growth came with growing pains or rather, hacks not yet figured out. All that way on bicycles with all that gear, including food (eg cans of beans, bags of potatoes, etc.) producing unnecessary poundage. We never did figure out it would be much, much easier to buy the food nearer to our goal, saving us from the toil. But hey, we were mostly penniless. Raiding the pantry was where it was at. Once there, it was other worldly. This is the time, you as the reader, should Google Devil‘s Lake State Park in Wisconsin, particularly the cliff pictures. We climbed those cliffs. All of them. And I do mean all of them. We had an agenda. This was before ropes and climbing gear. Strictly free climbing. There is no explanation as to why we lived. Seriously harrowing, life threatening predicaments. That’s “code” for stupid and foolish. Pretty sure I would’ve never been the one to talk Russ into that type of risky behavior. I never bargained with God so much or promised myself to be a better son.
Meanwhile, a different sort of life-changing event for me, courtesy of Russ. I remember it vividly like it was yesterday although Russ has a slightly different recollection. Nevertheless, we still muse about it. Anyway, it was just after lunch in middle school and we were walking the hallway back to class. I was my usual smart ass self. Nowadays they call it bullying. Russ had his fill, and before I knew it I was lifting myself off the ground. Russ cold cocked me in the head in front of our peers. Literally, a momentary loss of consciousness. Wobbly knees. A punch Mike Tyson would be proud of. One punch, well placed. A knock out. Acknowledging the many ramifications that can arise from this as a teenager I have nothing but praise for Russ. He taught me a very special early life lesson in humility. I am forever grateful. And hey, it (eventually) cemented our bond. WOW. Check. Lesson learned.
We finished up high school graduating together. But before we did, we played varsity soccer. Perhaps most notable with that was vying against conference opponent midfielder, Eric Heiden, twice a season. The 5-time gold medalist Olympic speed skater. Yes, that Eric Heiden. Cripes that dude had massive thighs (fun fact, Google says: “His thighs were a massive 29 inches around, nearly matching his 32-inch waistline”). Our parents seemingly never knew what we were doing or where we were at. We pulled the grades but there was many kegger parties in between. We got motorcycles thereby escalating our ability to get away at a moments notice. And then it was over and we went our separate ways. Life with us got more segmented. Russ started his climb in the newspaper industry periodically moving to seize an upwardly mobile opportunity. But before we did, we ended up living together several times in various apartments.
We always stayed in touch and often fashioned our get togethers through travel and fun. Russ always had an open door policy no matter where he was at. So, I always took him up on that, ending up visiting him at every single work city venue he’d been at. Ohio, Virginia, Orlando, LA, Chicago and Texas to name a few. The string ran out when he was in Hayward CA. I just wasn’t able to get there in time before he retired.
We always managed to stay in touch and catch up on things. Our families, child rearing, the women in our lives at the time, work, etc. As example, he’d periodically call me for company and catch up during his stop ‘n go rush hour commutes home from work while in California. Often great, insightful gab sessions ending with, “well, I’m in the driveway now, take care, talk soon.”
Once during my college break we got together and spontaneously planned a trip. Many of our “meetings” involved beer. Rules is rules. That particular night we got happily juiced, pulled out a US map, and while blindfolded pointed to a would be destination - come what may. Bullseye was Mountain Home Arkansas where the finger landed. Off we went in Russ’ Saab camping, fishing and general all around mayhem. So very many fond memories though two things linger. Following the long drive we pulled up to a restaurant. 2 young guys in dire and immediate need of pizza and beer. I’ll never forget the long drawl answer and quizzical look. “Beer? Beer?? We ain’t had beer here since the prohibition.” Yikes. Really bad luck. We promptly joined the long line of cars at the county line and filled the trunk with beer. Later on in the trip we rented a motor boat for some camping and fishing on Bull Shoals Lake, a massive reservoir bordering Arkansas and Missouri. At day’s end we set up that very same old steel pole tent on a smallish rock island. Following some beers, dinner, and reveling in the splendid scenery we called it a day only to be woke in the early am by dangerously menacing lightning, thunder, gale force winds and torrents of prolonged rain all around us and seemingly just feet above our heads. We had no place to go in the tsunami morass. Rock and steel surrounded us and beyond that, massive blackened swells calling to the abyss. Zero safety was to be had. I was certain we had met our fate by electrocution.
We spent a week on the North Carolina Outer Banks with our wives at the time. And who could forget the time I and another buddy trekked to Chicago to visit Russ and his wife, Sue, for the purpose of attending a Jimmy Buffet concert. Russ turned me on to Jimmy and was a big parrot head fan. For some reason I do not recall, Russ had to work and was unable to attend. Disappointing bummer. Nevertheless, we persevered in his stead. Anybody who has ever been to a Buffet concert knows they are a massive drunken Mardi Gras-like blow out. Yes, you can have TOO much fun. So, we did it proud, for Russ. So proud, that when we returned to their n-teenth story condo we thought it a good idea to libate more and start shooting bottle rockets out the windows. Bloody brilliant in downtown Chicago. Then, another stroke of genius. We split up and started shooting bottle rockets at each other. IN the condo. White carpeting and black burn marks don’t mix well. Luckily, quick thinking Sue adeptly moved a speaker onto the trophy sized burn and all was good. Russ’ unknowing smile when he came through the door, is indelibly blazed (pun intended) in my mind, as we all stifled laughter and sheepishly cast downward gazes.
Life ground on. Chance has it that we both reached a cross roads of sorts at the very same time. A stretch of misfortune for both of us that turned into a blessing in disguise. An opportunity that manifested in likely our greatest adventure. Resultant of circumstances, Russ decided to travel cross country to retrieve a very beautiful “live edge” wood desk he had purchased, crafted in Washington State. Rather than have it shipped, he’d decided to make a trip of it. As I wasn’t working, he asked me to accompany him. It was an easy decision. I was in desperate need of a “walkabout” at the time. Just he and I in the cab of his truck for 3 straight weeks through 16 states covering 6 thousand miles ...would drive anybody nuts, right? We drove west from Wisconsin. Stopped in Las Vegas for a night to be (over) served by my cousin who tends bar at Harrah’s on the strip. We then continued west to Southern California, then all the way north to Everett WA (picking up the desk) and the Cascade Mountains and then finally a right turn back to Wisconsin. In between, we visited and stayed with his many fabulous friends and business associates. Such great, kind people. Stops in San Diego, LA, Santa Clarita, Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco, Portland and just SO many more. Wine tastings in the valley. A “Best of San Francisco” victuals event extraordinaire - VIP style. A stay in Seattle with his son, Matthew. Just so many incredibly fun and joyous forays. But here’s the thing. Not one cross word between us. Ever. Never even a “pregnant pause”. We started the journey and laughed continuously for the first 3 days and then there was only a zillion laughs thereafter. The rest was often vertically deep & engrossing conversation. We solved many of the world’s woes that trip. Greatness every moment along the way. The spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Hot springs in Bozeman Montana. Made tons of new “friends”. I could go on. Suffice it to say it was an unforgettable trip of EPIC proportions.
But that kid. That kid that read (too many) books. That kid that popped me right. Boy, oh boy, did he make good.
I’ve always been in awe of Russ’ self-made success. But it’s never left me surprised.
We truly are brothers from different mothers.
Brother Russ, we absolutely crushed it. ALL of it.
Good times. Good times. Incredibly Good Times.
Life is a Maverick Road. You know exactly where that is and what that means.