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SAWDUST STORIES
Get your blue mind on

Eight years ago, after watching the Packers in a bar, my son bid on a 1987 Sun Tracker pontoon. Let’s just say Alex’s judgment wasn’t crystal clear. The 24-foot “party barge” needed new seats, carpet and motor. Alex finished college and military training then landed a job in Texas, so his rebuilt beauty stayed behind in storage.

When my dad died last year, Alex rushed home for the funeral. Though he’d talked about selling his pontoon before, he was really ready this time. “Why don’t you buy it,” he pitched. “I’ll give you a deal.”

As much as I liked the thought of spending Dad’s inheritance on a party barge lovingly restored by my son, I knew I had to float the idea past my husband. Bruce said, “What will we do with a boat that size on no-wake Lake Hallie?” He finally agreed, if we traded in the motor for a smaller one and named the pontoon after my dad.

Last summer Minnetonka’s 2-horsepower electric outboard was in high demand. We couldn’t get it installed until August at Skeeter’s, where Alex’s boat had been wrapped in plastic since 2016. When we got it home, I stenciled on “The Jo Sea,” a female aquatic version of Joe See. We christened her not with hoity-toity champagne but with Dad’s favorite drink, “Mist and Mist,” Canadian Mist and Sierra Mist.

The first week we pontoon with all three of Bruce’s kids, a rare treat. Dan’s driving, with Bruce beside him. Our new motor groans and sputters. I hit the switch to lift the trim. An ancient, mossy rope chokes the propeller. Noah climbs over the stern for a closer look. Former lifeguard Laura offers to jump in and pull us to the nearby landing. “Never get out of the boat,” I say in my best “Apocalypse Now” impression.

Noah gives the rope a tug. He jokes about a dead body attached to it. Fortunately Bruce doesn’t go anywhere without a pocket knife. Noah saws through the rope and frees the propeller. Anyone on shore that day may have heard a collective whoop of voices, boaters excited to be out together on this blue-blue day but even more thrilled that their party barge can take them home.

The original party barge cruised Lake Hallie 140 years ago, and it was actually a barge. The lake formed in 1843 and was a nameless holding pond for a nearby sawmill. In 1880 as the logging industry waned, Badger Mills co-owner John Ure Jr.’s vision was that “Lake Hallie” — which he named after his daughter — might become a recreational attraction. He christened his two steamboats after his other daughters: Lorraine and Antoinette. One towed a barge on which couples danced as they sailed the lake.

How this must have looked: women in bustled long dresses, swirled by their male partners on a floating, fenced-in dance floor. The tinny music from a cranked phonograph likely carried for miles. Farmers looking up from evening chores may have wondered if the source was insect or human.

People have forever been drawn to water. Wallace Nichols’ book explains why. “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do” is quite a title and a proclamation. Human brains are hardwired to react positively to water, not only for calming but healing and even sparking creativity. Nichols calls it “getting your blue mind on.”

I am so ready for this, especially in April, after three weeks of safer-at-home. One night I dream I bust my pontoon off the Boat Center storage lot and pull her down the highway still in blue plastic. The next morning Bruce says, “Maybe you should just call first.” To my surprise, Jake at Skeeter’s answers. I arrange for The Jo Sea to be delivered as soon as ice goes off the lake.

After my second phone conversation with Jake, he asks, “Are you related to the Sees from 617 Harding Street?”

I say, “That was our house till my dad died.”

“I live there now.”

I exclaim “Noo way” so loudly I’m sure this young man has to pull the phone from his ear.

I am used to Chippewa connections. Still, this one.

“We love it,” Jake says. He tells me that when he and his girlfriend first toured Dad’s house, Jake’s mom — a Thorn girl who grew up down the street and was friends with my siblings — encouraged them to buy the See house. What can I say but, “Small world.”

Most trips on The Jo Sea I head toward the widest stretch of Lake Hallie. As the sun goes down the metal edge of a faraway dock turns golden, then on fire. Everything looks different from the height of a pontoon, part of the inspiration of Minnesota farmer Ambrose Weeres who in 1952 developed a prototype — wooden platform on top of two steel barrels — based on a seafaring design used for thousands of years. He later opened Weeres Pontoons, the first-ever American pontoon company. His family-friendly vessels were an easy sell: A tippy fishing boat versus a stable pontoon is like the difference between walking on a gangplank or a deck.

One late afternoon my best friend Karen and I lumber along in The Jo Sea; even kayakers pass us by. At 79 acres, Lake Hallie is so small we loop around twice just to feel like we’ve been somewhere. As we pass Karen’s childhood home, her mom comes out to see us. Helen stands in the yard barefoot and waving.

“Want a ride?” Karen yells.

“No,” her mom calls back. Still, Helen walks closer to shore. She recently gave me the greatest compliment: “No one loves Lake Hallie like Patti.” That’s something coming from an 80-year-old who’s lived on this lake for 74 years.

Karen yells to her, “Meet us on Larry’s dock.”

Helen does. Karen helps her mom aboard.

I putt-putt us over to where Helen grew up: the farm her parents, Clark and Carol Hughes, bought in 1946.

Karen’s brother owns the house now; Helen still owns the dilapidated barn, the oldest structure on Lake Hallie.

We drift past the Clark Hughes Boat Landing, named for her dad who donated the land. Helen tells us she can’t remember the last time she cruised the lake. Decades or more. At sunset we take in the spectacular view of her old homestead from the middle of Lake Hallie. I can see in Helen’s eyes what none of us has to say.


National
AP centerpiece
Military medics deploy in California, Texas as virus surges

MIAMI — Teams of military medics were deployed in Texas and California to help hospitals deluged by coronavirus patients, as Miami area authorities began stepping up enforcement Friday of a mask requirement — echoing efforts in many parts of the world to contain surging infections.

In California, military doctors, nurses and other health care specialists were being deployed to eight hospitals facing staffing shortages amid a record-breaking case numbers. In Houston, an 86-person Army medical team worked to take over a wing of United Memorial Medical Center.

Texas reported 10,000 new cases for the third straight day Thursday and 129 additional deaths. California, meanwhile, reported its largest two-day total of confirmed cases, nearly 20,000, along with 258 deaths over 48 hours. There are more than 8,000 people in hospitals who have either tested positive for the coronavirus or are suspected to have it.

There were signs elsewhere in country’s Sunbelt that the virus was stretching states’ capacity to respond. The medical examiner’s office in metro Phoenix has gotten portable storage coolers and ordered more to handle an influx of bodies — reminiscent of New York City at the height of the pandemic there earlier this year.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, the county commission unanimously approved an emergency order giving all code and fire inspectors authority to issue tickets of up to $100 for individuals and $500 for businesses not complying with guidelines to wear masks and practice social distancing. Police officers already had this enforcement power.

“We’re going to put a heck of a lot of people out there,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “Our people are going to go everywhere.”

Gimenez said that too few people, especially younger people, have been following the “new normal” guidelines, so the county needed another enforcement tool.

In Miami-Dade, which is Florida’s most populous county and the current epicenter of the outbreak, more than 3,100 new coronavirus cases were reported on Thursday. The state, meanwhile, reached another ominous record, with 156 virus deaths, and a staggering 13,965 new cases.

At least half of the 50 states have adopted requirements for wearing masks or other facial coverings.

But in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has banned cities and counties from requiring face coverings. He sued Atlanta late Thursday to prevent it from defying his order, but Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was prepared to go to court to maintain the local mask requirement.

Worldwide, governments are frantically trying to prevent and put down fresh outbreaks and keep their economies running as the pandemic accelerates in some regions and threatens to come roaring back in others. Globally, confirmed cases numbered more than 13.8 million Friday and COVID-19 deaths totaled more than 590,000.

India’s total confirmed cases surpassed 1 million, the third-highest number behind the United States and Brazil, and its death toll reached more than 25,000. That followed Brazil’s announcement Thursday evening that its confirmed cases exceeded 2 million, including 76,000 deaths.

The continuing surge of new cases in India — where experts believe the vast majority of cases are still being missed — drove home concerns over the readiness of some countries to cope with outbreaks that could overwhelm hospitals and test feeble health care systems.

The government ordered a weeklong lockdown in the technology hub of Bangalore after confirmed cases there increased exponentially.

Israel on Friday reimposed sweeping restrictions to tackle a new surge in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “interim steps” to avoid another general lockdown.

Stores, malls, barber shops, beauty salons, beaches and tourist sites will also be closed on weekends. Public gatherings will be limited to 10 people indoors or 20 outside.

New virus cases have soared in Israel since restrictions were lifted in late May. The country reported around 1,900 new cases on Thursday. At least 384 people have died since the outbreak began.

Japan’s capital recorded a single-day record number of new coronavirus cases for a second straight day on Friday with 293. Tokyo was taken off a list of places around the country where discounts are offered under a government scheme to encourage domestic tourism.

Spain, which earlier in the pandemic was one of the world’s hardest hit countries, was grappling with more than 150 active outbreaks, most of them in the northern Aragon and Catalonia regions. Health authorities on Friday asked the 5.5 million residents of Barcelona, the regional capital of Catalonia, to stay at home as much as possible to stem the virus’ spread.

They also announced a local ban on social gatherings over 10 people, and nightclub and gym closures. Spain reported 580 new cases Thursday, the highest daily number since May 10.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson charted a different course, announcing that as of Aug. 1 the government was no longer asking people to avoid public transit and would stop advising workers in England to work from home.

Keen to reinvigorate the economy, Johnson wants to see struggling businesses that rely on office workers rebound. He also announced that beauticians, casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks would be allowed to reopen next month as long as infection rates don’t start climbing again.

The prime minister’s decision to give employers more leeway to ask their staffs to return to regular work locations appeared to conflict with the views of his chief scientific adviser, who said Thursday that there was “absolutely no reason” to change the work-from-home advice.

The U.K.’s official pandemic death toll, which stood at more than 45,000 as of Friday, has for several weeks been the highest in Europe.


Front-page
featured
Johnson, Kind talk COVID-19 aid

Another federal coronavirus relief bill is expected to the main issue when Congress goes back in session on Monday, and two U.S. legislators that represent Wisconsin spoke Friday about their ideas to help the country recover from the pandemic’s damage to the economy.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, addressed members of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce in a virtual meeting to discuss matters they will deal with when the Senate and House return to business next week.

Johnson spoke strongly against the $600 weekly payments that the federal government has been adding to state checks to unemployed workers, saying the practice is keeping people from rejoining the workforce.

“One of the biggest problems they’re having now is getting people to come back to work,” he said of businesses.

Calling the federal government’s addition to unemployment benefits “a very perverse incentive” because it has resulted in some people making more in unemployment money than they did from their wages at a job, Johnson said it should end as scheduled at the end of this month.

“We certainly shouldn’t be supporting people above their standard wages,” he said.

Kind is not advocating for the $600 weekly payments to continue as they are, but did suggest that federal payments for unemployment should be focused on areas with the highest rates of joblessness.

“That will vary from region to region,” he said.

Ending the federal aid to unemployment entirely at the end of this month is too soon, Kind said, but extending it to the rest of the year would be too long.

To address the issue of that extra $600 in unemployment money discouraging people from re-entering the workforce, the representative said the concept of instead creating a $600 bonus payment for those who take a job should be considered.

Another topic on the minds of Johnson and Kind is the concern from businesses that people may start filing lawsuits against them because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Both politicians support liability protections for businesses that would prevent them from being subject to lawsuits from people who blame them when they contract coronavirus.

“I want to see it as absolute as possible,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he worries that a Republican-backed proposal to grant that liability protection could get watered down by Democratic leadership in Congress.

“We’re not just going to pass blanket liability regardless of how people are acting with this,” Kind said.

The liability protections would need to distinguish between workplaces “doing an honest, good job” to protect people from coronavirus versus those that are “shrugging their shoulders,” he said.

That was something that Johnson agreed with — that businesses should still be compelled to take precautions to protect employees and customers from contracting COVID-19.

Both politicians attested to taking steps themselves that public health officials have been advocating for — specifically wearing face masks while in public places.

“It’s a common courtesy,” Johnson said.

Though mask wearing has become a divisive topic, Kind said it shouldn’t be a political one, but something Americans should want to do for the health of the country.

“I never viewed this as a red issue or a blue issue,” he said. “It’s a red, white and blue issue.”