Prime Time: How Paul and Babe brought me to Bemidji (and kept me here)

When I was about 8 years old, my parents invested in the latest, most comprehensive educational resource available to the ordinary, middle-class family: a set of Compton's Encyclopedias.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

When I was about 8 years old, my parents invested in the latest, most comprehensive educational resource available to the ordinary, middle-class family: a set of Compton's Encyclopedias.

The set held an honored location on the bottom shelf in the living room. I could sit on the floor there, under the floor lamp, and pull volume after volume off the shelf to explore. My self-assigned task was to page through each volume to see what it held.

Volume "A" had a special section on "Anatomy," complete with a set of transparent sheets -- each printed (IN COLOR!) with a different body system -- that formed overlays of the human body. On the last sheet was a picture of the skeletal system. The previous sheets pictured other body systems: musculoskeletal, circulatory, nervous, respiratory and digestive -- one system per transparent page. When all were placed together, the top page, complete with skin, covered all and looked like an ordinary, unclothed man.

My brother and I sat mesmerized by this remarkable representation and flipped through it often. We showed it to our younger sister but didn't let her touch or turn the transparent pages, fearful that she might crumple or tear a page. She pointed and said, "Muscles and blood, muscles and blood!"

Perhaps it was the vividness of the human body's internal organs that hinted at my brother's future career as a medical technician. It fascinated me as well, but it was Volume "B" that held a clue to my future. Although it had no colorful, transparent sheets, Volume "B" had a simple black-and-white picture of a tall statue - two big statues, actually: one, a tall, stiff man wearing a plaid shirt and smoking a pipe; the other, an enormous ox, standing at the man's side like a pet dog.


The segment that included the picture was titled "Bemidji, Minnesota." The caption read: "Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are frequently visited and photographed icons in Bemidji, Minnesota."

I'm not sure why I was so drawn to the black-and-white picture of the tall man and his ox, towering above the little people who were taking pictures in front of them. The statues weren't as eye-catching as "muscles and blood," but in order to be in Compton's Encyclopedia, I knew they must be very important.

Something about the picture drew me back again and again. It wasn't until high school that I heard "Bemidji" connected to a college I would eventually attend.

In June of 1971, I went to Bemidji with my friend Mary to pre-register for fall classes. It was a long ride from St. Peter, Minn., on a warm June day in a car without air conditioning. As we drove up Highway 64, approaching Akeley, I rolled the window down an inch or so. What greeted me was the most delicious scent I had ever smelled -- the sweet aroma of Norway pine. It stayed in my nostrils all the way to Bemidji and has never left.

That scent of pine, so sweet that I could not imagining leaving it behind, was the second clue that this was the place I would go to college, work, marry, settle and raise a family.

As we drove through town, I caught my first glimpse of Paul and Babe -- not in black and white this time -- but in living color: Paul, in black and red plaid, and Babe, a vivid blue. I remembered the many times I had looked at the photo, transfixed by the statues but never quite knowing why. In all 20 volumes of that Compton's Encyclopedia set, why had this simple black-and-white picture drawn my eye over and over again?

I fell in love with the college on the lake, with the wooded trails I often walked, with the Northern Lights, which I'd never seen before. I had no car while I was in college, so I biked everywhere I went. I got to know the city, the state park and the lake. I learned how to cross-country ski. I got to know my instructors and, when Dr. Phil Sauer invited the class to join him, I skated on the lake from Paul and Babe to Diamond Point Park and back with him and a few fellow classmates.

After my freshman year, I went home for the summer but longed for the lake "Up North." I returned to school in the fall, never to move back home again. Bemidji was home. I left twice for jobs after graduating, but, after less than two years away, found a teaching job in Bemidji and never moved away again.


My friend Mary and that old picture of Paul and Babe may have lured me to Bemidji, but the scent of pine and Bemidji's beauty and variety have kept me here.

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