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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: It looked as if the whole city were on fire

The lingering aroma of burnt leaves filled the air. We looked back to see a red glow over the horizon. The snake dance was over for another year, but the memory of those autumn days many years ago would remain with me forever.

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John Eggers
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Life in most Minnesota small towns years ago began in the fall. And it started in the fall every year, at least while I was growing up. Although fall signaled the finish of many things, it was also the beginning.

Fall was the time when hunting season began. On golden Saturday afternoons, after we walked through a slough or cornfield, my brother and I and our father returned to our 1950 light green Chevrolet.

We put any rooster pheasants we shot in the trunk and then sat on the side of an old road and ate a baloney sandwich and listened to the Gopher game on the car radio. In the distance, we heard a shot or two and wondered if they hit whatever they shot at.

Fall was when farmers began their harvest and hoped their hard spring and summer work reaped the benefits to hold them over during the winter months.

As we walked the fence rows, we could see the dust made by a distant combine or hear the noise of a tractor, maybe even the cackling of a rooster pheasant. It was the best of times and the times would even get better.

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Fall was when we would shop for school clothes, maybe get a new pair of shoes or a pair of pants with a buckle in the back.

We would go to our local Ben Franklin store to buy a Big Chief tablet or a spiral notebook and, in our earlier days, a box of new Crayolas and maybe a Scripto mechanical lead pencil with a built-in eraser and extra leads.

I would be entering eighth grade and was on the “C” squad football team. We still used leather helmets without faceguards. I looked forward to the day when our helmets had the single white protective bar worn by the big kids. I thought it looked pretty cool.

Steady girlfriends were not yet on my “to do” list yet, although my eyes seemed to be spending more time resting on the girls and less on the pages of my math book.

I figured it wouldn’t be long before, like every boy, my eyes would remain locked on a girl until I bumped into someone saying, “Hey, Eggers, watch where you’re going.”

Fall meant cool, crisp days when drying leaves that had turned to gold and red and many shades of yellow and brown cascaded from trees. They were raked into huge piles, only to be set on fire.

Adults stood transfixed, looking at the flames, no doubt thinking about earlier times when they jumped over, ran through and threw leaves at their brothers and sisters. The aroma of burning leaves pervaded the city.

Although no one ever said it, the smoke and smell seemed to have a spiritual quality. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was because it was time for the snake dance.

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Dances have always been part of cultures. Native Americans have powwows. Germans have polkas. Cowboys have square dances. My hometown had its snake dance.

After the homecoming king and queen were crowned, everyone headed to the playground to see the bonfire. For weeks the senior class rounded up anything and everything that burnt and could be hauled in a truck.

Kids looked for piles of old lumber, old tires, and sheds that had collapsed with age. “Hey,” Mister Johnson, “do you need those old tires behind the garage? How about those boards from your old shed?”

When completed, the pile of debris was two or three stories high, topped off by an outhouse. Flames shot up like skyrockets and burning leaves filled the air like giant fireflies.

After a few cheers from the cheerleaders, they joined hands with other students to begin the snake dance. Kids of all ages held hands, making a line of 150 to 300 with the older ones at the front of the line and the younger kids like me and my brother and other classmates towards the end of the line.

No amusement park could duplicate what happened next. You hung on to your partner's hand for dear life as the cheerleaders led us between the parked 53 Chevies and Fords, into the streets, stopping traffic, back and forth, and up and down the sidewalks and between cars.

Shoppers smiled and clapped and cheered wishing they were young and foolish again. Kids at the end of the line were tossed around as if they were on the end of a buggy whip.

And then, as quickly as it started, it ended. Although the total distance we ran was about five blocks from the school — running in and out and around and around made it seem like five miles.

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After the snake dance, we walked home under the dimly lit street lights and into the crisp October darkness. We were breathing hard, sweating and silent.

The lingering aroma of burnt leaves filled the air. We looked back to see a red glow over the horizon. It looked as if the whole city were on fire. The snake dance was over for another year, but the memory of those autumn days many years ago would remain with me forever.

Riddle: Why can’t a bicycle stand on its own? (Answer: Because it gets “two” tired. It’s good to get tired sometimes and dancing will help you.)

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We will hold a conference on Oct. 20 at the Sanford Center to focus on helping students graduate. I hope you can join us.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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