The Day We Overcame All… Sort of

The scene was the Winter Father – Son Retreat at Living Waters Bible Camp. I always dread the cold, but this year it was mild — too mild. The staff was carefully shoveling snow onto thin parts of the tubing hill to prevent dark patches from attracting the sun and melting the snow.

The torsion catapult

The torsion catapult made by the Hale kid.

The camp always prepares something for the kids to build with their dads. This year, everyone built a marshmallow catapult. There was much “practicing” and young men kept the air filled with white puffy projectiles.

Saturday night we had a shooting competition. The first task was to knock over a popcan pyramid from 15 feet away. We were given ten marshmallows for the task.

It was exciting because we were in the second wave, and no one had knocked down all ten cans. Edward missed with his first shot. His second shot knocked down six cans. His third shot knocked down three more cans. I looked him from across the room as he lined up his catapult, aiming at one tiny, lonely pop can 15 feet away. It was impossible.

The whole room watched.

He fired…


Ting! He knocked over the can. The room erupted in whoops and applause. He got bonus points for having six marshmallows left over.

cans laying around

The former pop can pyramid.

Round 2

The object of the second round was to fling a marshmallow 25 feet into a garbage can – an impossible feat for lesser men. In the first wave, several kids managed to hit the side of the garbage can, but none were able to place one in the can.

In the second wave the mighty Hales stepped up to the table. We had five marshmallows. The first landed short. We propped up the front of the catapult. The second shot landed next to the can. We propped up the front of the catapult some more. Marshmallows three and four hit the side of the can. Our last shot… I took out the set pins and wound up the tension cords a full turn. The wood side of the catapult groaned under the pressure.

The referee said, “is everyone done?” I said, “We have one more shot.” All eyes in the room turned to Edward. I propped up the front of the catapult even more and thought, “Why did you choose that angle? You’re just guessing. What if you guessed wrong!?”

Edward lined up the shot. I said, “Pull the trigger slowly. Don’t snap it.” I held the catapult tight against the table. Edward shot his shot.

The catapult catapulting

The final shot…

The room held its collective breath…

Then, descending as if in slow motion, the marshmallow traced a line through the very center of the garbage can’s circular opening. Again the crowd erupted in deafening woops and hollers.

The marshmallow falling into the garbage can

The marshmallow the kid flung falls into the target.

Edward had done the impossible. He had knocked down the entire pop can pyramid and sunk a marshmallow in the distant garbage can. We were awesome!

We placed third overall.

Yeah, some jerks in the later rounds got better scores than us. But we were the groundbreakers. We were the first. We received the applause reserved for those who break barriers. For a moment in time we crawled out of our shells of mediocrity and shone like the great ones.

And we did with marshmallows.

A marshmallow

The unassuming marshmallow that won our temporary glory.

The Hale Family Year in Review

Out of a hundred family photos, this is the only one with most of us looking normal (except Lydia). Crazy Horse, South Dakota

Out of a hundred family photos, this is the only one with most of us looking normal (except Lydia). Crazy Horse, South Dakota

As I type this letter I am surrounded by the happy sounds of children making Christmas cookies. Holiday music mingles with the conversation, “You’re rolling it too thin!… Stop playing in the flour!… Don’t cut them in the middle of the dough! Cut them on the edge!”

Nothing is different with the Hales. The kids are all average home school students who regularly produce the minimum work required to pass classes. Nikole is near psychotic with the stress of teaching six children, making meals, keeping the house organized and caring for the man voted best looking cyclist in Wisconsin. I am still teaching, riding bikes everywhere and growing award winning facial hair.

Home school kids reading books

A bunch of home school kids pretending they can read.

Mostly we like to hang around the house and fine tune our mediocrity and sloth, but this summer we did something completely out of character. We went on a camping trip across the United States—a nearly impossible feat for this organizationally-challenged couple.


Proof that the Hales left the house once this summer. We slept in that tent and it rained hard.

We camped for two days near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I tried the patience of my wife as I obeyed the 45-mile-per-hour speed limit all the way through Custer National Park. I was vindicated when several buffalo stood next to the road and posed for photos. We saw Mt. Rushmore in the rain. In addition to poor organizational skills, we have bad timing.

Buffalo by the side of the road

I say, “Okay guys. Hold it right there while I compose this shot.” Nikole says, “KEEP DRIVING, you moron! They could charge any time!”

The family in front of Rushmore

Look at the presidents weeping because the Hales came to Rushmore on a rainy day

We drove through Yellowstone. Late in the day, tired and still far from our next campground, we arrived at Old Faithful geyser. We learned that it would “go off” again in 90 minutes! My beautiful wife wanted to keep driving toward our far off destination for the night, but the rest of us said, “Um, no. You don’t give up on the nation’s most famous geyser because of a little 90-minute wait.” Maybe we should have kept going—the temperature started dropping and, just as the famous water cannon went off, a cold rain came to encourage us. We watched until lips turned blue, then we ran to the van.

The family in front of Old Faithful

Burr! Nikole says, “Okay, that’s enough. I’m heading to the van.”

We went to the ocean in Westport, Washington. My dear wife was about to realize her dream of seeing her children swimming in the ocean. She was disappointed that nobody was captured by the lure of 55° water, crashing waves and a cold wind blowing down the beach. Instead, she watched her kids shivering ankle deep in the water. Still, it was the ocean and it was beautiful.

Ruthie in the cold Pacific

Note the sweatshirt on Ruthie as she tries to endure the frozen waters of the Pacific Ocean. No swimming today.

The day after the ocean we went to the wedding. This is the wedding for which we crossed the United States… the culmination of a 1769-mile quest. We planned our 40-minute drive from our hotel, through Seattle, to the park where the wedding would take place. A drive that Google promised would take 40 minutes took 90. They have this thing in Seattle that we don’t have in La Crosse—traffic. In hindsight, it might have been wise to arrive a couple hours early for a wedding on the other side of the continent. But we didn’t do that because we are unencumbered by wisdom. We completely missed the ceremony. We made it in time for the family photo, the dinner (Hales never arrive late for dinner) and the dance. The wedding couple, my niece and some young man who is annoyingly good looking and successful, were very forgiving.

Family at the wedding

The wedding in Seattle. Even though our family is sort of separated, I assure you we were not Photoshopped in. This is the unedited photo.

On the trip back to Wisconsin the theme was “Hurry hurry, no, you don’t have time to stop and look at that!” We celebrated Father’s Day on the road. I was given a pretty Montana coffee mug, which my children endeavored to break as soon as we got home.

Other Stuff:

Nikole went to New Zealand with two sisters to visit the fourth sister who married an annoyingly good looking and talented young man from Cambridge. Nikole saw landscapes almost as beautiful as the bluffs around La Crosse, and sheep. She saw lots of sheep. While she was gone, the family almost imploded. Just before the government people came to arrest me for child neglect, my in-laws came to turn back the course of malnutrition. My wife brought me a long sleeved wool cycling jersey. That’s all that really matters.

Liz, Traci, Nikole and Stephanie in New Zealand

The Sisters Zellmann in New Zealand. Why would anyone want to go there? I’m sure the Hauraki Gulf is nice, but does it compare to Lake Onalaska?

We have no chickens. Our ladies were taking a lot of days off and were copping some attitude—Like, “No, don’t touch me! Get away from me! I hate you! Let’s have some food over here!” So, we sent them to a chicken retirement community run by a family friend, who, coincidentally, is known for making tasty chicken soup. I never made that connection before now. Hmm…

We went to my in-laws cabin twice this summer. Oh, the cabin conjures such glorious memories of swimming in the lake, sunrise paddles in the canoe, and broken hips. Yes, I was out on an peaceful bike ride in the country, when I got the call, “We think Nikole dislocated her hip waterskiing. Can you meet us at the hospital?” To which I replied, “Um, maybe after I’m done with my little bike tour. If I have time.” After a leisurely shower and a light lunch, I moseyed to the hospital. We learned that if you dislocate your hip in Perham, Minnesota, you either have to reset it yourself or go to a bigger hospital. I was all into the cost savings of the home remedy, but Nikole chose a helicopter ride to Fargo, North Dakota instead. Did I get a ride in the helicopter? No. I had to drive my in-laws crummy minivan. I didn’t even get to drive my huge, glorious family bus.

Nikole hip drawing

This is an image I drew just after Nikole’s dislocated hip experience. I wrote a blog post about it on our old family blog:

But seriously, we were very relieved to have her hip back in place and there was no permanent damage. I allowed her to take a few weeks off before returning to running and her quest to be the fittest woman in the Midwest.

The only other interesting occurrence was when God threw a dog into our lives. I was innocently looking through the Craigslist pet section when I was assaulted by the ad for a free yellow lab. And how was I to know the young man interviewing prospective families would choose a family suffering from overpopulation in a tiny house? It’s not my fault! I tried everything to avoid it, but now we have a dog. A big, dopey, blockhead dog who mostly lays around and eats an occasional shoe. I want to get rid of him, but the kids like him and Nikole thinks there is some value in a dog who lets four-year-old Lydia lay on top of him twenty times a day. So I guess he stays. And even though they all promised me I would not have to take care of him, I’m the one taking him on the two long walks every day. I enjoy kicking him when nobody is looking.

Lydia on the dog

I ain’t never seen a dog like that before. Best dog ever, I think.

Editor’s Note: Though my husband tries to forget it, we have children. I required him to mention them and he came up with the following:

15-year-old Helen is, humble and kind. She loves drawing, reading and she swims. On rare occasions she practices driving our car, but she is afraid to drive the huge, glorious family bus. She takes care of our pets.


The kind and gentle Helen dressed up for homeschool prom

13-year-old Claire is suspicious and mysterious. She loves swimming—like it pains her to miss a practice. She also loves reading and drawing realistic portraits of famous people. We try to get her to draw family members, but why would you want to draw a sister, when you can draw that girl from Harry Potter. Claire hates pets.

Drawing of Claire

A drawing of Claire by Claire. The poor child has no talent.

Claire at swim team

Swimming, swimming, it’s all about swimming. Don’t talk to me about running or cycling. I only swim.

11-year-old Edward is random and directionless. He loves swimming, mountain biking and, thankfully, entertaining younger siblings.

Edward Luke jumping in the lake

Edward, the directionless, chooses “down” into the lake.

Eight-year-old Ruthie is sweet and conniving. When she’s not stealing someone’s candy, she’s reading or playing the piano. She tries to draw like her older sisters.

Ruthie Nikole in hat

This photo shows the sweet side of Ruthie. But rest assured, she just pushed some kid in the lake or something.

Six-year-old Bethany is innocent and giving. Her only vice is she’s the one who, when the world is quiet and peaceful, will bash her head on the corner of a table and burst into tears. Other than that, she is the source of all things good and pure.


Pure, sweet Bethany, oozing pure sweetness.


Four-year-old Lydia is an adorable possessor of as yet undetermined vices. She plays with dolls and whispers mysterious intrigues. She lays on the dog every few minutes.


Lydia at the lake wearing googles she never takes in the lake. They are a fashion statement.

That is a fairly accurate recounting of the past year in the Hale house. Once again the Lord has blessed us with 12 months of relative peace and good health (hips aside). We hope you too have had a good year, and we pray that God will bless you with peace and good health in the coming year.

Perhaps Our Worst Christmas Tree Hunting Experience

We went to Labus Christmas Tree Farm to cut our own Christmas trees. Every tree is $25 whether it is two feet tall or 20 feet tall. There are no hayrides or hot chocolate, but the trees are nice and dogs are welcome — even worthless yellow labs who, overwhelmed by the scents of the forest, frantically pull their owners over the icy trails.

Lydia cutting Christmas tree

“Come on, Lydia! We don’t have all day. Cut faster.”

Carrying the Christmas tree through the woods

The story was still a happy one as Claire and Helen carried the tree toward the van.

We warned the neighbor kids “It is going to be a 30 minute drive there and back.” But we neglected to warn them about the 20 minutes trying to tie the tree to the top of a van without a roof rack. Oh, and then there was the 30 minutes spent trying to push our huge, million-pound full sized van out of the slightly inclined, icy farm field turned parking lot. Oh, and the 20 minutes on hold with AAA and the 45 minutes waiting for the tow truck to find us in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately we had enough gas to run the van and heater. To help the time pass more slowly, Lydia serenaded us with a whiney chorus of “I’m hungry” for the last half-hour.

You know that feeling when you are out in the country walking your dog… it is a freezing, dark and windy night… your family is stranded in a motionless van… and you see the lights of the tow truck coming down the winding road? No, you don’t know that feeling, because you have a normal vehicle that does not get stuck on every slippery incline. But let me tell you, the lights of that approaching tow truck were a glorious sight.

Tow truck guys hooking up the van

Our saviors, Ivan and his dad, Louie, from Rush Hour Towing. (I like how wisdom stands, while youth crawls around in the ice and snow.)

The big, gutless van being winched

Feel shame, you big, traction-free bus!

I endorse Rush Hour Towing. The drivers were helpful and cheerful even though they were called out to the middle of nowhere on a freezing Sunday night when they should have been home in their slippers sipping hot chocolate. They pulled us easily out of the parking lot, and I was able to have a homeschool moment about the word “winch.”

So, it’s funny. Realizing my big truck was stuck while mini-vans came and went was a little depressing; the testosterone was not coursing through my veins. Waiting for the tow truck was a little tense – like “when is someone in this sardine can going to snap?” But, when we were back on pavement and rolling toward home, I felt super duper relieved and blessed. And we had a good story to tell.

Moral of the story: Don’t drive your full-size van into the “parking lot” at Labus Christmas Tree Farm. Park on the peak of the driveway and carry your tree an extra 50 feet. And if you do get your whale-sized van stuck in the snow in Bangor, Wisconsin, call Rush Hour Towing directly and avoid the long wait on hold with AAA.

My All-Day Birthday Bash 2013

I started my birthday with a four mile paddle with Judson Steinbeck, expert paddler. Let the record state that for the first time I did not bash the side of the canoe with Jud’s carbon fiber paddle as I rushed to switch my paddle from one side to the other. Also, let the record state that for the first time ever I heard something from Judson’s end of the boat that sounded a lot like a carbon fiber paddle bashing into the gunwale of the canoe as he switched from one side to the other. But I won’t mention it here.

I saw a kingfisher – my first kingfisher sighting. I also saw a nighthawk. I pointed these things out to city-boy, Jud. (Actually, our paddles usually sound something like this, “Eddie, look over there, it’s a blue heron – no over there by the fallen tree – more to the left – never mind it’s gone.”)

Thank you, Judson for a beautiful and fun start to the day!

When I got home from paddling, I spent some time with my hens. I let the girls roam about the yard while I raked out the chicken run. I turned over my compost heap, taking frequent breaks to chase the hens out of my neighbor’s yard. My wife came out and accused me of working on my birthday. But when you are a pretend farmer, herding chickens and shoveling compost are the pinnacle of fun.

My farmer hat on the counter

When it is your birthday, you can leave your genuine farmer hat on the counter and your wife does not yell at you.

Birthday sign

My son woke up at 6am to secretly hang the birthday sign he made for me. He obviously got the number wrong.

Birthday sign showing spiral binding

Check out how the birthday sign is made from spiral bindings harvested from last year’s school notebooks. Extracting spiral bindings is a true labor of love.

My wife made me a glorious breakfast of scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes. All around me children ate processed cereal from cardboard boxes.

After breakfast we got the bikes ready for the traditional birthday bike ride. (Getting the bikes ready should take ten minutes to walk them out of the garage, but somehow it always takes about 90 minutes of primping, potty breaks and packing. [That alliteration was accidental])

We rode to Myrick Park and out the Rabbit Trails, then took the La Crosse River Trail to Riverside Park. At the park I was surprised to see that the City of La Crosse had hired a band to celebrate my birthday. All of my friends, most of whom I did not recognize, were sitting on the lawn while the band played from the band shell. It was very fun. They forgot to call me up on stage to sing Happy Birthday to me, but that is okay. I’m sure they were just deferring to my shy humility.

Posing on the bridge

During the traditional family birthday bike ride, we pose on the bridge over the La Crosse River, part of the Rabbit Trails.


Rabbit trails with bikers

The Rabbit Trail through the marsh. Of it Edward said, “Not the Rabbit Trails! It’s paved. If you want me to ride on pavement, you should buy me a road bike.

Lee Rasch playing guitar

Even the president of the college, Dr. Lee Rasch, took time out of his day to celebrate my birthday. Here he is playing with his band, The Executives, at the Riverside Park Band Shell. (Really, that is the president of my college breaking the dress code on a Wednesday. I suspect he might not really know it’s my birthday.)

Kids on a cannon

Please keep your children off the relics!

When we got home from the ride, we were dripping with sweat (it was around 90 degrees) and I started a huge water fight. This is incredible, because if you know me, you know I avoid water and discomfort of any kind. But the extreme heat melted my boundaries and I endured bucket after bucket of ice-cold water being thrown at me from puny children. Claire, ever the sneaky child, proved herself quite adept at aiming a bucket of water such that it went mostly up your nose or curled your eyelids backwards. Still, it was freezing water on a sweltering day, so we let her play.

My birthday card from Nikole

My wife’s handmade birthday card. Of it she said, “I drew the canoe and thought, ‘that’s not enough,’ so I drew the paddle, then I drew you and realized that you are holding the paddle wrong and you are way too far back in the canoe. Oh, and you don’t ever wear your farmer hat paddling, do you?”
Helen said, “Where am I? I should be in the front of the canoe!”

My birthday card from Helen

This card is made by Helen and is a response to the card my wife made.

Both Nikole's and Helen's cards

The cards that healed the severed relationship between mother and daughter.

We finished the day with a pasta feed to replace the carbohydrates we had burned during the day’s extreme activities. The meal was followed by chocolate cake and ice cream. I waited for the familiar call of “Dad, can you finish my cake?” but it never came. I cannot stand that my children are getting big enough to finish their desserts. I don’t really like maturing or aging in any form.

Hale family with birthday cake

Every Hale birthday culminates in emergency chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream along with a photo of the family with the cake. Look at Claire trying with all her might not to make a really stupid face.

I hope you have a good birthday this year and the numbers on your birthday sign are much smaller than mine.