The Little Blond-Haired Kid
I loved going to church as a child. I would snuggle in between my mother and father, listening for the moment when Rev. John Reppe, of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, would begin talking about a man he admired almost as much as Jesus. The minister would saunter to his lectern, gaze over the congregation, and say something like this: “Today we turn to the Epistle to the Philippians, where Paul writes, ‘Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.’”
I was too young to understand much of what Pastor Reppe said, but I did know this: once again, he was quoting the strongest and wisest man in the world, my hero, my father, Paul Essen—and the entire congregation was hanging on his every word!
Life began for me in the Minnesota town of Two Harbors, located on Lake Superior, twenty-five miles north of Duluth. I was the youngest of three siblings; my mother, Marcie, was a housewife, and my father was the owner and president of one of the two banks in town. My father’s bank was the Commercial State Bank, and the other was Satan’s Savings and Loan, or something similar to that. In addition to believing my hero-father was the Paul Pastor Reppe quoted so often, I also believed he was the richest man in town. That belief would be shot down years later, when I learned that running a bank in a town of a little over four thousand people wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
I lived in Two Harbors only through kindergarten, but those years were rich with small town experiences. When I think back about it now, I’m amazed at just how much freedom I had to roam. Usually I was with the local mortician’s son, Brent, or Luann, the girl I was determined to marry when I was older—like ten. Both lived just down the street from me. No part of town was off-limits to us, including Lake Superior, where we would spend hours on the pebble beach searching for agates, or uptown, where we would check out the water tower to make sure it wasn’t leaking. And, naturally, we would tiptoe into the mortuary attached to Brent’s house, where we’d ultimately chicken out before seeing any dead people.
Haircuts in Two Harbors were also unaccompanied. My father would simply hand me a few dollars and say, “Walk over to the barber’s after school. Tell him to give you a butch.” Hmm. . . . Now there’s a word that’s evolved over the years.
Family entertainment in northern Minnesota meant Captain Kangaroo in the morning, leaf-viewing automobile rides in the fall, and skating in the winter. Then, during the summer, we’d spend weekends at our cabin on Stone Lake, where we would swim, fish, and my brother would shut me inside the hide-a-bed. In retrospect, I was lucky to have lived through playing hide-a-bed-sandwich. People have actually suffocated doing it. Me? It just gave me a lifetime of claustrophobia.
Other family fun at the cabin included watching our neighbor, Lenny, put-put by on his motorized DDT fog machine. Back then, few people in the woods of northern Minnesota understood the dangers of DDT. All anyone knew was that after Lenny made his rounds, mosquitoes and biting flies disappeared for several days. Years later, my mother claimed that after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, she always called everyone inside when she heard Lenny’s contraption coming down the gravel road. While I don’t doubt that, I still have vivid memories of watching the man riding his machine. Perhaps that’s why I always sleep dead insect-style, with my arms and legs tucked in.
Of all the cabin activities, hunting for frogs, snakes, and turtles was my favorite. I adored wildlife and always carefully released everything I caught after showing them to my mother, who would pretend to be impressed. Sadly, as I grew older, the vast majority of those creatures disappeared from Stone Lake. Kid-logic told me they had all become craftier hiders. Now, of course, I know DDT did them in. As for Lenny? He lived to be ninety.
After I triumphantly aced kindergarten, my parents announced that we were moving to Fort Collins, Colorado. The year was 1968, and at the time, I didn’t understand that the move was an attempt to save their marriage. I was just excited to see the mountains. The eleven-hundred-mile drive, in our 1963 Buick station wagon, went something like this:
Me (age six): “When will we see the mountains?”
Mom: “It will be a while, dear. We aren’t even out of Minnesota yet.”
Paul Jr. (age eleven): “Diana just stuck her tongue out at me.”
Diana (age thirteen): “I did not!”
Me: “Pauly and Diana are squishing me!”
Paul Jr.: “Stop calling me ‘Pauly.’ I’m ‘Paul’ now.”
Me: “I see the mountains!”
Dad: “Those are hills, son. We won’t see the mountains until late tomorrow.”
Paul Jr.: “Diana just wiped a booger on me!”
Mom: “Stop it! All of you.”
Dad: Turns on the radio and frantically searches for Johnny Cash.
Me: “I think I see the mountains.”
Shortly after moving into our new house, both of my parents enrolled at Colorado State University, and we lived off the money my father received from selling the bank. My mother would ultimately earn her master’s degree and become a licensed psychologist. My father would earn his bachelor’s degree, with the intention of transferring to a seminary and becoming a minister. Unfortunately for my father, learning Latin and feeding a family of five prevented him from reaching his dream. Instead, he went back into banking, having to settle for a loan officer position beneath his talents. He didn’t pout about being overqualified for the job, however, because he had recently upgraded himself from being a standard Christian to being a new and improved born-again Christian. Banking provided him the perfect opportunity to “share the good news.”
Although I never had the opportunity to watch him work, I imagine his customer interactions went something like this:
Customer: “Hi. I’d like to apply for a loan.”
Paul: “Certainly! Please sit down.”
The customer sits.
Paul: “Are you looking for a home or auto loan?”
Customer: “Home loan.”
Paul: “And how much are you looking to finance?”
Customer: “One hundred and twenty thousand.”
Paul: “Oh, that must be a nice house. Don’t forget to invite Jesus.”
Paul: “I’m sorry. I was like you not too long ago. I bought this beautiful house, but it just felt empty until I asked Jesus to come inside—and into my heart.”
According to my mother, the bank threatened to fire my father several times for his on-the-job preaching.
As for me, I graduated from Captain Kangaroo to Batman and had an entirely new list of creatures to catch and release. At the time, the population of Fort Collins had yet to explode (going from 35,000 when I lived there to roughly 170,000 in 2020), so I had lots of creeks and open spaces to explore.
The street I lived on was wide and quiet, with gutters that would become tiny streams whenever it rained or someone ran a sprinkler too long. My G.I. Joe found those gutters especially hazardous, since he’d have to navigate those streams in his tiny boat while fighting lighter-fluid-pissing monsters that breathed fire. Sometimes poor G.I. Joe would get quite hot under the collar during those adventures. So hot, in fact, he melted.
Lighter fluid was also a key ingredient to the tennis ball cannons my friends and I made. We’d cut the ends off soda cans and attach a few together with duct tape, and when we added the final can, we left on the bottom end and punched a hole low in its side. After that, it was just a matter of inserting a tennis ball, squirting some lighter fluid into the hole, and applying a match. The explosion would shoot the ball high into the air. Later, after sky balls lost their excitement, we upped the game. One set of friends would team up in the middle of the street, fifty or so feet away from the other set. Then one boy would hold the tennis-ball-loaded cannon on his shoulder and aim—like a bazooka—while the other stood behind to pour in lighter fluid and ignite. (Please don’t try this. It’s dangerous!)
Our tennis ball cannon fights soon became bottle rocket fights, since those didn’t require teams and, I don’t know . . . they seemed safer. Those battles required real skill, because after lighting the fuse, we’d have to hold onto the end of the stick long enough so that when we flung the firework, like a baseball, the propellant would ignite at the exact moment necessary to shoot the rocket directly at an opponent.
Yes, I still have both of my eyes.
My days as a budding pyromaniac came to an abrupt end when I started a fire that shot along the dry grass beneath the wooden fence in my backyard. I burst into tears as I grabbed the garden hose and put out the fire in a panic. Had I delayed for even a moment that fire would have spread beyond the reach of the hose.
After I turned nine, my family moved to a smaller house a few blocks away. There I had a new neighbor, Bruce, who was a few years older than me. He had access to a treasure even better than a can of lighter fluid: Playboys! He acquired the magazines from his father’s dresser drawer, and we carried them up into the garage attic of my house. We were both too young to do anything other than stare at the pictures, but stare we did. Back then, Playboy magazines were mildly risqué, showing only women’s breasts and a hint of pubic hair. The mystery of what was beyond the hair was a source of great frustration for me. I even tried holding the magazines at an angle, hoping that somehow it would help me see between the model’s legs. It didn’t work.
One female who was happy to demonstrate the cycle of life for me was a black widow spider I caught in the window well outside my sister’s basement bedroom. Unlike other creatures I caught and released, putting this one back where I found it seemed unwise. Instead, I sealed her into a jar and carried her to the attached garage. There I cared for her until she presented me with just short of a billion pin-head-sized babies. That created an unanticipated problem. I had been feeding the black widow moths and grasshoppers, but they were way too big for the babies. I looked for some mosquitoes, but those insects only show up when you don’t want them. Finally, I decided to throw in some small moths and let the spiders sort things out.
I carefully unscrewed the lid and tossed in the meal. It was at that moment I screamed for the very first time the most versatile word the world has ever known: “Fuuuck!”
A million or so of the baby black widows had been crawling on the underside of the lid. Now they were crawling on me. I violently shook my hands and brushed the babies off as I danced around the garage in a panic. Then I screamed for the first time another, slightly less versatile word: “Shiiit!”
I had forgotten to put the lid back on!”
Did I mention that my parents were clueless that I was harboring black widow spiders in the garage? Using a piece of cardboard and a putty knife, I wrangled as many spiders as I could find back into the jar before doing what any nine-year-old boy would do. I confessed to Mom.
Perhaps aided by her psychology training, my mother was amazingly cool about the ordeal. First, she inspected me; then she walked from the kitchen into the garage and inspected the spiders.
“You know what you have to do,” she said.
“I won’t kill them,” I replied.
“You don’t have to kill them. You just have to get rid of them—far away from the house.”
Those black widows were lucky I had another friend, Andy, who was a few years older than me. His father was as good at unwittingly whetting a boy’s curiosity as Bruce’s father had been. He was a herpetologist, and down in his basement he had dozens of terrariums containing native reptiles and amphibians. Since Andy and I frequently snuck into the basement to view all those critters, I knew exactly what I wanted when my friend offered to make a trade for the spiders. That beautiful coral snake in the corner terrarium would make a fine addition to the Essen family garage!
Epilogue: No, I didn’t bring home a deadly coral snake. Instead, I settled for my second choice—the cutest little horned toad you’ve ever seen. Even my mother thought it was cute. And if you are wondering how I escaped sickness or death from all the baby black widows crawling on my hands: even if they had tried to bite, none would have been big enough to break my skin. That was a fact I wouldn’t learn until many years after the event.