A 25th wedding anniversary weekend is like the best pair of beer goggles ever made. A couple is perfect, if only for a few days, after a quarter-century of loving, fighting and growing together. Impervious. It gives us superpowers.
We fly into Minocqua, capes flapping behind us, from our friend's cabin up in Presque Isle. The place is swarming with people. Beef-a-Rama, Minocqua's annual celebration of roast, is in full tilt.
There are two ways to slice into Beef-a-Rama. You can knife in with the same, straight-faced appetite as the locals, or you can salt it with irony, fork in hand, tongue in cheek, like the out-of-towners.
We don't choose, because we're only blasting in and out of town long enough to buy knitting needles and firewood. I drop Peggy off downtown, then double back through the throng to Kurt's Bait Shop. Kurt's lot is empty. Not a single car. Apparently nobody goes fishing during Beef-a-Rama. I swing the van into the front door spot.
Oh, buddy. Is there anything more invigorating on a crisp fall afternoon than selecting pre-cut, factory-packaged firewood? Glorious! The sweet strain of the back as you reach down and grab the bundle handle. The muscle burn when you hoist product from the display pallet. The satisfying, brisk, four-step walk back to the van. It's the outdoor life for me!
Manly firewood-gathering chore finished, I stroll across the street to inspect a wooden bench we spied on our way in. It's displayed in front of one of the vendor tents.
But up close this thing isn't what we want at all. It's of the "Early Up North" style: stout, roughly hewn, peroxide blond, over-lacquered. The kind of thing you put in a room filled with stuffed eagles and looks like it should have a stash drawer built in.
I look around and realize I'm in the heart of freaking Beef-a-Rama. With time to kill.
It's a heckuva party, too. I eat a hot dog and enjoy the ropey action over at the climbing wall, which pulses like a beehive. Families, mostly decked out in Packers clothes, check out food tents and jewelers' wares, and line up at tables where local radio celebrities hand out Captain Morgan T-shirts. It's no different from any other small town festival except for one thing. There's a shit ton of meat here.
Over behind the rock band at the park pavilion, portly town leaders in white aprons work a row of shiny metal meat slicers. They're sawing off samples of cow that entered the park during the Parade of Roasts. Prized contenders for the championship.
Peggy calls. She's on her way through the festivities. We reunite, sip a beer, and people-watch. The phone buzzes with an anniversary greeting from our youngest son in Asheville! We pass the phone back and forth as we make our way back to the van. Beef-a-Rama is great and everything, but we crave the solitude of our borrowed lake joint.
The lot is still empty back at Kurt's. Actually, it looks extra empty. Having your car towed invites the purest form of denial. The last thing you think is, "Hey! My car's been towed!" Instead, you think, "I'm sure my car was here but I must have parked it someplace else." I look at Peggy.
"What?" she says.
"That's where I parked," I say.
I go inside.
"You just missed the tow truck," says the high-schooler behind the counter.
"Why'd I get towed?"
"Only customers can park here," he says.
"I bought firewood!"
"Yeah," he shrugs. "And then you left."
It's a 10-block walk to the Minocqua cop shop. We discuss what our approach to the situation will be with the police. We evolve from an indignant strategy (we were customers!) and agree on a begging-for-mercy tactic (it's our anniversary!).
The lobby is empty. One wall of bulletproof glass separates the waiting area from the office suite. It's going to be $75 for the tow and, worse, it's a five-mile cab ride to the tow lot.
I bend over to talk to the two officers through the hole in the glass. At the last second I resist the plan to exploit the fact that it's our anniversary. Then my story comes out. Very generally speaking, it goes like this: "Anniversary, knitting needles, anniversary, Kurt's Bait Shop, anniversary, anniversary, firewood, 25th wedding anniversary, wood bench, anniversary, hot dog, anniversary, cold beer, raised three children together, anniversary, people-watch, anniversary, anniversary, car towed, anniversary. And it's our anniversary!"
An interior door opens into the lobby and out steps Tina, a part-timer at the station. "Did you say it was your anniversary? I'll drive you to the car lot!"
And so she does. She drops us off in a sea of gravel at the tow lot. We head into the office. There's a big ol' boy behind a beat-up desk.
"It's our anniversary!" we say.
"Congratulations!" he answers. It's clear we're on a roll.
"That'll be $75!"
After 25 years, who needs to go out to dinner?