by Arlo Hennings
“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be … when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”
― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Excerpt from the book "Guitarlo"
Because of the early 70s inflation, the unemployment office overflowed with people out of work. Desperate men and women of all ages looking for a break were prime targets for the men with a suitcase and a song.
“Hello, my name is Mr. Stone. I am the president of sales for the Combined Insurance Company. How long have you been looking for a job?” asked the short man with a pencil-thin mustache. He wore a patterned vest and vibrant suspenders that held up a pair of black trousers. It was an easy answer. “Too long,” I responded.
“How would you like to be your own boss with unlimited income potential?” he offered, “I make over 100k per year!” He flashed three diamond rings, on his right hand, which I thought might be costume jewelry. Then he smiled like I’ve seen hitmen do in gangster movies before they wrapped a wire choker around someone’s neck.
“Well, let me think. Versus living on food stamps, that’s a tough decision,” I answered.
“I am looking for a special individual to fill a future spot as a divisional manager in my northern division,” he said, while handing me his card, “I have a training class in Minneapolis that starts in two weeks. I will cover your hotel, food per diem, and class materials for the two weeks it takes to become a certified, positive mental attitude winner. The first week is focused on obtaining your insurance license and the second on how to be a winner.”
I looked at his card, then looked up at the long line ahead of me to use the state job-search bank, and inquired, “Where up north did you say?” The idea that not only could I be in the lake country but be paid to be there sounded appealing.
“Bingo,” he replied excitedly, nearly jumping off the floor. “Your base will be in St. Cloud and you will cover all of north-central Minnesota. It’s a great territory with unlimited income potential.” I loved how the word unlimited rolled off his tongue like a pair of boxcar dice in a back alley crapshoot. “What will I learn in the class?” I asked.
He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a book. “Read this and you’ll understand,” he said handing me the book. It was called, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, by Clement Stone. Then he clicked the heels of his patent leather shoes and cheered, “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel ter-r-r-ific!”
What an odd guy, I thought. “So, what happens next?” I asked.
“Call my office and make an appointment to do the paperwork. The rest is up to you,” he said and stuck out his hand.
“Okay, Mr. Stone, I will stop by,” I told him while shaking his hand. A photographer seeming to appear out of nowhere snapped a photo of us. I felt a bit dizzy with bewilderment as I followed him out of the building. I stood there on the sidewalk, captivated at the moment as I watched a chauffeur open the door for him to a waiting limousine.
Stone was a rags-to-riches story who became one of the wealthiest people in America, by selling insurance policies that cost $3. The book was not an autobiography. It was something I had never read before, a self-help template on how to influence people and make money. I likened it to my dad’s sales-training books for Dale Carnegie. For a guy like me who didn’t have two nickels to rub together and whose life was, at best, a never-ending struggle — I found his teachings intriguing. Thus, in the spring of 1976, I prepared to retool my artistic dream, get a suit like everyone else, and see what might happen.
“Playing the game can’t be all that bad?” I tried to convince myself. After I read the book, I started to use the language: “I have a positive mental attitude (PMA). I’m a winner. I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel ter-r-r-ific!” I first gave Stone’s teachings a whirl at a clothing store.
“The blue pinstripe brings out the confidence in your eyes,” the sales clerk said. He measured my thin waist, which was only 28 inches, my inseam 29 inches, and across the shoulders a narrow 42 inches. I tried to look taller than my 5-foot-7-inch height by wearing shoes with elevated soles.
I also wanted to look older. I had what someone described as a “baby face” — a gift from my father’s Danish DNA, I presumed. I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be a closer. However, I didn’t have to look like a total nerd. For a haircut, I opted for the new mod shag cut to resemble Rod Stewart. The sales clerk also picked out a matching shirt, tie, and shoes.
“Do you want to pay cash or by credit card?” asked the clerk at the register.
“Oh, I don’t like to carry that much cash,” I told him.
“No problem. You can get one of our in-store credit cards,” he replied, handing me an application form, “To qualify all you need is a job.”
Even though I hadn’t started the job yet, I went into this whole spiel about what a positive mental attitude I had. “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel ter-r-r-ific!” I told him. “I was recruited by the billionaire Clement Stone. I am a winner. I am the future divisional manager of the northern territory, Combined Insurance Company.”
“Congratulations!” the sales clerk gave me a thumbs up. “Just sign here and I will finish your order. The total is $347.99. Please come back and ask for Harvey.”
“Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star,” I quoted from Stone’s book, as I eyed my brand new dazzling suit.
I checked into a hotel outside of Minneapolis.
I pushed the elevator button, the 8th floor, the weight of past struggles felt left behind. Each floor I passed made a “bing” sound in acknowledgment of each letter in the word terrific. I rose higher and higher. Above a trail of educational misfires, familial dislocation, and enough unemployment freefall to kill every brain cell in my head. But, here I was, the survivor, guitar and briefcase in tow, I could close the world!
If this lifestyle of clean bed sheets and a private room was the standard that came with a positive mental attitude then I would adjust accordingly, because people with a positive mental attitude must be protected from alien spores. A plastic-sealed glass and a toilet so clean a doctor could remove a brain tumor on the lid. The mattress was soft compared to a floor, and an in-room phone versus a payphone out on the street corner was quite an upgrade. I would try the hot bath and envision my upcoming journey through the hinterlands of Minnesota in search of 100K.
On the first day of training, I took my seat in a class with 30 naïve men. Even though the company hired women, as well, none had attended this class. Not one of us had previous sales experience nor understood insurance, but that didn’t matter. Every morning at 9 am, we assembled with our coffee and chanted, “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel ter-r-r-ific!” along with other slogans penned by Stone. We repeated them after lunch and concluded the day with another round of chanting. Slogans would propel us to success.
The class was basically a rehearsal on how to be a sales robot. From 9 to 5 I memorized a lengthy sales script, broke out with others into small groups, role-played buyer and seller with my partner, memorized more, and role-played more. The selling class was interrupted occasionally by guest experts such as Mr. Success. My classmates oohed and aahed, but I can’t remember what they said, because it sounded like a herd of flying cows. The men wore expensive suits and jewelry, delivered polished speeches, and (as the saying goes) could sell a sandcastle beneath a waterfall.
At night we returned to our rooms, committed more to memory, and read from Clement Stone’s book. By the end of the week, I was a superstar. No one knew the script and rebuttals better than I did. I could close anyone, overcome any objection, and use the sliding-pen trick to close. I was taught to hold up the contract and slide it towards the prospect’s hands. Then, let a pen fall down the page so it landed in their hand, leaving no excuse unwilling to sign it.
I loved selling insurance door to door around the lake country and seeing all the beautiful cabins that dotted the shorelines. Many cabins were seasonal and after Labor Day weekend would be closed for the winter. On one isolated road, I backed off the pedal and cruised slowly with my windows wide open, smelling the fresh-cut hay, pine trees, baneberry flowers, and wild grasses.
An eagle spread its wings across a forest sky that was too silent to be real. The sun reflected off the lakes with an early twinkle that fall was hiding behind the fin of hungry bass. I imagined what living up here might be like. In the bone-breaking cold of winter, you can freeze an egg outside in 12 seconds. Exposed skin can develop frostbite in less than 60 seconds. And snow, measured in feet, can trap you inside for days.
“No ordinary person could cut it up here year-round,” I thought out loud. “It would take a pioneer spirit like the early fur traders
I began to let go of those icy thoughts as the late-summer sun and sparkling waters beckoned me. I felt confident that I still had time to sell my first insurance policy, so I decided to take a break.
I rented a canoe on Rainy Lake and began to paddle out and back into time; a time when few white people came to the region. The sound of the paddle and the bow gently parting the water left no trace of the life I left behind. Only the reflection of trees along the shoreline broke my meditation. I moved silently in the direction of a yodeling loon.
About an hour out I was turning to head back when I noticed a plume of smoke. My curiosity drew me around a rocky point, where I saw an elderly woman chopping wood outside of her tiny cabin. The smoke was rising from the stack of a wood-burning stove.
I pulled the canoe up on her shore and she paid me no mind. The ax swung and the logs split. Her snow-white hair was tied back under a red-and-black, checkered lumberjack hat.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” I interrupted.
She set the ax down, “If you’re looking for money, young man, I ain’t got none and never will. That was the Lord’s plan. I ain’t gonna argue with the Lord. So, you best be moving on.” She spits into her bony, vein-covered hands, picked up the ax, and proceeded to add to her pile of cut timber.
I looked around and saw a fishing pole and tackle propped against the cabin. Snare traps hung by hides drying in the sun. Further out back stood an outhouse and fish-cleaning hut. She was, apparently, a woman of pioneer spirit.
The years of swinging that ax could be seen in her hunched back and gnarled, muscular limbs, like those of an ancient oak bent by the endless winter wind. The skin on her face resembled the cracks of early spring lake ice. She sniffed the air with a short owl-like nose. Her sharp, marble- black eyes could spot even the smallest fly hovering above her latest catch.
Stories of dog mushing, snowshoeing, and wilderness survival emanated from a proud carriage shown in her jutting jawline. She had all the signs of a person who had embraced solitude and found solace as a lone hunter.
I stood there mute, not sure of what rebuttal might work on her.
“Well just don’t stand there with a heavy lip, or a crow’s gonna do its morning chore on your head,” she sputtered.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
“As long as I can remember,” she answered, paused to spat, and then offered, “all right, young man, it seems you have a hankering for words so let’s go inside and I’ll pour you some coffee.” She opened her heavy, pine door, as she limped slightly on her left knee. Inside her one-room cabin sat a wood-burning stove, along with rustic furnishings — cot, old black-and-white photos, deer antlers, night bucket, table with two chairs, dishes, clothes hung on a wire in one corner. And everywhere, the interior was adorned with hundreds of the most amazing little hand-carved wooden loons. She served me coffee in a loon-shaped mug.
“What are you doing on the lake?” she quizzed me.
“I sell insurance and wanted to take a break, ma’am,” I answered, “My name is Arlo... what is your name?”
“My name is Marie Oberholtzer. Where you from, young man?” she asked.
“From the cities,” I replied. The coffee was lumberjack-boot strong- so strong that I’d figured I probably could cut her winter firewood in one hour.
“How about your kin?” She picked up a knife and a block of wood and began to carve the beginnings of a loon. Her fingers were long and unnaturally curved at the knuckles.
“I was abandoned when I was 15 years old,” I told her.
“Why was that, pray tell?” her eyes fixed hard on me.
“My parents and I didn’t see eye to eye on things, I guess,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.
“Your mother was a farmer?” she delved.
“Yes, and my dad was a salesman,” I added.
“Yep, you’re stubborn just like your mother. Stubborn as all get out, you crazy farmers,” she proclaimed while shaking her head. “So your daddy was a traveling salesman like you, eh?”
I nodded my caffeine-buzzed head. She knew I was telling a bit of a lie.
“You go back and apologize to them. I don’t give a coon’s ass who’s right or wrong. No matter. There are enough orphans in the world without wanting to be one. You’re old enough now to know better. Someday, your parents will be gone and then what?” she scolded.
“What about you, Marie? Where did your kin come from?” I asked.
“I was born on a ship crossing the Great Lakes in the late 1800s. My parents settled these parts for timber and hide. Then in the winter of 1890, the pox killed my parents, sister, and brother. Only my father’s uncle’s son survived. And so it is with the Lord’s plan. No sense in questioning it... gonna do no good.”
“How do you survive up here?” I said.
“I knew Ojibwe trappers and learned their medicine. I would have died without their help. The Ojibwe says that this is the lake that speaks. When I was young the Indians called me zazegaa-ikwe agamiing. It translates roughly to mean Lady Out of the Lake. Like, I was born from the lake. Billy Maggie and his tribe, and my cousin, they’re gone. Amen, mercy on their souls. Once the lake has frozen a neighbor stops by and brings me supplies on a snowmobile. If it’s not too cold, I’ll snowshoe over to Mallard Island. Have you been to my cousin’s island? He built quite the museum there. From here, it’s about 15 minutes by canoe.”
I had to do something serious with my coffee buzz. “Can I lend a hand with your firewood?” I offered.
“I would appreciate that young man,” The Lady out of the Lake answered as she gave her wooden creation a beak.
I split wood for an hour and stacked it beneath a tarp, filled a tank with fresh spring water, drove a couple of nails into a loose board, and swept out her cabin. “I think things are looking ship-shape,” I wiped a bead of sweat off my brow.
She offered a drink of the cool spring water and I sat down to admire her loons. “You’re a great woodcarver. Do you make anything else besides loons?” I asked.
“Nope, I only do loons. They’re my specialty,” she replied proudly.
“Do you sell them?” I asked.
“I give them away as gifts,” she told me.
It was getting late and I had an hour canoe ride back to the resort, and what else I could do for her? “Do you have any insurance?”
“Never been to a doctor and never will, it’s the Lord’s plan,” she said, as she sanded the head of her new loon.
“I’d like to give you a life insurance policy. Consider it a gift. The policy will pay out $3,000 to your choice of beneficiary. All I need is your birth date.”
“Oh, you mean when I die someone’s gonna get $3,000?” she acted surprised.
“Yes, who would you like the money to go to?”
“Can I donate it to the Lake of the Woods Ojibwe band?” she asked.
“I believe so. I will have to find out how to register that,” I answered.
“Okay, what do you need to know from me?”
“What is your birthdate?”
“My birthdate is January 2, 1884. I am 92 years old,” she said while inspecting her freshly carved loon.
“Sign here,” I put a pen and the policy on the table. I lied on all the underwriting questions about her health. Then I bent down to pull up my socks. When I returned to the table, I folded her policy and gave it to her. Without looking, I closed my underwriter’s kit. “Great, thank you. And someday I am sure the Ojibwe people will appreciate it, too.”
“I have something for you,” she said with a smile, as she handed me the small loon she had just carved.
“Thank you, Marie,” I said gratefully and put it into my pocket, “It’s getting late so I should be getting back.” I stood up and gave her a bear hug. “Don’t get too lonely out here.”
I paddled back the same way I came, but the landmarks seemed different. “If the trees could speak,” I thought out loud.
Around the next island, as if I was being escorted from the wilderness, one loon gave a hoot, and a few seconds later another hoot answered in the distance.
When I arrived back at the outfitters, the resort owner asked me about my trip, “How was your voyage?”
“It was great,” I said. “I came upon this cabin where I met an elderly woman named Marie —The Lady of the Lake.”
He stood there expressionless as I told him a fish as big as my canoe nearly capsized me. “Come with me,” he welcomed, motioning to his bar.
I sat at his bar and looked at a map of the lake on the wall with a bunch of pins stuck in it with dates at various locations. I assumed they were camping spots.
“What can I get you?” he offered while wiping off the bar top. “You must be thirsty after all that paddling.”
I had closed my first prospect and I supposed I earned the right to celebrate. “I will have a beer on tap,” I ordered.
The resort owner set the beer down in front of me. It was golden brown with frosty foam on top. I took a good gulp.
“So, what’s this you say about meeting an elderly woman on an island?” he asked.
“Yeah, she was a really cool 92-year-old lady who carved loons,” I replied, then downed my beer.
“Can you point on the map where you saw her?” he asked.
I got up from my barstool, and, to my best estimate, pointed to an island on the map, and said, “Right about there.”
He looked at the spot carefully, stuck in a pin, and wrote the date. “The sightings go back at least 50 years to when I opened this resort,” he told me, “No one knows how long before that. The last sighting was 10 years ago. A fisherman told me how they came across an old woman living alone in the wilderness. According to Indian legend, there was a female loon that got stuck in an early winter storm. Unable to fly, she died on an island. The spirit of the loon lives in the Lake that Speaks. What did she tell you, son? The stories vary. She doesn’t appear to just anyone. You were chosen.”
The news left me dumbfounded. I thought he was pulling my leg. “I wrote her a life insurance policy,” I said, defensively.
“That’s a shiner if I ever heard one,” he laughed, “I don’t suppose you got her signature?”
“Yes, I did,” I pulled out my underwriter’s kit and flipped through the policies to the last one. I looked in disbelief and the signature line was blank.
“How about a beer on the house?” he offered, laughing again.
“But she said she was the cousin of the person who built on Mallard Island,” I questioned.
“Oh, that’s a new one,” he said and poured me another beer. “Ernest Oberholtzer from Mallard Island was a famous explorer and statesman in these parts. He saved the lake by getting it declared as a national park. I suppose if it wasn’t for Oberholtzer the Lady out of the Lake would have lost her lake.”
A wet fin lay over me.
I thanked the resort owner and started my drive back to the motel where the Combined Insurance team was staying. That’s when I noticed a sharp object in my pocket. I pulled it out and it was a small wooden loon. I smiled and thought out loud, “There was no way I could have imagined The Loon Lady.” I put the carved loon on my dashboard like a compass. Since I didn’t get her signature I wrote a policy on myself to fulfill my first close.
Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.
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Arlo Hennings Bio
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