First our beloved small Paul, who stands proudly in the shadow of the majestic water tower with loyal sidekick Babe, loses his arm in a tourist mishap. Now we're told big Paul, who has stood watch over the comings and goings of north country residents and visitors from his royal spot at the corner of Highways 371 and 210 for more than 50 years, is leaving us. While he won't be going far (Nisswa) and we'll still be able to visit him when we want, it simply won't be the same around here without Paul, Babe and the helicopter-buzzing, Ferris-wheel-spinning spot he calls home.
Our Paul has been a good neighbor, his appearance and disappearance behind his wooden wall marking the seasons as surely as robins and snowfall. He has befriended children, the children of those children, and the grandchildren of those children's children. His presence, day after day, is a reminder, however subtle or small, of the time when we were children and summer seemed endless; the rides were limitless; and the mystery of how one giant man knew our name was one we understood we would never solve -- and didn't care to, knowing as we did back then that the world was, after all, filled with magic.
I grew up visiting deer parks, overlooks, root beer stands and kitschy souvenir shops. They are hardwired into my memories of the north country vacations and road travels of my youth. Perhaps this is why I will miss Paul so. He reminds me of the northern Minnesota I remember. The northern Minnesota filled with small, quirky towns whose locally owned businesses reflected the individual personalities of the people who created and ran them. Towns with "attractions" yes, but ones that never threatened to overshadow the lakes, wildlife, and quaint log cabins that were the real reason for our visit.
While some of you (dare I say it?) might not care if Paul leaves, or (this is hard) may actually be happy he's going, I'll bet you a dime to a dollar you'll miss him when he's gone. Perhaps not at first, perhaps not right away. But some late night after a long drive home from the Cities, your tired eyes will take in yet another set of stoplights at yet another intersection, surrounded by the same store fronts, gas stops, and shopping centers you left 150 miles ago; and for a moment, in your weariness, you'll think you've taken a wrong turn and are back in the Cities since your town will look like the countless others you left behind.
When Paul leaves he'll take with him more than his rides, his friend Babe, and his big mustachioed smile. He'll take a good part of whatever defining personality this town has left. Hopefully when they repaired small Paul's arm recently they added lots of reinforcement because with big Paul leaving, the responsibility for playing the role of legend, attraction, and north woods icon will rest on his small, yet beloved, plaid shoulders.
(The author is a Brainerd resident.)
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