The Turtle Ranch
Mid-afternoon on a typical working Thursday, a blue and white bus full of senior citizens traveled down the oiled, two lane country road. This is an unremarkable happening to everyone else. It could be a journey to the Mall in the city or a trip to a church function or any one of a hundred different bus related functions.
Written on the side of the bus was Boulder Rapids Nursing Home in large white block letters on a centered blue strip. The second line, in smaller letters, was Boulder Rapids, Minn.
As the bus entered the outskirts of the small city, distinguished by large rows of grey concrete grain storage bins, the logo of a golden colored shock of wheat, painted inside of a white circle on the side of the first storage bin, could be seen. It had become the “only fifty miles to go” landmark for travelers heading to the “Twin Cities”.
A smaller, informational sign on the right side of the road said University of Minnesota Ag Extension Campus. There were precise rows of crops with the seed suppliers name and seed number on a stake neatly placed at the end of each row. It looked regimental and educational.
Traffic flowing from these country tributaries to the city arteries, become more congested as large grain trucks, cattle trucks, students and local traffic converge as they travel through to the Twin Cities.
No one noticed the blue and white bus as it turned and passed through the guard controlled gates of Mrs. Wiggins’ Home for the Active Elderly.
The gate was opened, and the gate was closed as the traffic passed by. The guard entered his temperature controlled shack and rubbed his hands together to generate friction. The days were getting chilly. He wrote down the pertinent information from the bus in his log book, put his feet up on the desk, and disappeared behind the sports section of his newspaper.
The bus went past a pair of vine hidden tennis courts then drove to the rear of a two story brushed brick and stick institutional looking building. It stopped under a corrugated, galvanized awning that protects the entrance walkway up and the bus arrivals from the weather.
An attendant stepped out from the weather lock doors and assists the bus’s passengers down the two steps down to the concrete walk, bright eyed and grinning. They each thank the attendant and immediately advance to the double set of doors. It was a quick, business like walk fueled with excitement and anticipation.
Through Them Golden Doors
After everyone was safely inside the building, the bus driver pulled the empty bus around the circle driveway to another building large enough to hold several buses. A little wisp of smoke rises from a smokestack on top of this garage indicating it was heated.
The driver, once inside with his bus, retreated to an even warmer “drivers lounge” with padded arm chairs and a television. Coffee and snacks were available for his comfort as this was their home until the evening trip home. Drivers were not allowed in the main building. It is reserved for the active elderly members only.
Once inside, the Active Elderly are greeted by Ingrid, a perfectly dressed, silver haired hostess. She would check each member’s color coded bracelet against the Turtle Ranch’s register, which displayed a picture and an identification number.
A red carpet, more for directing than opulence, led to a pair of white doors patinaed with gold. As the visitor approached, the magnetic strip hidden inside their bracelet opens the door to a beautifully flocked wallpaper hallway. This first hallway was short and turned ninety degrees to the right at its end. The hallway to the right opened into a waiting lounge furnished with comfortably padded armchairs, recliners and couches. This room could be used as a rendezvous or as the distribution point to “The Turtle Ranch.”
Ol’ Rusty’s Bar and Grill
The day for Ralph Nordvig was exciting. He looked forward to this every other Thursday trip to The Turtle Ranch.
His day would begin with the usual shower, breakfast and medication. Seventy four years old with a slight case of arthritis was not a reason for Ralph to slow down. He liked to be busy, loved to laugh, enjoyed delicious food, and once in a while, a toddy.
A small meeting room in the Whetstone Valley Nursing Home had a symbolic turtle on it. No words, just the turtle. Originally, it was meant to be a joke by one of the patients but, it was never removed. Some say it was a symbol for “Slow and Easy”, the same sign they saw on their farm machinery shifter lever. It may be true!
The code name for the bus became “The Turtle Bus”, and the code for Mrs. Wiggins’ Home for the Active Elderly became, “The Turtle Ranch!”
This room at Whetstone Valley was where qualified members of the group met to have their I.D. bracelets put on. The room had a convenient outside exit that led down a short sidewalk to the curbside where the innocent looking blue and white bus waited. Once outside those doors, silent excitement would swell in the center of each bus rider. A break from the daily routine of the nursing home and this evening of freedom was only an hour’s bus ride away.
This was a memorable evening for Ralph. Tonight he will have is first unsupervised date with Annie.
Annie would be arriving a little later from another home for the elderly in another town. She’d been coming to The Turtle Ranch for a couple of years and like Ralph, looked forward to her bi-monthly night out. The evenings of companionship gave her a reason to look forward to the next one. It made her happy with anticipation, especially during those long Minnesota winters when it was too dangerous to go for a walk or even sit in the cold garden for sunshine. Before Turtle Ranch, winters were extremely depressing for herself and many of her friends.
Tonight, per agreement, Ralph had passed through the waiting room and went directly to the bar. Annie did not know exactly when she would arrive and it gave Ralph a chance to “steady his nerves” a little. It also afforded the occasion to be a little less formal.
In keeping with this informality, Ralph had chosen a rustic bar table with seating for only two in a darkened corner of the bar. Besides the ambient glow from the room, the only light they would have was a candle. Its flickering light gave motion to one of the old masters’ slightly risqué semi-nude paintings. The artists name started with R I think. Anyway, it set the mood Ralph thought was appropriate for his date.
A much younger elderly lady, maybe in her early or middle sixties, tastefully dressed in a French waitress’s costume, set a bar napkin in front of Ralph and asked him if he’d like to order a beverage. He knew they had Boston Lager on tap and ordered one. He mentioned that he was waiting for someone else and would probably be ordering supper after her arrival.
The foamy Boston Lager tap was served. He sipped and wiped the foam from his same colored mustache. As he wiped, Ralph looked around at the lightly cackling crowd that had gathered here tonight. Most of these patrons were old friends from the “outside” life in their younger days. Some of these groups of men had watched a million football and baseball games together; they had hunted and fished together. There were even those that played these sports together, and against each other, in high school.
Many hadn’t traveled far from their birth place. They were born here. They lived, worked and raised their families, all within fifty miles. Other had made their homes in places with names like Twin Brooks, Phoenix, Huntsville, Grand Rapids, St. Paul, and Sioux Falls. Here, all were smiling and living out their end lives together, back where it all started.
There were tables occupied by men and women who’d never met face to face before tonight. They may have met “on-line” as many of these guests were computer savvy and could operate most electronic devices. Some met at this bar the old fashioned way.
Ralph had met Annie, through a friend of Annie’s, at this bar.
Mrs. Wiggins’ Home for the Active Elderly
Mrs. Wiggins’ Home started as an ordinary care home with all of the usual professional elderly care. Patients came and went leaving room for more patients. It was considered a dignified and quiet place to pass.
The development of “The Turtle Ranch” happened because the administrator of Mrs. Wiggins’ Home, noticed that most “passing” occurred as fall turned to winter and with the winter, normally active patients lost interest, appetite and, energy. This building was a converted county office building with small rooms, large meeting rooms and even a kitchen. A remodeling made a marvelous adult care facility but still left large unused spaces.
The first thing the administrator did was turn one of the empty meeting rooms into a recreation and dance room. Over time, it inherited a bar from a patient who had owned a “bar and grill”. When he became a patient and his business was closed, Mrs. Wiggins’ Home not only inherited the bar but all of the fixtures. The professional “grill” stuff went into the kitchen. With the lights turned down, the bar room became a truly popular location. Some patients even requested their evening meals and a television in there. There wasn’t any reason not to grant their requests.
Rusty, the old tavern owner that donated the bar, enjoyed many more years behind his true home. His customers felt as if they were alive and socialized. Some pinball games were added, and a pool table and a digital dart board were donated. As a result, winter depression decreased, medications decreased, smiles and wholesome attitudes increased.
The activities director loved the job. Aids and nurses had a place, away from the sterile patient floors, to eat their lunches. Sometimes, the nurses ate at the invitation of their patients. Over time, a menu was created for a custom lunch.
The Table in the Corner
Ralph stood up as the hostess brought Annie over to his table. This is the second meeting between Ralph Nordvig and Annie Schmidt. Their first date was a complete success but kept short and restricted to the Bar area only. It was the rules. The option for supervised and monitored dating was chosen by Annie and her family. Even the decision to include her family in her activities was an option for Annie or for that matter, Ralph too.
It was all part of a process to protect the patrons of the Turtle Ranch. Most options could be modified by degree any time the patrons wished. This protection also gave the patron or the couple, the option for privacy if they wanted. More about this later!
Ralph moved the barrel backed chair away from the table to seat Annie. Before she sat down, she gave Ralph a kiss on the cheek. He looked surprised and carefully slid the chair under his date. This was an excellent beginning to the evening. While the hostess was still present, Ralph asked Annie if she would like to start with a glass of Chardonnay. Annie asked what he was drinking, and he said Sam Adams. She ordered a second bottle and glass. She was German after all.
The hostess whose name was Ingrid, believe it or not, carried the bar tray on her shoulder, set the beer and glasses down along with two menus. Annie poured that beer like a pro, took a sip and wiped the foam off her upper lip with a napkin. Ralph did not pick a fancy table with multiple tall candles and a table cloth. He picked this bar table to be informal on purpose. It was doing what it was intended to do!
The menu was divided into two parts. There was the bar menu side and the formal dining room side. Both looked at the bar menu side. Formal would be saved for a later date. They were both comfortable where they were.
Ralph ordered Walleye Strips and Chips. Annie ordered BBQ Chicken Legs and Bar Fries. Perfect! They could get served quickly, finish eating and get on to the Casino!
The bar fare was delicious. The beer was cold and fit the meal. In spite of the quick service and the fast finish, Ralph and Annie did not get up immediately. A life conversation took place. Stomachs full, the relaxation offered by Sam Adams and the atmosphere brought on comfortable table talk.
Kids, relatives and acquaintances dominated the conversation. They talked longer than either of them thought.
A look up at the Bud’ clock on the wall and Ralph said, “Gees”.
Annie followed his gaze and stood herself up. Time was moving, and they had a curfew. Annie’s bus does leave on time, and they will expect her to be there.
There was just enough time to walk through the open doorway where bells and flashing lights dominated the atmosphere.
Annie led the way to the Twenty-One tables. Ralph followed one hand in a pocket and walking a half step behind, as it was obvious, she had her head.
Whatever she wanted to do was OK with him. They could get in a few of hands of Twenty-One before Annie had to leave. Some “house” rules could not be broken. You could not miss your bus unless it was approved and prearranged.
All the Bells and Whistles
Gambling at The Turtle Ranch had to be done with “house tokens”. These were purchased with cash, credits earned or by award.
Cash was used when it was determined the buyer could afford what was being purchased. Credits earned were accumulated by service to the customer’s community or Home institution and were stored in a computer. Award amounts could come from friends, relatives, birthdays, holidays and awards for smiles, kindness, or for just following the rules. Everyone would be covered somehow.
The dealer at this table was a stout, cigar stub chomping, one legged woman nicknamed “Poker Alice”. She’d been dealing Twenty-One since the beginning of the casino. She lost her leg to a medical condition and dealing cards her way of earning her keep at the Turtle Ranch. Many here earned their way at Mrs. Wiggins’ Home by working. Internally they called it “Working the Ranch”. It meant they were carrying their own weight and were not a burden to anyone. This was extremely beneficial to them and to the health of the establishment.
“TWENTY-ONE,” shouted Annie.
Ralph was not playing this evening. His joy came from watching Annie play. She did not play that well, but did have that innocent luck that the poker gods bestow on certain people just for the fun of it. This luck fascinated Ralph because it was consistent. He didn’t have it. What few chips he ever won were won through hard work and experience.
Annie played on, winning some, losing some but always having fun. That was the point and the casino was busy and noisy. Smiles were everywhere.
The hands on the clock moved toward Ten (O’clock). The crowd began to thin. Five different buses from five different “homes” lined up in the circle drive, in front of the awning.
Annie and Ralph headed for the exit, hand in hand and smiling. Each gave the other a quick kiss on the cheek, sealing the evening. They went out through the doors to the end of the awning.
“Goodnight Annie!” Ralph said as his hand left Annie’s, touching to the end as the fingertips went by.
“Call me when you get home, Ralph.” She said turning, eyes searching for the first step up. Once she found it, she turned back and smiled at him.
Ralph headed to his bus and Annie waved from her seat window as if school children were heading to their respective homes after school.
The Turtle Ranch (part two)
A sharply dressed gentleman cautiously stepped down from his blue and white bus. His overnight suitcase was unloaded by the driver and taken to a service entrance.
Joe walked toward the double weather lock doors, stopped, turned, and looked to see if any buses were behind the bus he arrived on, waiting to disembark its passengers. There wasn’t a bus waiting, so, he headed inside. As he lowered his arm to walk, a coveted “green bracelet” dropped to his wrist below his shirt cuff.
The green bracelet is only worn by patrons at Mrs. Wiggins’ Home for the Active Elderly, when they have met the highest mental and physical criteria designated by the PPRCG (The Patient and Physician’s Recreational Criteria Group).
Joe presented his left arm for the I.D. check and signed the register.
The hostess welcomed him with a “Good afternoon Joe. You know the way.”
The Golden Doors to the lounge automatically opened, and Joseph Andersen sat down in a burgundy, velvet covered, early 1900’s, arm chair.
This evening, Joe had a date with Agnes Kruger, or as she’d been known by the locals for the past fifteen years, The Widow Kruger.
Agnes’s husband and she had owned a dairy farm about ten miles south of The Turtle House. After the Agnes and her husband sold off the registered dairy herd and the farm, they moved to the small farm village of Elm. Her husband passed on only a couple of years later, which left her alone and fairly wealthy.
Not one used to sitting, Agnes became active in and supported small town business and activities. She’d met Joe at the Elm Volunteer Fire Department “Fish Fry and Dance” held at Elm’s little nine hole golf course club house. Joe wasn’t from Elm but did support the local fire department. He had been a fireman for forty years, and this was his way to keep up on the newest equipment and training.
Agnes had sold her little house because, the arthritis in her hands made it hard for her to keep up the yard. She moved into a small, 6 bed adult care center in Elm. The other residents of Elm House were in their late Eighties and were barely ambulatory. This meant companionship was still an issue.
The Doctor wanted Agnes to stay active, so he told her about Mrs. Wiggins’ Home. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford the bus ride. The patrons of Mrs. Wiggins were encouraged to pay, if they were able, for the bus ride and other amenities offered by The Turtle Ranch. Agnes was happy to contribute because it made her feel like she was still paying her own way.
On her first outing to Mrs. Wiggins, she met Joe in the bar and their relationship blossomed.
Joe didn’t have to wait long. The blue and white bus that picked up residents from the scattered assisted living hostels had arrived. Joe heard the bus drive up and walked to the window. Agnes stepped down from the bus with the attendants help. He watched as she handed her overnight bag to the attendant.
Entering the weather doors, Agnes approached the hostess, presented her left arm, and the number on her green bracelet was recorded.
She entered the lounge to meet Joe who’d been waiting on the other side of the Golden doors. They hugged, pecked and smiled. It had been a week since they’d seen each other. It was about time, so to speak! They entered the “formal dining” end of Ol’ Rusty’s (jokingly called Chez Rusty’s) and were seated at their “reserved” table. Table twelve was their favorite table.
A cheer went up from table twenty-one. The big screen T.V. in the corner screamed cheers and crackled applause as the Vikings scored six. The extra point earned one more loud, arms up cheer. The football boys from fifty years ago hadn’t lost a bit of volume. Some at those pushed together tables were from enemy high school teams, but now had the Vikings to worship in common. It was like a time warp over in that corner.
The hostess brought menus that did not have the bar menu side but did have a wine list. She asked if they would like a cocktail before they ordered. Joe knew Agnes liked champagne and asked her if that is what she would like. She answered with a big smile.
Joe caught the eye of their hostess. “Andre Cold Duck.” He said with one raised arm, bent elbow ordering fashion. (All was done in fun)
When the Duck arrived, Joe told the hostess they were ready to order. Agnes had told Joe to order cheese soup and garlic toast for her. She had no fear. If Joe couldn’t handle a little garlic, then Joe was with the wrong partner. He ordered steak tips with mashed potatoes and carrots for himself.
The boys at the football table had several more beers and cheers. The Vikes won. Their party wound down, and they began to drift off to the various other activities available in and around the bar and casino. Life went on quietly.
One of Joe’s favorite things was to have one scoop of vanilla ice cream at the end of his evening meal. Agnes had one also. It was the end of a delicious meal and the beginning of a happy ending.
Joe paid the bill with his debit card. Agnes insisted on sharing the cost and slipped cash into Joe’s hand. He knew arguing was useless, so he put the split in his suit coat pocket, quickly forgotten.
They arose from the table and hand in hand, walked to the casino after passing the casino’s bracelet check point. They walked “kitty corner” through the casino, past all of the blinking lights and bells, to the pale green door in the opposite corner.
An attendant at the green door asked to see their I.D. bracelet again even though she knew them by their first names. A procedure is a procedure.
Behind the Green Door
The green door opened to a hallway that turned left ninety degrees. The left hand hallway opened into another lounge. This is where the patrons of The Turtle House get to meet Berta.
Imagine a miniature version of the classiest bordello in Texas. Then think of it as “Bordello Light” and call it “The Turtle Ranch”. Berta is stationed behind a marble hotel desk. There are three stations. Tonight the only one open is controlled by her.
The indirect lighting seemed to pick up the Twenties style red flocked wallpaper. The red hue reflected on the black four foot Egyptian style vases that had feathery reeds and leaves fanning out. The carpet was super thick, and thoroughly deadened any echo. It made the ears strain to hear.
“Good evening you guys!” Berta said. “Did you enjoy your supper?”
Berta, a large girthed Bohemian woman, did not wait for an answer.
“You’re in Suite Six at the end of the hall to the right. You’ll be all alone down that hall tonight. I stuck all of the noisy ones in the left hall and it’s getting late. I don’t think there will be anyone else checking in after you.” She said business like.
“Don’t forget, your buses leave at “Ten” in the morning. Would you like a wakeup call?”
“No thanks!” Joe and Agnes said in unison.
They each picked a real metal door key Berta had left for them on the counter top. Some modern items were not needed here at the Turtle Ranch. The card slide was one of them. Besides, the real key fit the ambience and brought on the nostalgia The Turtle Ranch wished to project.
As the couple approached the spot in the lobby hallway that went to the left or right, Joe and Agnes happened to look down the left hall as a naked, round shouldered, gentleman went from Room Twelve on the right to Room Eleven on the left. Agnes thought it looked like one of the guys from the football table.
One second later, a floppy, gray haired woman also came out of Twelve and flew into Eleven, high pitched giggling all the way. Was this a foursome forming?
Once Joe and Agnes realized what they were witnessing, they quickly turned right, walked to the end of their hall, and entered their own room. On the luggage rack sat the two overnight suitcases, and on the table, next to the bed, was a “half bottle” of champagne on ice. Two fresh white robes were neatly folded on a shelf over the luggage rack.
Over the head of the bed, hung a hand stitched sampler that said: