Hobbies keep retirees busy in Melrose

Jim Jackson watches one of his planes take off and soar over the Melrose millpond.  It does a few gentle maneuvers and lands, with luck, back on the surface of the Sauk River, guided by the remote control in his hands.   Occasionally he launches them from his boat, but usually, he confesses, when somebody sees him with a plane in a boat, he is retrieving it from the spot in the river where it crashed. Fortunately, Jim’s planes are “foamies,” simply built of Styrofoam, unlike the heavier, more expensive fiberglass models which most remote control enthusiasts fly and which can do a variety of acrobatic maneuvers. The foamies’ only expensive component is the speed control.  Usually, when one of his planes crashes or capsizes in the water, it will float gently to shore, but occasionally it lands in a tree. “If I can’t get it out, it will burn up the speed control, because I have no way to shut it down. It has to be unplugged.  If it stays overnight, it’s done,” he says. His hobby started when he lived in Iowa and his sons gave him a remote control boat to operate in his backyard pond. “Pretty soon I said, I like airplanes.  I want to fly off the water.  The first thing they tell you when you want to fly off the water is, don’t fly off the water.  First learn to fly.  I said, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to fly off the water, and I did.”  Jim came by his love of water naturally, so when he and wife Norma picked a retirement spot, Melrose seemed like a logical choice.  Since around the turn of the last century, Jim’s grandparents had owned a cottage of one type or another on Big Birch Lake. “Birch Lake has always been the love of my life,” he says.  “I came up every summer and loved it.”  He even attended part of seventh grade in Grey Eagle.  But his dad, who had inherited the cottage, sold it and moved to Florida.  Jim, who loved the tranquility of lake living and frequently brought his college friends up there, thought his Birch Lake days might be over. In 1957 he and Norma, a nurse, married.  He served in the Coast Guard, attended engineering school in Groton, Connecticut, then lived and worked in Dubuque and then Waterloo.  As an engineer for John Deere, he designed components not for tractors but diesel engines.  A row of turbochargers, pistons, oil seals, bearings, nozzles and injection systems that he helped to design and develop hang on his workshop wall. But the pull of Big Birch was strong, and he started bringing Norma and their children to rented cottages on its shores.  When he retired in 2004, he began trying to buy the family property back.  Then Norma came into Melrose to do her shopping and found a gracious, roomy 95-year-old house on Riverside Avenue, with the Sauk River running right past the back yard. It was for sale. Jim was skeptical. “I said a 95-year-old house is the last thing I need.  As soon as I walked in the door and saw the river, I was done.”  Now his boat is moored to the dock and holds his collection of old motors, another of his hobbies.  Trees reflect in the tranquil waters, and mink, otters, and beavers swim past, along with “carp so thick you can walk across the water on them.” Norma found her own retirement occupations in Melrose.  She puts her background as a parish nurse and public health nurse and nursing administrator to good use, as she volunteers at Melrose CentraCare Hospital. She also pursues several unique needlework crafts.  She spins her own wool, then weaves it, along with silk and rabbit fur, into runners, afghans, placemats and throw rugs. She makes quilts, does needlepoint, paints in watercolor, and creates collages by a technique known as “snippets.”  This involves infinitely tiny scraps of fabric attached to sticky paper and ironed to a backing to produce colorful pictures with all the radiance and  eye-fooling techniques of Impressionist and Pointillist  paintings.  One of them depicts a favorite vacation spot, the Na Pali Coast in Hawaii; another is a vase of wild flowers.  A rustic scene is still in the making. Looking around her craft room, with her colorful handiwork everywhere, she says, “I’m into conspicuous consumption, because I have two looms and two spinning wheels, and you can’t work on both of them at once.”

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