DULUTH, Minn. — When a person comes upon Raymond Ulvi seated outside his garage, he’s usually found carving diamond willow branches into walking canes — the shavings piling up around his bare feet.
But he was wearing boots and prepared for a little mud last week, when he struck out in the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood on May 31 in search of fresh wood to carve. What he found instead he labeled “one in a million.”
Walking in the woods between his daughter Lori’s house and Stowe Elementary School, Ulvi unearthed a piece of his childhood history — a long forgotten hockey puck.
“I thought it was a gosh darn snuff can,” Ulvi, 88, said. “I took my cane and hit it. When it flopped over I seen it was a puck. And there were my initials — I thought, ‘Holy cow, all these years.’ ”
Ulvi told of his reunion with the puck while seated at the dining room table with his wife of 63 years, Sonja. Bright and cheerful both, they laughed and reminisced about the days when the neighborhood was booming around the U.S. Steel mill and had its own library, post office, police and fire stations.
Ulvi spun the puck on its edge as he talked. Each side bore his initials R.U. carved deep into the body of black rubber.
“Ray is an old farm boy,” Sonja, 86, said. “Day and night he carries a knife.”
On cue, Ray pulled out a red pocket knife and set it on the table. He and Sonja grew up together in Gary, both attending Stowe Elementary and later Morgan Park High School.
They started dating and falling in love at a wedding. She was standing up for the bride and Ray was on leave from the Air Force and the Korean War, where he crewed flights aboard C-97 cargo planes transporting wounded from Korea back to Hawaii and the California mainland.
At the time, an unknowing aunt of Sonja’s had been trying to bring the two together. Little did she know, Ulvi was already writing Sonja love letters.
“Our whole lives have been cute little stories and that’s how it’s been for 60-some years,” Sonja said.
Ulvi worked at the steel mill and later retired from the city of Duluth as a heavy equipment mechanic. His muscular hands were on display as he toyed with the puck.
Ulvi guessed he’d last been in possession of the puck as an eighth- or ninth-grader — some 75 years ago.
He recalled himself as a good athlete and pond hockey regular. As with his buddies, one puck and one wooden hockey stick lasted all year — both items cherished and carved with initials for identification.
“They never had organized hockey in Morgan Park back then,” he said. “I never even had hockey skates. I had them old soft-toed black things. They had to be laced, but they were like a pair of shoes.”
He doesn’t remember ever losing the puck and couldn’t guess how the puck would have ended up in the woods where it did — some 20 yards off of a well-used deer trail and another two blocks from where he used to play hockey as a kid.
“I just picked it up and it was all muddy,” he said. “I thumped it up against the trunk of a tree and there were my initials.”
The puck is a Winnwell brand, and would have been purchased at the local hardware store, Ulvi said.
“If he’d have been 3 feet over he wouldn’t have found it,” Sonja said. “It would have laid there for an eternity.”