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A Duluth man missing for an extended period on a trip through the heart of the city was found yesterday unconscious in his pickup truck right in the center of town.
Fred A. Tappet, a western Duluth fishing and lottery enthusiast, became hopelessly lost navigating detours en route to the North Shore for an afternoon of angling.
Cam C. Clutch, chief of the Duluth Bureau of Missing Persons, Animals and Autos (DBMPAA), said Tappet had regained consciousness and was doing well in the hospital after going without food for most of his aborted fishing expedition.
“He just couldn’t find his way through town due to all the detours,” Clutch reported. “Many people are finding it impossible to get from one end of town to the other because of the many closed roadways due to construction. Even the ambulance carrying Mr. Tappet to the hospital got briefly lost.”
Hospital officials report that attendance is down in various wards due to the difficulty of patients attempting to get to their buildings. Several prospective patients simply gave up and went back home. These were non-emergency cases, said a nurse who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the institution. Midwives assisting in home births are doing “a land office business,” he said.
The lost man, Tappet, 57, an almost retired mechanic and U.S. Army veteran who was recipient of the Good Conduct Medal, was the subject of a massive search led by DPMPAA personnel and members of his family. He and his wife, Fern, have nine children, most of whom are fully-grown and who branched out through the city in search of Tappet’s pickup. DPMPAA leader Clutch said four of them temporarily lost themselves in the downtown maze.
“Things are really tough if you want to go anywhere in Duluth this spring,” Clutch said. He noted there are major repairs on I-35 related to the demolition and rebuilding of the famous “Can of Worms.” (Appellation is a metaphor and only tangentially related to fishing.) Then there’s the replacement of a three-block stretch of downtown Superior Street, the city’s main drag, as well as the Essentia Health building project just east of downtown.
There are other detours, too, related to roadway construction. Piedmont Avenue, the main local artery to the Piedmont Heights area, is closed near its intersection with Superior Street and Garfield Avenue. And lower Michigan Street in the Lincoln Park area of the city has a large section closed off.
The search for the lost Tappet reached monumental proportions, involving air, land and water.
State highway department helicopters were deployed along with Coast Guard rescue craft that searched shorelines of the St. Louis River estuary, near where Tappet lives, and the shores of Lake Superior near Lester River where the angler was headed.
Turns out he never got beyond downtown Duluth.
Consenting to a hospital interview via Zoom, Tappet said he first was going to take I-35 not far from where he lives in a modest frame house but was thwarted near 27th Avenue West, where a bridge to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District headquarters is located. That governmental unit said due to the construction, it is running short of old paint and poisonous substances, which are usually brought there by local citizens now unable to figure out how to access it.
Many people have also used the 27th Avenue West freeway access to visit the central U.S. Post Office nearby. Officials there said mail is way down, only half-filling trucks that take it to St. Paul to be postmarked, with local mail trucked back to Duluth. “Never seen anything like this,” said a postal carrier in a crisp gray uniform with a blue stripe on each leg. She declined to be identified for fear of repercussions and reprisals.
For his part, Tappet said he had left I-35 in frustration and decided to just plow on through the city center. That was where the serious trouble started. “I’m going up one avenue and down the other following detour signs,” he said. He said he became confused and attempted to make it through alleys, but to no avail.
Finally he kept going around one block after another, confused that downtown First Street has been switched to two-way after decades as a one-way thoroughfare. “When’d they do that?” Tappet asked from his hospital bed.
The search for Tappet ended when his black pickup truck with a rusty tailgate was spotted on Canal Park Drive near the Club Saratoga, the city’s lone strip joint. “I didn’t go in, though,” Tappet emphasized to his wife, who was worriedly standing by his hospital bed wearing a stars and stripes mask. He added: “How’d we do on Powerball?”
Tappet was expected to be released to his wife’s reconnaissance when his strength returns.
“Hope we can find our way home,” he sighed.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.