Last October, friend Ralph Stadick passed away. His daughter Sue told me that in his final hours Ralph spoke in his first language as he said his goodbyes. Ralph, like a lot of that generation in Brown County, was born into a household where German was spoken by his parents.
That reminded me of when my parents came to visit in Germany where I spent a semester during college. I got to know a young family that fall, and they invited me to bring my parents for a meal in Wiesbaden. The couple spoke German and my parents spoke English. I was left to translate the conversation using my frail German learnt in classrooms. Translating between a table-full of people was exhausting.
Like Ralph, my parents spoke German as very young children. That was long ago, and outside of an occasional epithet (“Oh, that Schweinhund!”) their first language was forgotten. Or so I thought.
We were sipping wine, and Sylvester and Alyce began using a few German words, then some phrases. Finally whole sentences came out “auf Deutsch.” By the end of the night the entire conversation had shifted to German. The casual setting, buoyed by Rhine wine, brought to the surface a language buried deep in their past.
Under quite different circumstances, the language of their early childhood came to light for Ralph and my parents. It is during those early years that our brain is developing rapidly and prodigiously. It is malleable and soaks up skills like a sponge. Things learned then become etched in permanent marker even if unused for decades.
In college, I had a professor who spent alternating years teaching in the United States and Germany. He had young children. He said that they would get off the plane and immediately switch to the tongue of that place. They never took lessons; the very young simply imbibe what is around them.
I have thought we do our children a disservice by not exposing them to other languages at a young age. It is literally easy for them to learn. My own German was learned in high school well after my brain’s rapid growth years. I became fair at speaking during my time in Germany, but it has slipped away. Now I only pick up scattered words when I listen to Angela Merkel.
Words and languages have always interested me. I joke to Pam that if I weren’t farming I would be a linguist. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of career opportunities in linguistics in case this farming thing doesn’t work out.
All these words we use without thought, where do they come from? Some words sound like what they mean, if you use your imagination. A word like “crush” sounds like what it describes. “Zerquetschen” in German makes a crushing sound, too. Blink is another word that sounds like its meaning. It becomes “blinken” in German. But it is “parpadeo” in Spanish. Cat is “Katze” and “gato.” Fair enough. But why is a “tree” in English a “Baum” in German and an “arbol” in Spanish?
I find this stuff fascinating. In the Pyrenees Mountains, completely different languages developed because it was impossible to cross over to the next valley for eons. In the same way isolated island tribes create unique languages. In other places languages got squished together and borrowed heavily from each other depending on wars, trade, and climate, even romance.
In The World That I Grew Up In, I regularly heard German in Sleepy Eye. If you are my age you remember the word “gell.” It was used at the end of a sentence, as in, “Right?” or “Got that?” Terry Helget told me that he heard, “Get the chores done, gell?” often as a boy on the farm.
Now I hear Spanish on the streets and in stores. That change in my lifetime illustrates a cultural shift as well as any statistics. A generation ago, Hispanic families began coming to Sleepy Eye for seasonal work. Gradually many of them stayed. Now they are a significant part of our town, a next chapter in the ever evolving story of America. Some are bilingual and use Spanish with their friends. That is the language of their early years, not unlike German was for my parents.
I enjoy the sound of Spanish. It is melodic and pleasant sounding; a lot of words end softly. The internet tells me that Spanish is a syllable-timed language and English is a stress-timed language. I don’t know what that means. Perhaps I will when I begin my career as a linguist.
My daughter Abby is fluent in Spanish. That began in Gail Bromenschenkel’s class at St. Mary’s and flourished in travels to Spain and Mexico. She has used it in her jobs on the West Coast. Most of her friends in Washington and California speak Spanish.
Through Abby’s influence, I like to listen to Spanish music while I work. My current favorite is a Colombian group called Morat. (Look them up on YouTube.) Sometimes I think it is strange listening to songs I don’t understand. But when I ask Abby about the lyrics, it’s about a boy who likes some girl, or a girl who likes some boy. That describes most songs in English, so I’m not missing anything.
I have made a weak effort to learn Spanish. I have an app on my phone but never get too far with it. This aging brain is not the malleable, flexible brain of a child. I walked by some young men who were speaking Spanish a while ago. I stopped and told them I wished I could learn their language. They had a solution. Laughing, they told me that I needed to get a Hispanic girlfriend. I told that to Pam. She said she wasn’t too worried.
We were visiting Abby in Spain a few summers ago. Older daughter Anna and I were up late one night at a deli/café in Madrid where we were having a last Sangria. We were sitting on bar stools when some men came in. It looked like they were finishing a late shift at work.
You could tell they were men who did physical work. They were exactly the type of guys that would be coming into the City Limits in Sleepy Eye early before heading off to their jobs. They seemed familiar. I wanted to ask them things, but most Spaniards don’t speak English. Anna knows a little Spanish, and she gamely tried to translate a conversation. That was not getting anywhere fast.
Finally I just started talking to them as if they could understand me: politics, sports, weather. They looked at me like I was nuts, but seemed to appreciate the effort.
In the bible story of the Tower of Babel, the diverse languages we speak are presented as a curse on humanity. It can be frustrating when you can’t talk to guys in a café in Madrid. On the other hand, these languages are part of the rich diversity of people and cultures on our planet. Gell?
Daylight began growing longer in December. That started the long, slow arc to spring. Really long and really slow. Finally comes a day when there is a green tint to the Earth, and a south breeze carries warmth that means to stay. You take a breath and think to yourself that you made it to another baseball season. Thank you God!
School baseball and softball teams began their paces inside gyms. We saw video of Major Leaguers in warm places like Florida and Arizona, but those seemed make-believe when we still had snow banked up. April arrived, and the kids took it outside to Eagles Ballpark and Prairieview Field in Sleepy Eye. Big kids started playing games at Target Field.
The first thing all these players will do when they get to the field is grab a partner and start throwing a ball. They play catch. Soon, the park is filled with the “snap, snap, snap” of balls hitting leather, a sound that is as old as time. Okay, not as old as time, but it’s as old as any of our times.
A game of catch begins with easy lobs and progresses to hard, crisp thrusts of the ball. Carefully, muscles and tendons stretch and loosen till they are ready for engagement with the full game. If the weather is cold, often in April, an arm might never feel long and easy. Later, on a sweaty July day, there is a level of heat and humidity where an arm reaches a perfect state of fluidity. You feel like you could throw all day.
From youth ball to a couple years of town ball to a few decades of softball, my lengthy but unimpressive career began each day at the park with catch. It was a routine, a mostly mindless one. Like many of life’s routines, you grow to appreciate it.
Grasping the ball, your fingers search the seams instinctively. Arm up and back, leg forward, balance and shift weight, and you propel the ball to your partner. Back in position, glove up, ready to take the throw coming back. Repeat. Repeat. It is rhythmic as the ball makes its journey from glove to hand to partner to glove to hand to partner.
Throw, catch, throw, catch…give, take…offer, receive. It’s not unlike good conversation between two people: speak, listen, speak, listen. It’s not a bad metaphor for a lot in human relations. There is a cadence to a good marriage or a friendship that moves one from the giver to the receiver and back again.
There aren’t winners and losers in a game of catch. It is a game of cooperation requiring two. There are exceptions to the rule of two. If there are three, the pair becomes a triangle, with the ball making the circuit of corners. It is an altered rhythm: throw, watch, catch, throw, watch, catch.
Farm kids know another exception, playing catch with one. There might not be anyone else around, so your “partner” is the barn or the granary. This is best done with a rubber ball. The ball coming off the outbuilding morphs into a game in front of imaginary fans. I made thousands of highlight reel plays as a boy that only my farm dog saw. There is no video; you’ll have to believe me that I was Luis Aparicio.
A couple images come to mind when I think of catch. When I was a young boy, I recall family gatherings with the Keyes’ family. My brother Marvin married Alice Keyes. Alice’s father Ray was a World War I vet, and a spry older fellow. At some point after dinner had settled, Ray would get out his glove and ask who wanted to play catch. I was impressed with this ancient man tossing the ball around. It occurs to me that Ray then was not much older than I am now.
Jump ahead to another veteran, Donald “Duke” Cook. Our kids all spent time playing ball at Leavenworth. Duke is something of an institution at the ballparks on both sides of the church and cemetery, softball to the east, baseball to the west. He has coached girls softball for as long as anyone can remember, deserving a lot of credit for developing the game in our area.
Duke has slowed a bit, and has taken a job as Assistant Coach-Ad Infinitum. Still, if you get to the ballpark early, you will hear the voices of dozens of little kids asking Duke to play catch with them. “Duke, wanna play catch?” “Dukey, can you play catch with me?” “Duke, Duke!” I don’t know how, but he finds a way to play catch with each of them. If you want to see how a game passes from generation to generation, there it is.
Playing catch with your own children begins with underhanded tosses. My one and a half year old grandson is just getting the idea of catching a ball as he puts his arms together and I drop the ball in there. But that will come fast, and this summer we’ll be doing some rudimentary catch.
I remember tossing a wiffle ball to my young kids out on the lawn. The return throw at that age could end up going off in any of 360 degrees. A couple years later, it became a rubber ball to protect from the occasional ball to the forehead. Time passed, and underhand became overhand, and velocity increased. Time moved faster, and you are snapping throws. The ball stings in your own glove coming at you, and you wonder whatever happened to that little child with the whiffle ball. But that is parent thing to look back; they’ve got a life in front of them.
Whatever your age and ability, I think you should go down in the basement and find your glove. Go outside and find someone to play catch with today. I am proclaiming today to be National Catch Day. Our nation needs it. If you are a Republican, find a Democrat to play catch with, and vice versa. If we can get people to find a grassy spot and throw a ball back and forth, maybe it will lead to people talking and listening. Throw, catch, talk, listen, throw, catch.
Catholic parents know about having The Talk with their children. No, I don’t mean that talk. I think I found some excuse to be out in the field when it came time for to have that talk with the kids.
No, I mean The Talk before Ash Wednesday. “So, what are you going to do for Lent this year?” Candy and pop were commonly sacrificed on the altar of seasonal discipline. When you’re ten years old, six weeks of Lent last for-ev-er. It’s surprising how much you can want and crave and think about candy.
Most Christian churches, not all, recognize Lent. But it is associated most often with us Catholics. It has had a place on my life calendar as far back as I can remember. Easter is at the center of the Christian story, the core. Preparing for that celebration by trying to round off some personal rough edges occurs every late-winter-into-spring. Giving up a small luxury, spending additional time in prayer or the bible, or some other discipline is part of the season.
A few years ago, I made a Lenten resolution to give up drinking alcohol. It was difficult enough to be challenging, but not so difficult as to be impossible. I have to admit to getting a little sloppy lately. Last year I sort of gave up drinking for Lent. This year I kind of, sort of gave up drinking for Lent. Well, I haven’t had one today.
I put some of the blame on my favorite brewery. A while back I was talking to a fellow who works at Schell’s Brewery. We started talking about Bockfest, and he said something about March 4. I knew that Ash Wednesday this year was March 1, and I told him he had the date wrong. I explained that Bockfest, like Mardi Gras, is a last fling of indulgence before assuming the restrained, Spartan life style of Lent.
He was right. Bockfest was after Ash Wednesday this year due to some scheduling conflict. I consider it a civic duty to support the local brewery, so I gave myself special dispensation to attend even though we were four days into Lent. As I sipped on my cup of Schell’s Bock gazing out on the vast sea of people filling every square inch of space on the brewery grounds, I realized my concern that fellow spiritual travelers would stay away in droves was unfounded.
Resolutions like mine exist on a personal level. In addition, the Church has practices we share with the larger body. Not eating meat on Fridays during Lent is not much of a hardship with all the food choices available to us. But it causes me to briefly reflect on the season and know that I am sharing this “sacrifice” with others. It is part of being in communion with fellow Catholics.
I can see how this might seem a little silly to my non-Catholic friends. A few weeks ago the bishops of Minnesota gave dispensation for Catholics to eat meat on one particular Friday during Lent, that being St. Patrick’s Day. All the bishops except our Bishop Lavoir who held fast to tradition. Of course, there aren’t a lot of Irish in the New Ulm Diocese. Bishop could feel safe knowing we Germans would make it through with our tuna hot dish and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I talked to a friend who wondered about sneaking across the border to have a burger that day. I pointed out that Watonwan County is in the Winona Diocese and that she could simply take a stick of summer sausage over to Godahl with some bread and dine at the little park there. Guilt free!
I’ve always anticipated Lent. Others use New Year’s resolutions in a similar way to make changes in their life. Eating better and exercising more are worthwhile intentions. We may be doing these with the idea of being around longer for our spouse and children, but of course there are selfish reasons to do those things. Reasons like, “I want to hang around this planet longer.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t cut too deep.
Lent calls us to go deeper. Between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, we are called to grow in our relationship with God. If I can make that relationship righter, I will be a better husband, father, farmer, etc. The goal is to be a better person when the sun rises on the empty tomb.
There was a flourish of self-improvement books back in the seventies and eighties. It became an industry unto itself. If I recall, they weren’t very effective. Change has to come from within. And real change is not self-absorbed. It means making yourself the best you can be, then offering yourself in service to others.
Maybe not every day. We all have days when we wake up and think, “Lord, help me get through this day. There’s more here than I can handle.” Maybe just getting through those days is all we can do. Those days making yourself a better person might be too much to ask. It’s funny, though, you look back and those are exactly the days you find something inside that you didn’t know you had.
It’s a crazy idea, the notion that at 61 I am still working on myself. At this age I should be honed, sharpened to perfection. That is definitely not the case.
I could just say I am who I am, we are who we are, and it is what it is. We can feel trapped in certain behaviors, and it can be a long climb out of these holes. I don’t know, but I would guess feeling that is a piece of what depression is. The idea that I can be a better person today than I was yesterday is a gift really. It means that I am not trapped by fate or circumstance or a thousand things I could blame. Lent is a good time to put a little extra backbone into it.
Two moments from our recent trip to California: the first took place in San Francisco. It was near dusk. Daughter Abby and I were walking to a nearby park. We came to a group of people on the sidewalk. They were taking pictures of one of the city’s quaint old row houses. Curious, I asked a couple who were about my age. They spoke in a French accent. I noticed that most of the group was speaking French.
They told me this was “La Maison Bleue (The Blue House).” In 1971, French singer Maxime Le Forestier spent the summer here. He wrote a song simply titled “San Francisco” about that home and friends who lived there in sort of a commune. It’s a well known song in France, and I could tell it meant a lot to the couple. The song was part of their early relationship; they were holding hands as they talked to me. If you are of that era, it might be comparable to a James Taylor song on the radio.
The second moment came at Big Basin State Park. Abby, Pam, and I were walking a trail through the Redwood Forest, my first time seeing those ancient trees. We came around a turn, and there was a young red headed man on a bench. He was trying to write something. He was crying, sobbing really, and tears fell on the paper.
We stopped and asked if we could be of any help. It turned out he had lost a daughter that morning to a miscarriage. The grief was fresh and raw. We offered what sympathy we could and after a while moved on.
In those two passing encounters, I was reminded how alike all of us are. Like the French couple, those close relationships we are fortunate to have are the gold in our lives. Caring about, being cared for by someone, especially if it lasts over time, is a gift. A song from forty years ago can conjure deep memories.
The grieving father’s emotions are also seated in love. It’s a different kind, that of kin. Children, parents, siblings, none of these are guaranteed; they can all be gone tomorrow. Familial bonds remain with us, even after death.
The feelings revealed by the older French couple and the young man in the forest are universal to our species.
Pam and I have been fortunate to travel some the last six years, all of it around our children. We visited Abby in Spain, Seattle, and now San Jose. Twice we spent time in the South when Ezra was graduating from training at Fort Benning in Georgia. All those places are a long way from our little farm on the prairie.
In Madrid and Barcelona, there is the mix of people that one finds in European cities including immigrants from Africa, many of them Muslim. In Atlanta and Charleston, African Americans are a large part of the populous. In Seattle and California, Asians are prominent. California has been largely Hispanic for generations. The Bay Area where Abby lives now is the meltingest of the melting pot. At Ash Wednesday Mass, I was one of a small number of Caucasians.
In traveling about, touristing, walking, shopping, there are lots of brief encounters with lots of people. You sit next to someone on a bus. You ask someone for directions. You are served at a café. Then, there are thousands of people you simply pass on the street, maybe offering a brief glance or a smile as one of you moves around the other. And there are little kids. A smile or a funny look at a child is seldom wasted.
Now and then there are conversations. I’ve noticed these tend to come easier at bars, churches, and ballparks for me. A wine or a beer, prayer, and baseball tend to be unifiers. I’m sure there are other things that bring people together in fellowship.
In all the encounters in our travels, I have a hard time recalling any that were unpleasant. That’s thousands of people who briefly passed though my life and hundreds that I spent time talking to. They were all ethnicities and creeds. Like I said, we are all of us more alike than different. One of the joys of travelling is seeing that truism played out over and over.
We are more alike than different. I’ll go a step further and say that most are decent people, good at heart. We come from the same Creator, made in the His image, forged in His love. If you believe that, then every person deserves respect and honor. That includes the young woman working the counter or the old man sitting on a park bench. Offering a smile is the least we can do.
Occasionally you meet a jerk. You have choices. The first could be to respond in love. That might seem a lot to do, but remember we have within us the love of God that was given to us unearned and undeserved. Letting that shine through us is possible. The second choice is to walk away. If we react with anger, we’ve probably satisfied the jerk anyway. Then there are times we need to stand our ground; I am not a pacifist. Those times are rare, though.
We should not be naïve. Don’t let your wallet sit on the dashboard of your car, and don’t walk in certain areas late at night. I should remove temptation from my own life where I can, and I shouldn’t lay temptation in front of others. That’s common sense.
But common sense doesn’t mean that we need to be suspicious of others. There are so many voices telling us to be wary of Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, etc. We can cloak ourselves in hyper-suspicion. We can turn inward, keeping out others, shunning anyone who looks different. Our community can do that. Our nation can do that. Maybe we’ll be “safer.” But I doubt it.
We are told in Thessalonians, “You are children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” Perhaps it is easier to be mistrustful of others. We’ll be right some of the time. But I don’t think that is living in the light.
Last time I wrote about my brother Dean. Now I’ll tell the ending to that story. I wish it were different. There is courage and much to admire, but a residue of sadness lingers.
Dean lost his sight before his third birthday to retinoblastoma. His blindness did not prevent him from being an exceptional student, a talented musician, and an all-around normal kid. He attended Faribault Braille School, boarding there during the week and coming home to the farm on weekends. The plan was that Dean would attend Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s from tenth grade on, where he would be a grade behind me.
Near the end of his last year at the Braille School, Dean began to get headaches. They gradually grew worse, even leading to nausea. The first diagnosis was that it was stress related, the assumption being that the impending move to a sighted school was causing nervousness. Dean was briefly hospitalized for a “psychological” condition. That upset him. He had always been up to any challenge and that diagnosis didn’t ring true.
Finally testing revealed a tumor that was putting pressure on his brain. The enemy had been identified, one that would prove to be unyielding. Years later, I asked two different doctors whether the retinoblastoma that took Dean’s eyes was related to the brain tumor and got conflicting answers. Regardless whether it was two bad cards drawn or a single awful card, it was horrible luck.
There was surgery to remove the tumor in May. An infection set in making for a long recovery. But by fall when Dean started sophomore year, there was optimism.
The teachers at St. Mary’s were good about finding ways to make school work for him. Obviously this was a unique experience for all involved. He was able to get some books in Braille. Classmates read other assignments to him. He used a typewriter with keys marked in Braille. Bruce Peterson was the band instructor and a favorite teacher. He worked with Dean on his trumpet; being in the band was a point of pride.
Sadly, this fling of normalcy making his way in the sighted world wouldn’t last. The headaches returned. I’m not sure of the timing, but sometime that year came a new, worse diagnosis. The tumor was now cancerous and it was growing in such a way as to make further surgery not an option.
The headaches began to be accompanied by other ailments. His hearing became impaired. He began having memory issues. His balance was affected. The senses and skills that a blind person depends on and develops so keenly began to fail him.
He got through sophomore year okay, but junior year would be a different story. Chemotherapy began, and side effects hastened the decline of his hearing and memory. He had always been an A student; now school lessons grew increasingly difficult.
With the chemo, he began to lose his hair. Dean had longish hair that he was proud of, so that was another blow. Then something worse than hair loss. The cancer began pushing out the right side of his face, puffing it up. Dean was a handsome young man; now he knew that the disease was taking that from him, too.
None of this seemed fair to me. As a kid, having a blind brother seemed normal. But the bighearted little boy who took Dean by the arm was now a self-conscious gawky teenager. I was nearing the end of high school trying to make college plans, wanting to spend time with my friends. Selfishly, I didn’t want to deal with a sick brother. Stuck somewhere between the innocence of childhood and the maturity of adulthood, I felt myself withdrawing.
In school, I knew that Dean didn’t want me hovering around. Increasingly he needed help maneuvering the halls and classrooms. There were classmates who went out of their way to befriend Dean when it was not easy to do. For those I will be forever appreciative. Ironically three of them have since passed away: Bob Schwab, Boyce Steinke, and Pete Hillesheim were also friends of mine who I miss.
In December, I was on a college visit in the Cities. Dean had an appointment that day, and I called my mom from a payphone to see how it went. She said that the doctor told her the chemo was not working, that there was nothing left to do. Dean was dying.
I argued with my mom. They have to keep trying. Can’t they attempt surgery? They have to do something! The rest of that day is blurry.
Dean went to school as long as he could. He tried so hard, it made all of us hurt. His fingers that used to fly across a page of Braille now crept, going back and forth on a line. He got angry with himself when he couldn’t remember something he knew that he knew yesterday.
I never talked to Dean about dying. The last days when he couldn’t go to school, I sat at the foot of his bed and we talked about classmates, the Twins, teachers. I’ve regretted that. But then maybe teenagers aren’t supposed to talk about death.
Later, my mom said that Dean told her that we shouldn’t feel sorry for him. He had done a lot of things and was glad for his sixteen years. He never complained and pushed forward as well as he could as long as he could.
I have thought about how to end this. I could end on the Friday morning in May when he died. Or maybe the funeral mass where I remember walking out behind the casket and looking up in the choir loft where the St. Mary’s’ band was playing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or I could end in a cemetery where I started this.
But while a book ends with the last chapter, sometimes the best writing is in the middle. I want to go back to a middle chapter. When Dean was twelve, some students from the Braille School went to the Chanhassen to attend a production of the Music Man. They got to go backstage and spend time with the cast and orchestra. The picture you see here is from that day.
Minneapolis Tribune writer Robert T. Smith (see full story below) spent time with Dean there and wrote a column about that. He began, “I saw and heard The Music Man at the Chanhassen Frontier Dinner Theater. The lad with me just heard it.” Smith goes on to write about their conversation during and after the play.
Near the end, Smith writes, “I asked him if he was bitter about being blind. ‘I don’t know exactly how to answer,’ Dean said. ‘Sometimes when the kids are playing ball and I play with them I get sort of disgusted with myself.’ He listened to the play a while, then said: ‘Usually you don’t mind. I don’t like to be helped a lot or pitied or anything like that.’”
A few paragraphs later, “’ You know what?’ Dean said near the end. ‘For my piano recital this year, I’m going to do the William Tell Overture.’” Smith ends the column with, “I’d like to hear that.”
I would, too.
1969 Minneapolis Tribune Article about Dean
In my summer job inspecting fields, I stop by cemeteries often. A lot of times it is a good place to park. Some are on the edges of towns, others are next to rural churches, a few are in the middle of nowhere. If I have a moment, I walk around. It is quiet, save for the wind and the birds.
Sometimes I recognize family names. Most often I don’t know these people lay to rest here. So little information: dates of birth and death, sometimes their spouse and children, maybe an etching indicating a career or hobby. I find myself wishing I knew more.
It is especially true for those who died young. You know there was sadness in the story. I want to tell about one such person. My brother Dean died in 1974. He was sixteen. Here I will write about his living, about a boy filling a life as well as he could in the years he had. In two weeks I will write about his death.
There are people in Sleepy Eye who remember Dean. People older than me might recall Sylvester and Alyce’s little blind boy. My age, they might remember my brother who died. But like etchings on a gravestone, those are only outlines of a life.
To the beginning. My parents had five children. Fifteen years later, I was born, and fifteen months later Dean was born. My older siblings were gone by the time I remember our home. Dean and I were close in age and most every other way.
Dean was healthy at birth. Black and white photos show a hearty full-faced baby. Around the age of a year and a half my sister JoAnn was out to the farm playing with him. She looked in one of his eyes and noticed a grayish color where the pupil should be dark.
Within the day, my mother took Dean to see Dr. Fritsche in New Ulm. I don’t know whether the doctor said that day Dean had retinoblastoma or whether a diagnosis took some time. Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer of the retina. In 2017, there are a host of treatments depending on the stage of detection. In 1958, there were certainly less options.
My mother Alyce ended up travelling with Dean to New York City seeking an experimental treatment to save his sight. They went out there twice over the next year. She had never been on a plane before; really she’d not been out of Brown County many times. I wish I could tell you more about that. She and Dean stayed with families from across America. She made friends who exchanged Christmas cards for years.
Whatever those treatments were, they didn’t work. And came a time my parents knew Dean would go blind. There followed an effort to let Dean see as much as he could so as to have that in his mind. A visit to Como Park was on that list, as were other sights such as a farm family could get to with chores needing to be done.
Dean’s vision gradually faded over the next year. Being a small child, he made due with whatever sight he had. Till a spring morning in 1960 that Dean woke up. Making his way to the steps in the familiar house, he asked our mother why all the lights were turned off.
My mom told me about this much later. How does a mother answer that? She said something and that day went on and the next one. For a couple of days my brother and I didn’t know what to do with this new reality. My playmate and best friend couldn’t even see light. We were both quiet and moped around according to my mom.
Then one morning, she went to find Dean and couldn’t locate him. She looked outside and saw that I had Dean by the arm and we were walking through her flower garden heading down to the barn. That was the end of moping. We were brothers, off to explore our world. I would be his eyes from here on out.
There, right then, was the most heroic thing I have ever done. I was four, and I don’t remember it. But I know I have never done anything nobler than that. It was courageous in the way that little children can be because they don’t know any better.
After that we invented all manner of ways for a sighted kid and a blind kid to do things. We played kickball, baseball, football, etc. We just figured it out. For baseball, Dean hit a ball held in his hand swinging the bat with his other hand while I played shortstop. When I batted, I tapped the plate/sidewalk to direct him and he pitched to me. Fielders and runners were imaginary, but Dean and I could see them. We broke a lot of windows, but our parents cut us some slack.
Dean attended the Faribault Braille School. My mom drove him there every Monday morning and picked him up every Friday afternoon during the school year. I remember feeling melancholy on Sunday nights knowing I would lose my playmate for five days.
But he brought things back from Faribault from his life there. He turned me on to Twins baseball. We spent hours listening on the transistor radio. He told me that if we cheered loudly at the radio they could hear us at the ballpark. I think he was making that up. I remember waking up at 4:00 in the morning of the first game of the 1965 World Series to begin our own pregame analysis, too excited to sleep.
He found the music of the sixties before me. I grew up with old-time music on the barn radio. Dean was cooler than his brother. He introduced me to the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane. Music came to be important to Dean. He was gifted musically and learned to play piano, guitar, and trumpet.
Besides finding ways to play, Dean had chores to do in the barn. We were in 4-H together. We completed the sacraments at St. Mary’s. Those were ways Dean could be in the sighted world. I also spent time in his world. I learned to read Braille. We listened to reel-to-reel “talking books” Dean got from the Library of Congress. He taught me how to use echoes and sound to make my way around a room with my eyes closed.
Didn’t everybody have a family member who took out his artificial eyes at night and put them back in the next morning? At the time, none of it seemed unusual, just a couple of kids on a farm growing up.
Dean was an A student. As he grew into his teens he began to talk about what he would do as an adult. It would have been fascinating to find that out. He would be sixty this year, and I still wonder about the things he would have accomplished if given the chance…..to be continued
Much is made of social media and its impact on our culture. It is said our children are natives in this new digital world. If they are natives, I’m the confused tourist in ugly shorts walking around with a map trying to find someone who speaks English to ask where the bathroom is.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest are some of these social media sites. I have heard of these, which means they are already unhip and uncool. By the time something gets to me, no one under forty would be caught dead doing it.
Pam is on Facebook where I follow the kids and a few friends. I don’t have my own account. I know I am missing inspiring videos set to stirring music encouraging me to save the world, not to mention animal-stunt videos that are also oddly inspiring. I’m not tough enough to have my own account. The first time I was unliked or unfriended, I would crawl into a corner fighting back tears. I follow a few people on Snapchat who post pictures and videos of interesting daily activities. Like right now, you could see video of me sitting here drinking coffee, staring out a window, occasionally typing a few words. Then I could watch you read a newspaper. Then you could observe me get up and get some more coffee, and maybe take an Oreo out of the cupboard. Then I could watch you set some papers in a pile on your desk. The possibilities are limitless.
In The World That I Grew Up In, we didn’t have social media. We were social and there was media, but those two things had not yet mated to bear their bastard child. We communicated using crude tools. We scrawled drawings on cave walls. We arranged stones in patterns to convey messages. It was primitive but we were just kids who didn’t know better.
Our social world was primarily made up of talking to each other. You might have heard of talking. It had certain advantages over modern communication. In social media, if you want to be emphatic you use “Caps Lock.” Like, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING????? SHE’S NEVER GOING TO TALK TO YOU AGAIN!!!!!!
In bygone days, we would yell loudly across the room. Raising your voice was an art form. Football coaches and moms were especially skilled. On the farm, we hollered. Hollering was developed to express dissatisfaction with cows that got out. I don’t think town people hollered. Town people “shouted.” And then they could only shout when their neighbor’s windows were closed. Farm people can holler anytime we want. As a matter of fact, I might go outside and holler right now.
OK, I’m back. That felt good.
In social media emojis are big. Emojis are little round faces that express feelings at the push of a key. (They are all descendents of Mr. Yuk.) When I was young we actually had to display our own emotions. We used our face. I’m afraid I must be emotional-deficit. There are a couple hundred emojis on my phone, and I can only come up with maybe a dozen emotions.
Anonymity is a problem with social media. Trolls prowl the internet sowing discord and fomenting hate-speech. That’s not my idea of a good time, but apparently it is to some.
The only way to be anonymous when I was a kid was to put a bag over your head. This inevitably called attention to oneself and defeated the whole purpose. Anonymity would have been a handy tool. Back in the day, if you wanted someone to know they were a big fat idiot, you had to go tell them. Often this led to getting hit. Thought-leaders regularly walked around with black eyes.
We did have phones when I was young. I suppose they were an early form of social media. Only you couldn’t watch videos, Skype, use GPS, or even text on them. We could talk on them. To one person. After dialing their number. That you had to look up. That’s it. Come to think of it, they were pretty lame. \
I don’t have a Twitter account. I mention Twitter because our president uses Twitter a lot. It is an interesting way for the leader of the free world to communicate. Especially since he does this at 3:00 AM. A lot of times his Tweets sound as if he were up late drinking. But he doesn’t drink, so these are coming straight from his sober mind. Maybe he should try drinking.
Our president doesn’t like to read. He declines intelligence briefings. He prefers to get his knowledge from television talk shows. Twitter limits the user to 140 characters, approximately 24 words. Quite possibly, that’s about right for him.
Through our nation’s history we have turned to our presidents for inspiration. In the past, presidents gave speeches that were thoughtful and well prepared. Now we have a president who is liberated from these burdens. I got to wondering about presidential quotes from the past, and how they might be translated into Tweet-speak.
In 1961, John Kennedy said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Our current pres could have saved us a lot of time, Tweeting, “Dangerous world out there. Sad. IT’S RIGGED! Close the borders, BUILD A WALL. Don’t ask me what country can do for you, trust me!!!”
In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt said, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Such a waste of words. Today’s president would simply Tweet, “Nothing to be scared of! Except being scared. AND I’M NOT SCARED! I have a great IQ and am very very BOLD! Best President since Lincoln. Repeat, nothing to fear!” See, very, very much better.
Here we are, about halfway through winter. Have you wiped out on the ice? I am proud and a little surprised to say I have not fallen yet. Oh, there have been breathtaking moments of terror when one foot lurches ahead and the other slams to the ground barely in time to keep me upright, and I fling my arms out triumphantly, “Ta-da!”
Now I’m jinxed and guaranteed to take a spectacular spill in front of a large group of people. It’s a hazard of living in the Great North. We all share this. It’s slippery out there. Be careful.
If we’re lucky we fall on our hinder. (Can I use the word “hinder” in a respected daily newspaper? That’s what my mom used to call a certain part of the anatomy, as in, threatening to swat mine if I didn’t behave. I looked up the word “hinder” in a dictionary, and its use as a noun comes from “Chiefly North Midland U. S.” Hey, that’s us! That’s my mom!)
If we are not so fortunate as to fall on that relatively padded region, it could be worse. My young, athletic niece Clair fell on about an inch of ice and fractured her wrist. Falling on your wrist is worse than falling on your hinder. But falling on your wrist is better than falling on your head. This falling stuff is serious business. You probably know someone who has been injured from slipping on frozen water.
I always anticipate my first fall of the winter. I figure I might as well get it out of the way. It’s an annual rite of passage into the new season, like planting radishes in spring. The only way to avoid falling is to spend three months on the couch, eating Cheetos and watching Andy Griffith reruns. There are other health concerns that come with that strategy.
I actually fell oftener when I was young even though I was more nimble then. A few decades of sliding around and a guy figures out some stuff. You learn to recognize the many different types of ice and icy snows and snowy ices, each with its own slip-to-slide ratio. There’s rough ice, new ice, smooth ice, melting ice, glare ice, chunky ice, patches of ice, wavy ice, black ice, early-spring ice, sidewalk ice, yard ice, road ice, invisible ice, rippled ice, sleet ice, shiny ice, dull ice, brittle ice, slush ice, wet ice…need I go on?
Of course, there’s the Mother of all Slippery Ice. I’m talking about glassy, smooth ice that has a light layer of new fallen snow on it. If you happen to be wearing baseball spikes with metal cleats on you’ll be fine. If not, you’re going down.
As you get older, you learn when to shuffle both feet, knees slightly bent. You learn where to find traction. You learn which shoes are vehicles of death. Most importantly, you master the art of the mini-step. When you are young, using mini-steps is embarrassing. Reducing your stride to an inch is so uncool. It’s what old people do. A few dozen mighty collapses to the ground cures one of that particular hubris. And yes, it is what old people do. Old upright people.
Recently I was reminded that this is useful knowledge we have gained. A winter storm laid down treacherous ice in Mississippi and Georgia. According to the AP, “The icy weather prompted an increase in emergency room visits from falls.” Mini-steps, y’all, mini-steps!
There’s a difference between town falls and farm falls. If I slip on the ice and land horizontally in town, I scramble to get back up, lurching my head around to see who I embarrassed myself in front of.
A fall on the farm means there’s no hurry to get up. After a mental review of body parts, one can take a moment to reflect as you gaze skyward. It’s a good time to ask deep questions of yourself and the universe, “What’s my purpose on Earth?” “What’s the meaning of life?” and “Why the hell do I live here?”
It all comes from the curse of bipedalism. Some ancient ancestor got up on two legs and thought it was a good idea. Most of the year that’s true.
Our one-year old grandson spent time on all fours. He was happy crawling and could get to a lot of places quickly. Then he was tempted by bipedalism. When he started to walk, he was wobbly. But from the height of two feet, falling is not a big deal. He had an amazing ability whenever he was tipping to drop straight down into a sitting position: walking, walking, boom, sitting. I tried that. It didn’t work so well: walking, walking, crash to Earth violently, ouch.
We all carry in our memory a catalog of the Greatest Falls of Our Life. My most fortunate fall came once carrying a bag of groceries in one arm and my kid in the other. I hit the ice and instinct took over. The groceries went flying into the ether, down I went with a thump, the precious child held safely to my chest. The precious child was giggling uncontrollably, begging me to do it again.
My most magnificent fall came a few years ago carrying two five-gallon pails of water for our horses. I hit a patch of ice, and it was what the old-timers call, “arse over teakettle.” Flat on my back I had ten gallons of water dripping on me, and the empty pails firmly in grip. I was alone, so I considered lying there and thinking deep thoughts. Then I realized I would freeze to the ground in a short time where I might be till March.
Besides humbling us, there is another purpose to falls. They are highly entertaining. Think of all the cartoon characters you watched slipping on banana peels. I used to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with the kids. A large number of funny home videos involve some guy wiping out. You cringe and laugh at the same time, feeling a little bad about enjoying it.
I remember once taking a spill and looking up at my dear wife who was trying and failing to suppress a wide smirk. I’m not sure why falling is such great humor to the non-falling audience. But it is. Just another reason we love winter.
Politicians regularly fall somewhere between used car salesmen and axe murderers in popularity polls. That’s not fair. Politicians have feelings, too.
Joking aside, the wide majority of our representatives in St. Paul and Washington are decent people trying to do the right thing. They sign up for the job because they believe they can make things better. There are bad apples like in any field. Those generally get ferreted out.
We complain about politicians, but most often it’s the ones we don’t agree with. Maybe that’s why I’m favorable toward them. I’ve spent my life alternately dating the Democratic and Republican parties, without ever becoming betrothed to either. Just when I grow affectionate to one or the other, they give me some reason to not call them. I understand strong opinions; mine just don’t match up neatly with either side.
So I tend to cut legislators some slack. It doesn’t concern me that we are divided on many issues. This is America working through complicated matters. I don’t even mind gridlock. A lot of times doing nothing is not a bad choice.
But I have a burr in my saddle toward politicians right now. Health care─how it will be administered and paid for─is too serious for politics as usual. Historically our leaders have tried to set aside partisanship when it came to security and defense. If we are putting our soldiers in harm’s way, it should not be a Democratic or Republican conflict. The health care debate needs to move to that level.
There are no Democratic or Republican diseases. This is too serious to stuff into the sausage making machine that cranks out other legislation. If health care becomes something with winners and losers, we all lose.
We need decision makers to take off their party badges when they sit down to discuss our medical system. We need intelligent and thoughtful deliberation. We need them to honestly work with the person across the table. We do that in our homes, schools, and churches every day where one’s party doesn’t matter.
And that means that we, the public, have to go beyond, “I’m for whatever the other side is against.” The other “side” in this case is our older parents in declining health or the guy down the street who gets cancer.
If we are being honest, three facts confront us. Fact Number One: the main reason for rising health care costs are rising health care costs. No matter your age, look at the advances in your lifetime. If you aren’t amazed, you aren’t paying attention. There are procedures and medicines available in Sleepy Eye that were unheard of when I was young. The things they can do at the Mayo Clinic were the stuff of science fiction. It’s amazing, and it ain’t cheap.
Daughter Anna is a very good nurse in Rochester. She gets paid decently for that. Here in my town, the medical practitioners are among the highest paid people. Any of us who will need a doctor in our life (all of us) would not want it to be otherwise. We want to attract the best young people to these careers.
Our standards are high. We could have Wal-Mart hospitals and dollar store clinics. But if your child is seriously ill, you’re going to drive past them to seek the best care you can.
Fact Number Two: somebody’s got to pay for it. Farmers and self-employed know this better than others. Most American workers have medical coverage as a benefit of their job. The true cost has been shielded from them. Through most of our farming years, a quarter to a third of our income has gone to health insurance, deductible, eye, and dental.
You and I are going to pay for these things one way or the other. We’re going to pay the provider, an insurance company, or the government. It would be great if there were vast amounts of waste to eliminate. Democrats focus on waste by insurance companies, Republicans on government waste. We should exterminate whatever is found. Unfortunately our costs are not going to plummet.
There are two extremes when we consider how we pay. On one end is socialized medicine: the government pays for everything. Of course, we pay the government. Americans like free choice too much to go down that road completely. (We have had fifty years of Medicare which is within spitting distance of socialized medicine, and I don’t see my Republican friends declining it.)
Opposite the government paying is “Everybody’s on their own!” You want a colonoscopy? You pay for a colonoscopy. You want that emergency appendectomy to save your life? Check or credit card? You can’t afford it? That’s too bad. Americans don’t have an appetite for that either.
How we pay will be somewhere between those extremes. We need a serious and probably ongoing debate about where that best lies.
We come to Fact Number Three: it’s complicated. Typical political debate is not going to cut it. Democrats and Republicans like to make things sound simple. That might be the best way to run a campaign. On health care, that’s doing a disservice. We just experienced a campaign where little intelligent debate was offered on the medical system. Being for or against “Obamacare” does not qualify.
The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed in 2010. Democrats might be guilty of overreaching when they passed it. But it included a lot of stuff that had been talked about for years including ideas that originated with Republicans. It was not a government takeover of medicine, still leaving private insurers as the foundation of it.
It was an attempt to answer the question of how to pay for those who can’t or even won’t pay. This is not like TV sets and cell phones. A lot of us might be comfortable knowing the poor don’t have those. We simply aren’t going to withhold health care from anyone in this country, even those who don’t “deserve” it. Doing what we can to make people responsible for that with the insurance mandate seems fair.
Speaking of “Obamacare” as one big entity to be overthrown is deceiving and here the Republicans get blame. There are parts of it we will keep. The number of uninsured has been reduced and the amount that hospitals write off as charity care is down. It was a swipe at how we fund health care between the two extremes, and now we need to work on it. Problems are obvious; solutions aren’t. That’s not an excuse to avoid the work.
So health care costs a lot, we’ve got to pay for it, and it’s complicated. We all need to step out of our foxholes and work on this together. We don’t need Democrats and Republicans.
by Randy Krzmarzick
As we look out at the godforsaken wasteland that surrounds us, farmers are thinking about growing corn. Admittedly it takes imagination to see rows of green where there is frozen white.
It’s time to think about seed for 2017. I buy seed from a few friends: Dan Steffl sells Pioneer and Ron Geiger, Channel. Then there’s Bart Kretschmer who farms out south of me. He sells Fertile Crescent Seed to some farmers around here. He’s not too serious about it; it’s an excuse to set and visit.
We got together at the Railway last week. Bart showed me his test plots. His yields were spectacular like many around here. Unless you had hail like we did. I told Bart I hated him as I looked at numbers of 220, 240, and numbers too obscene to put in the newspaper. Bart offered to buy me a burger and beer out of sympathy.
There’s only so much you can say about corn. So after I signed up for my usual 15 bags, we moved on to the wife, the kids, and the everything else. Bart and I usually talk about current events, but we have a loose understanding that we’re going to skip that for the next four years.
Bart mentioned that his youngest was in the Christmas program at St. Mary’s. We talked about holiday concerts our kids were in. I said that “Christmas on Candy Cane Lane” will forever be seared into my brain after Abby sang it for days in preparation for her big role as (what else?) a candy cane.
That brought up an old story about Bart’s father Hugo. He went to the same country school my dad did. Both of them are gone now. Hugo told me this a few years before he died. It occurred to Bart and me that this took place about 100 years ago, give or take.
Like my father, Hugo spoke German at home and first learned English in school. This wasn’t an easy thing for a young boy. He heard English some as his parents grappled with it on the rare trip to town. At home it was easier to slip into the mother tongue.
When Hugo started school, he struggled to keep up with the teacher. Miss Johnson was a young woman from St. Peter. This was her first job. In anticipation of working with kids like Hugo, she studied some German. But Miss Johnson learned high German. Hugo knew low German, what was called “Bohunk” back then, so that didn’t smooth communications much.
Hugo was a shy kid and didn’t like the idea of going to school. He knew that it pleased his parents Benedikt and Elsa. But each morning, his heart sank when he realized it was a school day. He knew some of the neighbor kids. But he was the only boy in first grade; the other boys were all older. Miss Johnson was nice enough. But lesson time was so hard and long as he tried to understand in what we now refer to as “English as a Second Language.”
Hugo had been a care-free boy. His father smiled to see his firstborn run across the yard, to the barn to find his “Vati.” Benedikt and Elsa knew how much their son wanted to stay home and follow his father through the day. It tugged at Benedikt’s heart to take him with the horse and wagon the mile down the dirt road to the schoolhouse.
Sometimes Hugo’s head hurt at the end of a day. When he struggled to understand something at home, he could go out and run. He’d get Shep the farm dog, and they would run across the pasture, over to the trees on the bluff above the Cottonwood. There, Hugo and Shep chased rabbits and squirrels. At school, he was trapped inside.
As the days grew shorter, Hugo slowly began to understand Miss Johnson better. The chill air made sitting inside more tolerable. The older boys let him tag along at recess, and the girls weren’t so bad. Hugo knew there was always a weekend to anticipate. The two languages swirling around in Hugo’s head still caused anxiety. It was such relief when he could just speak his German. But even at home Benedikt and Elsa were trying to use more English words, as they suspected those were Hugo’s future.
One day in December Miss Johnson noticed a grin cross Hugo’s face, an uncommon sight. She was at the piano beginning to prepare her students for the Christmas program and played the melodic first chords of “Silent Night.” Hugo began to mouth the words.
Here was something suddenly familiar in this unfamiliar world. Elsa sang that to Hugo going back to rocking him to sleep as a baby. Every Advent since, it came to her lips, softly, with reverence. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” Since Hugo was a babe, there was a new baby to sing to. But Frieda still held her boy next to her sometimes as she sang. It was the most beautiful sound Hugo knew.
The other children knew the song, but no one knew all the words like Hugo. Unfortunately, he knew them in his first language. The concert would be in that strange second tongue. But unlike arithmetic and grammar, learning this song was a labor of love. The words from two languages set together in Hugo’s mind. English almost made sense: Stille nacht, Silent night; Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Hugo was quiet in school and never said more than was necessary. So Miss Johnson was pleased that this one song brightened him. As the kids rehearsed, Hugo thought of his mother as he sang out willingly. He was a embarrassed a few times to realize he was mixing up German and English. Miss Johnson caught him with a “Nur das Traute” and whispered, “Hugo, English.”
The school program was the night of the last day before vacation. Hugo was glad to learn there was such a thing as a break from school; he assumed it was a life sentence. The schoolhouse looked different as the family approached in their wagon. It was lit up inside, and almost looked inviting. Hugo didn’t sense the dread he usually felt approaching there.
It was a short program: some hymns, a reading of the Christmas story from Luke, older children got to portray Mary and Joseph. Hugo was glad to blend into the choir. Attention was something he liked at home, but not here. But attention found him near the end of the program. After “Silent Night,” Miss Johnson announced that one of the children had a special talent. And would Hugo Kretschmer sing Silent Night in German?
Hugo’s face flushed red. How could this happen so close to his liberation from school? He looked out at his mother. Elsa was nodding gently. He looked back at Miss Johnson. He hadn’t said no, so she put her hands to the piano. Whatever panic Hugo felt went to some place inside, and he turned to the small audience. There in that little schoolhouse in the middle in Leavenworth Township, with the coal stove and kerosene lamps beating back the dark and the cold, came something like a miracle for one little boy.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schläft, einsam wacht,” Halting at first, but then confidence grew. “Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar. Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’, Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.”
Hugo’s head was high as he finished. Then his face turned quickly back to his feet, he closed his eyes, and the red came back. Then applause started, and that was more attention that he didn’t want. Then Hugo peeked up. Elsa had a smile on her face, a glowing smile. That was good attention, and Hugo felt oddly warm inside.
It was a moment Hugo would remember when he was an old man. When he told me that story, the edges of his mouth turned up in an 80-year old smile.