In marriage, various roles get divvied up. One of mine is to see what made that noise downstairs when we are up in bed. I have always hoped it would not end up with me getting conked over the head by a crazed psychopath who had broken into the house. So far, so good.
The other night Pam had not been awakened yet by a scuffling sound down in the living room. I figured it was the cat, but thought I better check in case it was a crazed psychopath. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I saw the Christmas tree lights were on. Then I remembered what night it was.
There was Santa sitting on the couch. “Santa! It’s been a while. How’ve you been, man?”
Santa jumped a bit; I think I startled him. “Oh, hi. Taking a little break. I always looked forward to your house since you started putting out braunschweiger. It was a nice break from cookies, cookies, cookies.”
“Oh, sorry, I forgot,” I said apologetically. “When you don’t have kids around, you forget these things. I don’t think we have any braunschweiger. There’s some garlic summer sausage in the fridge.”
Santa waved a hand, “No, thanks, I’m trying to drop a few pounds.”
“But…but…you’re Santa.” I found myself stuttering.
Santa pursed his lips. “I know, I know: ’round little belly, bowl full of jelly.’ I’ve been carrying that around for a couple of centuries now. You know that’s visceral fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes? Anyway, I got your letter.”
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot I sent that back in November. “I think I was being rhetorical if I remember. But I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.”
Santa reached into his pocket, and pulled my letter out. “You know, letters to Santa are rare nowadays. We get a lot more Instagrams. I like that you drew a reindeer on yours. It kind of looks like a cow, though.”
“I never could draw,” I confessed.
Santa nodded. “Let’s see you asked for, ‘an improved tone to public discourse, a return to common courtesy, respectful debate, and more listening on all sides.’ Those are all good things to ask for. But I’m not sure I can give you any of them.”
I agreed. “I understand. I mean you’re Santa; it’s not like you can work miracles. So, did you bring me anything?”
Santa dug into the sack lying on the floor. Out came a gift with my name on it. “I brought you a pliers. I know you always lose them. And I brought you a baseball.” Santa saw my quizzical look. “You always wanted a baseball when you were younger. So I brought you one.”
“Did you bring something for Pam?” I asked.
Santa looked at me, “You know she’s hard to shop for?”
“You’re telling me!” I nodded my head.
“So I brought her a ball, too. We have an oversupply of balls. For years kids wanted balls, and we always made them ahead. Now everyone asks for electronics.” Santa frowned. “This job isn’t getting any easier, you know. I’m constantly losing good elves to Silicon Valley. It’s not really about money. It’s more the California coastal lifestyle vs. the North Pole. It’s a tough sell, even with our lower tax rates.”
Santa checked his phone to see the time. “Do you have to get going?” I asked.
“I got a few minutes. Since the elves hooked up GPS with auto-steer to the sleigh, we’re much more efficient. No more wandering around in the fog while Rudolph flashes that nose of his. You know what else is tough?” I could see Santa wanted to talk. I pulled a chair over next to him.
“First, you want an eggnog, or maybe a Schell’s? I’ve got some of the new Snowstorm,” I said.
“Thanks, I’m good. Schell’s always ships the first batch of Snowstorm to the North Pole. The elves get pretty excited when that comes in.”
Santa continued, “You know what else is tough right now? It’s the whole naughty-nice thing. The elves set up a review process long ago to establish naughtiness and who got a lump of coal. That worked for years. Now all the people who watch Sean Hannity think that everyone who watches Rachel Maddow is naughty. And all the people who watch Rachel Maddow think that everyone who watches Sean Hannity is naughty. I’m tempted to give all of them coal. But then the Hannity people like coal, so that won’t even work.”
Santa was slumped over on the couch now. “To top it off, we have to fight about saying ‘Merry Christmas!’ I never imagined someone could say ‘Merry Christmas’ with such venom. Talk about taking the merry out of Christmas.”
I was squinting now. “Yep, Santa. It’s not the gladdest of yule times. We seem to snip at each other a lot.”
Santa sighed, “Bullies get all the attention. It’s like the worst kids in fourth grade suddenly were in charge. How’s anyone supposed to believe in Santa when everyone’s so angry.”
I dug for something positive. “Well, there was that letter to Virginia. I memorized this years ago: ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.’ Love and generosity and devotion are still around, I hope.”
Right then, Santa looked over at the little nativity set under the tree. He pointed at that and said, “That’s when I have to remember my job. I give gifts to honor the first and best gift of Christmas, the baby born in Bethlehem. Jesus came to Earth to sow love where there was discord and contempt. I guess we might need another 2,000 years.”
Santa sighed and began to shove up from the couch. “I better get moving. The reindeer get antsy if I set too long. I better call the Mrs. to let her know where we are.”
I was ready to go back to bed. “Next year I’ll remember that braunschwieger.” I said with a wink.
Farmers raise a lot of things, including now shrimp, hemp, and arugula. But corn is still king. When farmers aren’t raising corn, they like to talk about corn.
Corn began and ended the conversation when Bart Kretschmer came over to take my order for Fertile Crescent Seed Corn. In between corn and corn, we weaved through the Vikings, Trump, families, and the demise of the 200-inning pitcher.
The corn part dealt with high yields, low prices, and high costs. That is cause and effect and cause. The expensive seed we plant has remarkable genetics, resistant to all sorts of bugs, diseases, and chemicals. Rumor has it Monsanto is working on napalm-resistant corn. We’ll show those weeds.
The Kretschmers have farmed out south of the Krzmarzicks for more than a century. Bart and I are continuing conversations that our grandpas started.
Such multigenerational friendships carry stories forward. One such story our fathers, both gone now, hoped would be forgotten. This was about 50 years ago in time. It might as well have been a thousand years ago in certain social practices
In small towns back then, business owners and their farmer customers were often friends. That remains in place today. It was a custom for businesses to serve up drinks the day before Christmas. That no longer happens. It was a way to toast the season past, the blessings they shared, and to continued friendship.
Farmers like Hugo Kretschmer and my dad, Sylvester didn’t get off the farm much; chores were constant. But there were always supplies needed on Christmas Eve day. This year, Hugo needed chicken feed and chain links for the manure spreader.
Feed meant a stop at the Poultry Clinic west of Sleepy Eye. Charlie Hillesheim smiled when Hugo came in. Charlie knew that Hugo knew that Charlie would have a bottle of Windsor below the counter. There were a couple other farmers there, and so the bottle was out. Lyndon Johnson, Orville Freeman, and Calvin Griffith took turns being skewered. There were jokes, too, almost mild enough to put into a newspaper column.
Next, chain links were procured at Miller Sellner. Hugo had an adversarial relationship when negotiating prices with Bud Miller and Norb Sellner. But it slipped quickly back into friendship. On this afternoon, cases of Grain Belt and Schmidt Beer greeted customers. A steady stream of farmers “needing” parts were sharing news from points around Brown County.
Sylvester joined that gathering. He and Hugo hadn’t seen each other in a while, and they decided to take the conversation up to the Eastside Liquor Store. Workers from Pietrus and Del Monte had different sorts of stories. Hugo and “Bester,” as Hugo called my dad, were enjoying their townie friends.
The men were in fine moods, but It was getting past time for chores. Hugo and Sylvester could see encroaching darkness every time another guy came in through the front door. They said their goodbyes and headed out.
As Hugo steered his ’56 Chevy truck down the empty, snow-crusted Main Street, he went past the Westside. He suddenly had an urge to wish a good Christmas to his buddy Red Schueller. (Yes, Sleepy Eye had Westside and Eastside Liquor Stores. A fellow could get thirsty walking a couple blocks.)
Red managed the Westside. He was wiping the bar down when Hugo came in. There were a couple guys left, guys who had nothing better to do on a Christmas Eve, and Red was about to chase them out. But glad tidings meant he had to share a drink with Hugo.
Back at home, Irene Kretschmer was starting to wonder. When Hugo finally got home, he drove the truck right to the barn instead of putting it in the shed. He never did that, and Irene had her suspicions as she looked out the kitchen window. But she had small children to tend, and the brood was especially squirrelly.
Hugo occasionally missed supper for pressing field work, but that was rare. The lights were on in the barn, so Irene carried on by herself: supper, clean up, dishes, baths, tend the baby. She often felt overwhelmed, but like moms everywhere, Irene put her head down and plowed ahead.
Hugo usually helped with kid chores when animal chores were done. Tonight though, no such aid was forthcoming. Finally, it came time to open some of the family gifts. Still no Hugo. Lights remained on in the barn, and Irene decided to check things. Eight-year old Mary was given instructions to maintain order.
Irene ran across the cold yard. She lifted the heavy latch and stepped into the warm barn. She could see the milking was done. Cows and calves were content. Christmas music was playing on the barn radio. Where was Hugo? She stepped to the feeding floor in front of the cows. There was her husband asleep on some hay bales. A stern look crossed her face. She guessed what caused this state.
It was that same look that greeted Hugo when he entered the house past ten. They had talked about going to Midnight Mass, but Irene had the kids in bed. “We’re not going to church with you like that!” she announced, her dissatisfaction clear. “We’ll have to go to early Mass to get to my family’s in time. You have to do chores early. That’s all right; I think you could use some penance.”
Hugo was feeling the back side of all those drinks. He nodded sheepishly. Much as he enjoyed the afternoon’s festivities, here was the price to pay, including a frosty reception from his wife on Christmas Eve.
The next morning, when Irene woke at four, the bed was empty. Hugo was in the barn. Besides the regular duties there was manure to clean out that should have been done the day before. He stayed on task, despite an ongoing urge to sit down and rest his head in his hands.
In the house by six, there followed a frenzy of kids waking, gift opening, getting everyone fed and clothed, and in the car for Mass. It wasn’t even light out yet. Hugo told himself that taking care of 20 cows was easier than four kids. But he wasn’t about to complain despite a splitting headache.
The young family made their appointed rounds. After Mass, there was a stop at Hugo’s mother’s house in town. The afternoon was spent with Irene’s family over by Comfrey. It was a whirlwind of visiting and eating and gifting. There were drinks offered, but Hugo declined those.
Hugo and Irene were civil in front of the relatives. They’d been married long enough though, that Hugo recognized a few glances from hell.
When he fell into bed that night, Hugo was done in. He felt as if he had been baling straw all day. Irene crawled in after putting the baby down. Usually this was the time Hugo put his arm around his bride as they reviewed the day. This time Hugo timidly moved a hand to Irene’s elbow.
“Nein!” A “no” in German was clear in any language. Hugo cringed in the dark, pulling his hand away. After a few moments of stillness, he offered in a whisper, “Froehle Weihnachten Irene.” A minute later came a reply, “Froehle Weihnachten Hugo,” a slight softening of tone. They often slipped into German when they were alone, the language they had spoken as children.
Hugo said, “The Christkind came to Earth to save sinners. I’m glad for that.”
Irene agreed, “We’re all sinners. But did you have to go and prove it yesterday?”
“I’m sorry, Irene.” Then after a pause, “Irene, I love you.”
After some silence, came a reply, “I love you Hugo. Even though it’s not always easy.”
Hugo whispered, “I know.” Now his hand went to her shoulder. It stayed there as the tired couple drifted to sleep.
On a recent miserable day outside, I went walking/jogging on the track at New Ulm’s Vogel Fieldhouse (which is a great place). There I and my fellow travelers went around and around with “oldies” serenading us from the speakers.
The music took me back to times and places decades past. That is, I guess, what oldies are supposed to do. Oldies are on at a lot of places I go. Now and then a warm memory of young friendship or a school event comes to mind when I hear some song of yore. But then comes a song that make me cringe. Perhaps it’s recalling saying something stupid to a girl I had a crush on; sometimes it’s flashing back to something stupid I did.
There are lots of things I don’t understand. One of them is the attraction of oldies. It seems to indicate that a lot of people circumvented those coming-of-age years more adeptly than I did.
I’m happy to have survived the seventies, but I’m not sure why you would want to relive it musically. One time around with “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun, but the hills that we climbed were just seasons out of time,” seems enough to me.
I don’t have oldies on any of the preset buttons on my car radio. Oh, occasionally I enjoy a Bruce Springsteen or Motown tune that drifts across my consciousness, proof that I’m not completely void of musical feeling.
It is undeniable that music can call forth memories. Music heightens feelings in such a way that a time and place get stuck in our head with a song. I’m not a neurologist, but clearly music goes to a part of the brain that words by themselves don’t. Connections hot-glued in our mind between a song and a moment remain in place fifty years on.
Music can hold power over us with lasting and deep impact. Certain songs cause us to smile widely, others, to tear up. Witness the faces of veterans as the National Anthem is played at a Memorial Day event or a family as Amazing Grace is played at a funeral service.
I think everyone is touched by music, at least a little bit. This ranges from heavy metal headbanging to soft instrumental elevator strains. It’s remarkable the wide spectrum of things people find pleasing.
When I was young, my folks had old time music on KNUJ exclusively. The kitchen and barn radios were set to the Polka Station of the Nation. I don’t think I knew there was other music. I remember later realizing those polkas and waltzes were oldies for my mom and dad, music that transported them back in time. Their earliest dates were barn dances; those old tunes were part of their romancing.
I have thought of music as a gift from a good and kind God. We can communicate most things we need with the grunts that evolved into words in the planet’s many languages. But somewhere back in mankind’s history we began using voice in melodic ways. Clapping hands and sticks and stones could sound out a beat.
I asked some friends, “Why is there music?” Lora pointed to the sounds of nature that surround us. Songbirds, the wind, rainfall, even our heartbeats: perhaps these prepare us for music.
Reaching further, for centuries dating back to antiquity, the notion of the Harmony of the Spheres was used to explain the universe. The spheres were the stars and planets, and creation could be perceived as a type of song with harmony and pitch. In Latin, this was Musica Universalis, the idea that music, mathematics, and astronomy are tied together. Plato said astronomy was for the eyes what music was for the ears.
I was thinking about music. I’ve always been jealous of people in movies. Movies have a score, music in the background as characters play out their story. I have thought I’d like to have a score setting the mood for my life, building to a crescendo during the exciting parts. Now that I have a phone with Pandora and Spotify, I have my score! Problem is, the script isn’t all that interesting. Music washing over me as I change sweeps on the field cultivator doesn’t make for a thrilling scene.
Baseball players get to choose “walk-up” songs. The home team plays these as the batter steps to the plate. The hope is that the energy-laced tune will provide a shot of adrenaline to the hitter. Recently I announced to some friends that I was going to use a “walk-in” song when I entered their house. I chose Viva la Vida by Coldplay. I had to quit that when my walk-in music raised the anticipation level to a height that I couldn’t match live up to.
I mentioned saying stupid things to girls that I had a crush on. Well, one of those girls married me. Now I occasionally send her songs that express my feelings on her phone: romantic songs by Charlie Puth, Ed Sheeran, and, of course, Pitbull. When I get home, I am invariably met by an eye roll. It’s a look that says she is used to me after these 37 years. (Happy anniversary Pam!)
This time of year, Christmas music makes its annual appearance. No music associates itself with memories more so than Silent Night, O Come all ye Faithful, et al. These songs were there at our earliest Christmases. Joyful memories sometimes blend with melancholy. Certain of these remind me of parents and brother who were part of my first holiday seasons and are no longer here. Others remind of when our own children were young, and I miss that. But often these old classics bring warm and gentle feelings.
Tradition has it that there was music at the first Christmas. The Bible doesn’t exactly say that. In Luke, we read, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’.”
But it has long been held by Christians that this moment, now 2,000 years ago, was filled with glorious singing. That might be the best oldie ever.
While combining corn this fall, I looked over at the outside row and saw something sticking up from the gathering chains. Instinct tells me to immediately and frantically shut down the header whenever anything is out of the ordinary. When it whirred to a stop, I could see an ominous strand of barb wire poking up.
It was the row up against the line fence. I imagined the worst: a length of incorrigible barb wire wrapped a thousand times around a stalk roll. It turned out to be not so bad. It was tangled under the snoot, but I wrestled it away with a pliers and only a bit of blood lost.
Through the years I have spent time untangling barb wire from most every piece of equipment I own. Rarely do I have gloves with me; usually my hands end up looking like they were in a fight with barb wire and lost.
There are hundreds of feet of old barb wire bordering our fields. It was strung on steel posts before my time. I don’t think about it much; it’s just been there forever. In spots, it remains taut and straight, four parallel strands with posts upright. More places now it is broken, posts bent or missing, wire partially grounded. That’s the stuff that ends up in my machinery.
It had a purpose once. It goes back to a time when most of the farm was pasture for the cattle and horses. Crops were intermittently grown on the higher ground.
When I was young we still had pasture, and I mended fence with my dad. But the remaining pasture was up near the barn, and that was electric fence. The barb wire on the farm’s far boundaries was left to keep the corn from getting up and crossing over to the neighbor’s field.
Line fences are a disappearing artifact in farm country. That has less to do with farms getting bigger (they are) and more to do with farmers wanting to get an extra row of corn or soybeans. About a third of my line fences are gone. In each case, the neighbor asked if he could remove it and I agreed. It is no small amount of work to do that.
Where line fences remain, I am fine to let them. Some critters live there, and tiny remnants of prairie exist. (Unfortunately, they have come to be a refuge for giant ragweed in recent years. Giant ragweed loves that small area that the sprayer doesn’t quite reach. It can grow the size of a small redwood tree during a growing season.)
As I lay on my back in the corn stubble dislodging the steel intruder from my corn head, I thought about barb wire. The full name would be “barbed” wire, but most of us shorten that. In some parts of the country, it goes by “bobbed” wire. Whatever one calls it, it is nasty stuff. Mine is all rusted, good reason to keep current on tetanus shots.
I suppose someday in a fit of ambition I could remove it all. The chore list around the farm is long, so there’s a good chance another generation will have this historic remnant to deal with.
Later I was reading about barbed wire. There were some rough types used in France early in the 1800’s. The first patent in America was granted in 1865. It played a large part in the movement of farming and ranching westward across the continent. Before that, a fence had to impede an animal by physically blocking them. Stone or wood fences took a lot of effort to construct.
At first farmer-ranchers were hesitant to use barbed wire, for fear it would harm their livestock. It became apparent that animals quickly learned to avoid it, and usage exploded. It is even blamed for a significant drop in the number of cowboys, as the need to herd cattle faded.
Regardless of its functional place in history, it’s not a very pleasant material. As my hands can attest, it succeeds by the possibility of inflicting pain. By threatening to cut and gash the skin, it uses some of the worst type of pain. Of course, the fenced-in animal can avoid that by compliance.
Out on my line fence, the jackrabbits and racoons go back and forth unharmed, and hawks set on top scanning the field. My farm equipment and my hands are about all the harm this old border-guard inflicts now.
It would be good if the story of barbed wire began and ended out on the prairies and western chaparrals, keeping animals in their place. Darker images come to mind when one conjures up barb wire though. It surrounds prisons where people, not cows, are meant to be compliant.
I picture barb wire in old war movies. My reading told me that it was used extensively in the wars of the late nineteenth century. This year, we remember our nation entering World War I a century ago. That cataclysmic event with its trenches and intractable battle lines became a gluttonous user of barbed wire. I suspect many of our grandfathers and grand uncles were haunted by visions of barbed wire till their deaths.
Flash ahead to the next war, and we come to the concentration camps surrounded by barb wire. There, it became a tool to aid in unimaginable atrocities.
It is like most everything human beings create. There are good and helpful uses for barb wire that can benefit mankind. Then it can be used for ill-intended purposes that bring harm. Sometimes I imagine God looking down on Earth shaking His head amazed at the evil things we find to do with the most incorruptible of materials.
In school, we all read the poem Mending Walls by Robert Frost, the one that ends with, “Good fences make good neighbours.” That poem begins with, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It goes on to tell how nature and time and hunters work at sabotaging the stone wall that the farmer has worked so hard to construct.
Our old fences have also faced the ravages of nature and time. Farm machinery, not hunters, have caused damage. I guess something there is that doesn’t love a fence line.
American farmers are harvesting another very good crop. Around here, soybeans were a bit disappointing, but corn yields made us smile. So why “Oops?” As is the case every year, we grow these large crops first and then we hope they will get used. You could say that is being optimistic. You could also say it’s not too smart.
The twin gods of Supply and Demand sit on high, and they decide whether we actually make any money from our bounteous crops. This year again, as Supply and Demand gaze down, they see surplus. If you are a user, you like surplus. If you are a producer, not so much.
Truth be told, a farmer would rather grow a big crop for a low price than a poor crop for a high price. It’s what we do, we grow things. The more we grow, the better we feel. You can see the problem here. We’re not growing for a market; we’re growing for a hoped-for-market.
The history of American agriculture has been primarily one of surplus production. Of course, that is a wonderful problem to have for our nation. The United States has not faced times of starvation that other countries have. Large production also means Americans spend less of our resources on food than any people in history. That means we can spend money on stuff like leaf blowers, tattoo removal, and enhanced water.
Bins are full, elevators are full, and corn is getting piled up around Midwest towns. There seems little chance price is going to rise. So, we farmers are turning to our friends in town for a little help here. If we all pitch in we can reduce this burdensome supply.
There are 52 million Minnesotans. Our state’s farmers just produced 1.3 billion bushels of corn. That’s 240 bushels for every Minnesotan, or approximately a semi-truck for each family. If you want to buy a semi of corn, that would be great. It’s pretty cheap right now, it won’t set you back much. You can get a semi of corn cheaper than a Samsung Electronics 82-Inch 4K Ultra HD Smart LED TV. Really.
I understand a lot of you don’t have room for that much corn. (Although what are you really doing with that spare bedroom anyway?) But If everyone goes to their local elevator and buys just ten or twenty bushels of corn and soybeans, it would take the edge off the surplus.
You say, “Randy, I want to do my share to help farmers and bring profitability back into agriculture. But what am I going to do with my corn and soybeans once I bring them home?” We might have to be a little creative, but we can do this. Trust me. Or to quote our president, “Trust me. I’m like a smart person.”
First off, do you have a pet? Cats and dogs are okay as far as that goes. Have you thought of replacing them with a pet feeder pig or steer? Your new pet would be more than willing to eat your grain. I’m pretty sure a pig can be trained to use your cat’s old litter box. You’ll have to take your steer out for a walk a few times a day, but that’s good exercise.
There is a possible side benefit from having a pet pig or steer. You can eat them if are so inclined. I suppose you could eat your cat or dog, but there’s not really a lot of meat on one of those. As for home security, what burglar is going to want to mess with a 700-pound Angus?
Home décor might be another way to use your commodities. Most of us have been to Mitchell, South Dakota to see the Corn Palace. If Mitchell can have a Corn Palace, why can’t you have a Corn Room. Imagine your family’s delight as they gather in the Corn Room after a hard day at work and school. This could be a boon to our local economy as we will need a whole new set of interior corn designers and corn craftsmen.
A lot of us have a cornhole game out in the garage. That is already are using a certain amount of grain. Cornhole bags are typically filled with a pound of corn. Why so small? Imagine the increased strength-enhancing that would come from tossing 50-pound bags playing Mega Cornhole?
You would need to cut the holes larger for Mega Cornhole. You’ll also need to be careful not to hurt small children with the mega-bags. It’s still safer than Lawn Jarts. Did you know that in the eighties, 6,700 Americans were hospitalized from Lawn Jart injuries? I still have one of those steel-tipped, tools of death out in a shed. I keep it for self-defense.
I know a lot of creative cooks will seek ways to prepare their corn and soybeans for dinner. I remember as an FFA project, I convinced my mom to help me come up with an edible way to prepare soybeans. We boiled them, and then mixed them in a concoction like a chicken salad. It looked pretty good. Alas, it was awful. It was the only thing my mom ever made that I didn’t like.
But don’t let that discourage you. You can do a lot of things with corn. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. There’s corn-kabobs, corn creole, corn gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple corn, lemon corn, coconut corn, pepper corn, corn soup, corn stew, corn salad, corn and potatoes, corn burger, corn sandwich. That’s about it.
Don’t forget that Christmas shopping season is nigh, and there are always those few relatives that are impossible to shop for. A gift of corn or soybeans might be the answer. A lot of our city cousins might not know what corn or soybeans are, but they will appreciate the opportunity to help reduce global feed grain ending stocks thereby raising prices and increasing my income. Tell them thanks!
With age comes minor annoyances: reading glasses, not hearing so well, aches that linger. One of them is occasionally not sleeping well. Sometimes you lay awake thinking of some problem. Sometimes you lay awake thinking about lying awake.
Monday before last was one of those. Sometime after three I woke. I tossed and turned a while thinking about the rain that was going to make harvest unfun. I thought about challenges my wife and the kids were facing in their lives, the sort of stuff that pushes into your brain in the dark. Finally restlessness won, and I got up.
In the still of the night kitchen, I turned on my phone. I get news bits on my screen from apps on my phone. One of those said there’d been a shooting in Las Vegas: two dead and many injured. A few minutes later the number was twelve dead and hundreds hurt. I sighed and closed my eyes, wanting to wish it away.
I started to look up the story on my newspaper apps. I could see the number of killed bounce from twenty to forty as I read what I could. Now it was after 4:00, and I thought I might as well turn the coffee maker on. I tried to look at some farm magazines, but kept going back to my phone. It was becoming clear this was horror on a large scale.
Sadly, we all know that feeling by now. You learn of one of these events, and a cascade of emotions washes over: frustration, anger, anguish, helplessness. I thought to pray and tried. But it’s hard to talk to God in those moments. I had to remind myself the prayer was for the victims, not me, and I stayed with it for a while.
A group of friends sends out early morning texts, usually about baseball with a dose of humor. Some texts came, but they ended as they became aware of the shooting. In my mind, I saw a wave of sadness from east to west cross America as people woke to the news. My daughter was in the middle of her day in Spain, and we shared a few messages about the shooting.
Now the deaths were fifty. With hundreds hurt, that was likely to climb. The scale was becoming incomprehensible. I thought about having to tell Pam when she woke. I’m usually ahead of her to news, and I often break stories to her. When it’s one like this, I see sadness come to her face; it’s as if I relive my own first emotions. I didn’t want to tell her, but I would.
Monday was off to a bad start. I flashed back to Sunday, which had been a very good day. A group of friends goes to the last Twins game each season at Target Field, one of my Favorite Places on Earth. It is an ending rite of summer. One of our group that day was a young man I’d not met before but thoroughly enjoyed.
Spike Brey was in a car accident when he was three months old. As the totally unfair consequence of that, he is bound to a wheelchair. He has some use of his hands but that is limited. That alone would be sad. But that is not the story Spike chose to write with his life. He has a delightful personality. As our group joked with each other, Spike joined in with some great one-liners. When talk turned to something weightier, he offered thoughtful opinions.
It is a paradox that a sick man in Las Vegas can devalue human life so completely, while the young man I met goes through excruciating daily effort to live his life well.
I thought of another part of Sunday. Our group has taken to parking at Lee’s Liquor Lounge. (Don’t tell anyone, but you can park there for free if you buy a drink. It’s the best deal ever. We don’t want everyone to know. A couple blocks from Target Field, Lee’s is a small-town bar in the middle of the city. It’s one of my Favorite Places on Earth.)
We were there early. Then the game was delayed an hour to let a rain system move through Minneapolis. There was time for conversation. We were joined by James, the manager at Lee’s, who we have come to know. James is a black man who grew up in the Cities. He shares many of the same cultural touchpoints: television, sports, music. Quite obviously there are differences in our experiences.
We had a wide-ranging discussion that wove through the National Anthem issue to race in our country to crime to individual responsibility. Opinions were varied but freely offered. We disagreed on some things and found consensus on others. It was an hour of what America needs more of: respectful, civil, serious engagement with fellow citizens.
There seems to be so much anger in our country. Reading comments on-line becomes an exercise in cringing. Who knows if that contributes to shootings like that in Las Vegas? It can’t help.
These things were in my head this early Monday, as I continued following the developing tragedy on my phone. The sky was beginning to lighten; returning to sleep wasn’t going to happen. I needed to step away from coffee and news, and decided to drive the short distance to Sleepy Eye’s Lake Trail to walk. The Lake Trail is one of my Favorite Places on Earth.
The sun was just rising. That is always a welcome time, with promise of a new day. Today though I thought about Las Vegas where the sun would be coming up in an hour or so. I imagined the crime scene, eerily lit with spotlights. The rising sun would bring natural light to that awful site.
As Christians, we play word games, and the sun reminds us of the Son. That came to mind now. The Son brought God’s love to an imperfect world. Days like this it seems wildly imperfect.
Events like the shooting make us feel so helpless. As the sun drifted up off the horizon, I returned to prayer. In that prayer came my task for the day. It is the same every day: try to love better, try to bring kindness to the world, even in small ways. It seems inadequate on days like this, but it’s all we’ve got.
We have an old file cabinet in the basement. It has become a repository for refrigerator magnets that no longer warrant a spot in the kitchen. There are multiple Twins magnet schedules and promotional magnets for businesses that have passed on.
Among them is a stained oval of forgotten origin. In calligraphic scroll it says, “The only way to have a friend is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson.” It caught my attention the other day. I thought, “That’s a lot of pressure. Can’t I just have a friend without the work?” The answer to my tongue-in-cheek question is of course no. Ralph Waldo had it right.
Reaching an age when one can “look back,” I see friends have had different roles in my life. Having fun together tops that list. But there have been times when someone picked me up or told me something I needed to hear. Having a friend is not to be taken for granted.
When we arrive from the womb, to some degree we face a harsh and unforgiving world alone. To have first a family and second, friends is not a given. Having these in our lives can add joy to the good days and offer safe harbor on the bad days.
So where do friends come from? Proximity and timing are important. I remember being in grade school and having different sets of friends depending who was in my classroom that year. If I saw a friend from last year on the playground, it was like they had moved to a foreign country.
Since I’m back in the old home town, I still have friends in town who were with me in 4th grade. Part of a friendship is having a set of shared experiences that you can call back to and build upon. That is certainly the case with school friends. We can tell stories about Sr. Remy and Mr. Spoden that are half a century old now.
Those friends knew me when I was sort of a geek. Then again, I knew them when they had a crush on that one girl and they had a heinie haircut. We all did stupid things in high school. Part of these old friendships is knowing skeletons in each other’s closets.
In modern terms these are my homies. Mike is one of my homies. We were talking a while ago about not hunting. For a lot of guys, deer camp is where they go to bond. We take baseball trips with friends, but we’re not sure this counts as a true guy thing. We decided we might have to go kill an animal someday. Neither is inclined to go first.
There are a couple sources of potential friends I don’t have. I don’t have neighbors, at least none close enough to talk with across the fence. Sociologists write about people not having front porches any more, a symbol for less interaction with those living nearby. But I know people who have friends in their neighborhood.
I also don’t have coworkers. A workplace puts one in close proximity with others, people working toward common goals. There’s the possibility of driving each other nuts, but friendships can take root there. I have worked some part time jobs with actual human beings. More often I’m out here on the farm, me and the dog.
Farmers work alone, but we see each other at the implement dealer, feed store, etc. When we do, there are obvious connections. We share the same weather, markets, and crazy government programs. I learn from other farmers and enjoy their company.
As we raised children, we became close to parents who matched up with our children’s ages and activities. When you’re hosting birthday parties, watching ballgames, and chaperoning school trips, you have a lot of time to share. Plus you have in common the goal of raising these rug rats to be contributing members of society. Our kids graduated, but some of these parents remain in our realm of friends.
Some of it is dumb luck. Years ago, I went to Hardee’s early to read the newspapers and drink coffee. I’m not particularly social in the morning. But I gradually came to know the manager bringing refills and the guy sitting in the next booth who worked across the street. Scott and Greg remain good friends.
A small town lends itself to familiarity with lots of people you cross paths with, even if they are not bosom friends. There are bunch of people I know who are acquaintance/friends. We may not see each other often, but if we end up on barstools or leaving church together, we fall into discussion of some depth quickly.
There are relationships I have not kept up, and that is a regret. There were college friends who were close for important and formative years in my life. We drifted away after graduation. Perhaps Facebook would have kept us in touch if there were such a thing forty years ago.
There are family members I consider friends. But immediate family have different roles. I’ve come to enjoy my adult children, but that will forever be as a father. That is different than a friend. There are responsibilities that are unique to that. I remember even as my parents grew into their eighties, they never quit being my mother and father. I needed that.
Then there is Pam. I have heard couples say their spouse is their best friend, and I think that is a wonderful expression. But I would say she is something different than a “friend.” The highest peaks and lowest valleys occur in a marriage. It is a commitment that is like no other. Maybe I’m playing with words now, but a marriage requires something fuller and deeper than friendship.
If you live long enough you will lose friends. Since friends don’t grow on trees, that is not easy. It leaves a hole inside. I remember the first time I heard the Luke Bryan song about that: “So I’m gonna sit right here, On the edge of this pier, Watch the sunset disappear, And drink a beer.” A couple friends who have gone on came to mind as I listened, and I had to stop what I was doing.
Why don’t we make this Hug a Friend Day? Each of them is a gift.
They are only here about four months of the year. They live intense little lives during that time, eating heartily, mating, building nests, and hatching out two or three broods. On summer evenings they dart above the yard, twisting and diving and turning midflight. This gymnastic aerial show goes on nightly.
Anybody who eats mosquitos is a friend of mine, and I go out of my way to offer homes to them. There are a couple outbuildings they nest in and I make sure there is a door or window open each May when they arrive.
In last year’s June storm, the yard light pole that held our last overhead electric line blew down. It made sense to bury that like all the others have been. I sheepishly asked electrician Bill Walters if it would be stupid of me to put the dead wire back up on the new pole for the barn swallows. He didn’t exactly answer my question. (Thanks Bill!) But he said he had done that for other similarly impractical customers.
Barn swallows gathering is but one sign of the shifting season. A couple days of low clouds and northwest wind last week put a coda on summer if there were doubts. We will have sunny days and warm days, but things are different. Day length falls below twelve hours as dark becomes the rule. Persephone returns in tears to the Underworld if you remember your mythology.
I feel a little sad this time of year. I’m not sure why. Fall is an appealing time of year on the northern prairie, so why the melancholy? I’ll miss the summer birds. I think of them as “the swallows.” I looked it up recently; they typically live four years. “The swallows” that have been here each of my 61 summers are in fact many generations. Likely some of those on the wire won’t return next May.
I was talking to a friend about this slight sadness. We agreed that we carry residual feelings from our youth that equate this time of year with going back to school. School meant the end of carefree living and the ramping up of responsibilities. You went from a schedule that is loose to one that is ordered to the minute.
I have memory of going barefoot all summer and feeling discomfort having to put on shoes for school. I must have worn shoes doing chores or going to church. But in my mind I am barefoot for those three months. I know I stepped on a few nails. I remember getting a tetanus shot and thinking it was grossly unfair to inflict pain to treat something that was painful.
My brother Dean was blind, and the end of summer meant he would return to the Faribault Braille School. Fall meant my partner in play would not be around, and that was sad.
Fall meant the end of playing baseball, a glorious game played with friends on brilliant summer nights. That was replaced by football, a drudgery at best and a source of aches and pain at worst.
There is a scene at the end of the movie Bull Durham that sticks in my mind. Susan Sarandon (Annie Savoy) is walking in a driving cold, autumn rain on a wet, dirt road. That alternates to shots of the ballfield where the season’s last game has been cancelled by raindrops splashing off the tarp. The scene is mournfully sad; it is as if spring is an eternity away.
Fall is the end of the growing season. As a farmer, your work all season aims toward harvest. It is exciting and challenging. But when harvest is complete, it is months before the return of green to the fields. Years ago, I was writing about fall work on the farm, and noted that a farmer had about forty harvests. Now that I am nearly to that number, I hope I severely underestimated when I wrote that as a silly thirtysomething.
Speaking of forty years, it was forty years ago that I went to a show at the Caboose Bar in Minneapolis. A friend had suggested we go see Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band. Walker is a country/folk/cowboy singer from Texas. It turned out to be one of those Funnest Nights of My Life that happens when you least expect it.
I’ve seen Jerry Jeff a few times since. Most recently was July at the Minnesota Zoo. The amphitheater there is a wonderful setting for a concert. It was likely Walker’s last time in Minnesota. His voice is still strong, but he sat on a stool the whole night in a nod to his 75 years of sometimes rough living.
Walker was reflective as he worked his way through songs, many written about experiences he’s had along the way. He mentioned early visits to Minnesota, referring to that night at the Caboose as a “life-altering experience.” That was met with cheers from a few dozen of us who had shared that.
Jerry Jeff talked about being a young man traveling in the South with not much more than his guitar, playing where he could for a few dollars. Someone asked him what he did. When informed that he travelled around playing music, Jerry Jeff was told, “Well, you can’t do that forever.” After a pause, the crowd laughed and applauded at the realization that, in fact, that is what exactly he had done.
At one point the singer referring to those younger years said, “Looking back, things are a whole lot clearer now than they were back then when I looked ahead.” I suppose that is self-evident, but the line has stuck with me.
Poets have long used the seasons as a metaphor for life. Spring brings birth and growth, and is like our childhood. Summer is a time of maturing, as our middle years are. Then fall is the season of decline. Well, let’s just stop this poetic exercise right there.
The harvest looks to be an abundant one. Already tomatoes and cucumbers fill the kitchen counter. Pumpkins and squash are ripening on giant vines. Farmers are hopeful about the corn and soybeans.
I will enjoy many of these fall days. That tinge of sadness will fade in the busyness.
Baseball can be a pleasant distraction from the weightier issues that surround us. The worst that can happen is your team loses, and the sun will come up tomorrow. But sometimes real life intersects with our games. That happened seventy years ago for the town of Sleepy Eye.
When I was young, a lot of folks in town knew the story of Marty Ledeboer whose death on August 3, 1947 reads like a tragic movie script. Now that memory fades.
Martin Ledeboer came to Sleepy Eye as a fresh faced, 18-year-old in the summer of 1945. He was recruited to play for the Sleepy Eye Indians. The nation was entering the post war period. Baseball was immensely popular, nowhere more so than around here. The New Ulm Brewers, Springfield Tigers, along with the Indians played in front of crowds in the thousands.
The Western Minny League was a semi-pro league that hosted a high level of baseball. Each town mixed the most talented local players with hired talent from further away. Ledeboer came to Sleepy Eye out of high school to play for the Indians. He also played college ball at Moorhead State Teachers College and was talented enough to draw attention from pro scouts.
It was common for hired players to be given a job to supplement their baseball earnings. Marty worked at Hollmer Drug Store on Main Street. Ray Hollmer was on the baseball association board and a big supporter of the Indians. By all accounts, Ledeboer was personable and liked by all he met. He was known for putting on an apron to work the soda fountain at the drug store and joking with the customers. Kids were especially drawn to Marty. When I talked to folks who remembered him, it was invariably with a smile.
In Ledeboer’s first season in town, the Indians made the State Tournament. In that time before pro sports teams in Minnesota, the State Baseball Tournament was a big event, receiving front page coverage. Unfortunately, Sleepy Eye’s ace pitcher in 1945, Chief Wonson, was declared ineligible for the tournament because he had played a few games early in the year for the Minneapolis Millers, and the Indians lost out. Regardless, a love affair had been cemented between the community and their team. Ledeboer was the fleet footed centerfielder and a fan favorite.
On August 3rd, 1947, the Indians had an afternoon game at Redwood Falls. It was an important late-season match for playoff position, and hundreds of Sleepy Eye fans would make the trip to Redwood as they did for every road game. They liked their team’s chances with Dick Lanahan on the mound. The 35-year-old Lanahan had pitched for the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates. The year before he had played with the St. Paul Saints before signing with Sleepy Eye.
The team had a makeshift locker room in the basement of the Lincoln Tavern in downtown Sleepy Eye. As they were preparing to leave for Redwood Falls, Marty assured friends there that he would get a hit that day and break a mini-slump he was in. They wished him luck as he flashed his infectious grin.
The game was something of a slugfest when Ledeboer led off the seventh inning. Sleepy Eye was ahead 9 to 4. Marty was still looking for his first hit. He laced a single to right, his Lincoln Tavern promise fulfilled. It was a hot, muggy afternoon and Marty was sweating as he pulled into first base. The Indians coach was Bugga Stellges, and he flashed the steal sign from the third base coach’s box. Catcher Casey Dowling was coaching first and Ledeboer asked him to lift the sign. Something wasn’t right. He felt fatigued. Worse, his heart was racing.
Years later I talked to Marty’s sister when I was doing work for the Brown County Historical Society. She told me that a doctor had identified a weakness in his heart. Marty also had high blood pressure, and the doctor recommended Ledeboer stay away from strenuous activity. His family talked about him quitting baseball, but Marty said he loved playing too much. He knew there was risk. He even told his parents once that if he was going to die he would just as soon it be in his uniform.
Carlie Sperl was the next man up for the Indians. There would be no chance for Marty to catch his breath. Sperl pounded a ball that got all the way to the fence for a triple. Ledeboer took off as best he could. Fans noticed that he began to weave as he rounded third, and appeared to stumble across home plate. He turned toward the Indian dugout, but only made it part way before collapsing onto the grass.
Marty’s father Garret had travelled from Moorhead for the game. He was sitting with family friend and Marty’s pastor Hillis Slaymaker. As the crowd grew silent, they raced on to the field and knelt over Marty who was conscious yet. When he saw his father he said, “Dad, I got a hit, didn’t I Dad?” Then, “Dad, I’m leaving. Say goodbye to Mom and the kids and Millie for me.” Millie was Marty’s girlfriend back home. Marty looked up at Pastor Slaymaker and said a small prayer and then lost consciousness.
Marty was taken to the hospital in Redwood Falls where the town’s two doctors did what they could for him. He briefly came to and told Ray Hollmer that he would have to take care of the store now. Marty passed away soon after.
Word spread quickly in Ledeboer’s adopted town. Al Anderson of the baseball board said, “Ledeboer had the best disposition of any player we have ever had here. He will be a tremendous morale loss to the team and the town.” Marty had many friends among players in the Western Minny. Hank Nichlasson of the New Ulm Brewers said, “What a swell chap Marty was. If every player conducted himself like he did, what a pleasure it would be to play baseball.”
A funeral service was held Wednesday to a packed church in Prinsburg, the town where Marty was born 21 years before. Besides Marty’s parents, three brothers, and seven sisters, all his teammates and many fans from Sleepy Eye attended.
A lot of us talk about doing something we love in our final moments, dying in the saddle, so to speak. Few of us get that chance. In Marty Ledeboer’s case that is exactly what happened. The death of such a personable and talented young man is of course sad. But there is a nobility in the story.
Later in August, 1947, the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch printed a tribute to Ledeboer. It was a poem written by a handicapped man from Lake Lillian who Marty had befriended. Here are a few verses:
The final game is over, the ninth inning has been played, And our centerfielder has laid his bat away.
He went out, as God would have it – among a sporting throng, With his fans and pals around him – after a run so very long.
It was not the opposing pitcher who did finally him retire, It was Death who made the putout, and God was the Umpire.
Now the Angels are his teammates, and they’ll see him safely thru To a richer, better ballfield, where all men are tried and true.
I got to see 2,000 miles of America from quite different perspectives. First from 30,000 feet above in four hours. Then from ground level. That took three days.
Daughter Abby was moving home for a few weeks before starting grad school. She was driving her ’96 Mercury Sable from San Jose, California to Sleepy Eye with as much of her stuff as it would hold plus Leo the cat. I flew out on Sunday and drove back with her on Monday to Wednesday. This was a journey that took settlers months, so coming or going was remarkable if you think about it.
This is half of a continent, the emptier half as far as human beings go. But in the emptiness, it is often beautiful, sometimes breathtaking.
On the flight out, I got a window seat just ahead of the wing. The fellow next to me looked like he would rather stick pins under his finger nails than have a conversation. It was mostly a clear day, so I spent the trip with my face pressed against the glass looking down.
As you ascend from MSP heading west-southwest, below is green. Even from that height one can distinguish between corn and soybeans which dominate the landscape below. I found myself guessing which town that was down there, wishing towns had giant “Hello my name is” labels stuck to them.
Shades of lush green stretch to the horizon for about an hour, with swatches of blue in lakes and rivers. Much of it is divided into perfect mile squares, like some sort of game board. Remember that carving this up into 640-acre parcels happened before GPS and electronics which makes it more astounding. I assume I flew near my farm, and that a few of those little squares down there are mine to cultivate.
In my part time job inspecting fields, I use plat books to find my way. I’m used to thinking in terms of section squares. Roads being exactly a mile apart seem natural when you’re driving in the country. Looking down on it from on high is another matter.
There were puffy cumulous clouds. For each there was a shadow cast on the ground below it. Oddly, it felt sort of upside down being on the other side of the clouds looking at the shadow.
Just the day before I had been working around and under wind generators out in western Minnesota. I shot video of them “whoosh, whooshing” above me. When the plane went over the Buffalo Ridge, suddenly these huge machines were little toy models, spinning silently below me.
Somewhere in South Dakota, the green dries up and is replaced by hues of brown and gray. Probably more so this year since the west has been in a drought. There are ribbons of green in river valleys. Then there are irrigation circles that look like round remnants of artificial turf.
There are less roads and cities. When the hills turn into mountains, there are even fewer. It is difficult to discern the heights and depths of the mountains and valleys from that distance, but I assume it was rugged landscape I was going over.
A day later, we began the trek home, reversing my four-hour flight. Out of California, we drove through the Sierra Nevadas. You cross the Donner Pass near Donner Lake and Donner Memorial State Park. It’s odd that this small piece of history is so prominently memorialized. I told Abby that if things turned bad for us, we were eating the cat first.
After those mountains come a lot of open spaces. Most of the drive across northern Nevada is through the Great Basin. This is called a “cold desert,” hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It was over 100 degrees outside the car, and a little less inside our old car with iffy air conditioning. Nevada was endless brown hills, interspersed with casinos. Every small town had a casino or two. It seemed there are more casinos than people.
That was followed by the Salt Flats of Utah, shimmering white, looking deceptively like water in the distance. Past the Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake City sets between mountain ranges. We had lunch there and would have liked more time. I marked it as a city to go back to.
On the border of Utah and Wyoming, we had car trouble. We spent a morning In Wendover, Utah trying to get that resolved. We described that as a cross between being in an episode of the Twilight Zone and a Monty Python skit, but we were going by noon.
Wyoming is buttes and plateaus, with badlands coloring parts of it. Here and there are herds of cattle when slight amounts of green would appear. We turned off the interstate and took two lane road up toward South Dakota, spending an evening driving through ranch country watching an entrancing thunderstorm off in the distance.
A lot of the West is defined much by what it doesn’t have: rainfall. Green doesn’t reappear until well into South Dakota. We take growing things for granted. I remember when my father who never got off the farm much for his first 60 years came back from a bus tour out west. He was struck by how much land there was that didn’t grow anything. We teased him about that, but gosh, he was right.
There are not a lot of cities on the way: Reno, Salt Lake City, Sioux Falls. We went through the least populated county (Niobrara) in the least populated state (Wyoming).
What towns there were had long distances between them. They were not unlike the small towns of Minnesota with a lot of things that used to be. We saw closed gas stations and empty schools. One town had five closed motels. Out in the country, there were old farm and ranch buildings scattered along the road, well preserved in the dry climate for decades. These were rural places, and rural places everywhere are changing and adapting in the best cases and simply declining in the worst.
As I said, much of it was beautiful, an evolving watercolor painting out our car window. I thought of the Woody Guthrie song, This Land Is Your Land. We saw half of “from California, to the New York Island.” And if it is so that “this land is made for you and me,” America is truly blessed.