How did this happen?

We see them everywhere downtown. This is Rochester, home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic. It’s common for us to see a person in a wheel chair, often sporting a tied scarf to keep a head warm. The hair was probably lost due to a difficult treatment for some medical condition. I always feel bad when I see a wheel chair pushed by a parent. The parent of a child. A young child, often not even double-digit years old. A child facing life and death. Far too soon. That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen, but in Rochester it’s not that uncommon.

It never occurred to me that another situation would hit me even harder than a sick child in a wheel chair.

It wasn’t that many years ago that we buried my Dad and Judy’s mother. They were old. Eighties. Life had been good to them, but it was over. We hated to see them go, but that’s the way of life.

I didn’t see the next one coming.

Those of you who know me know that I spend an inordinate amount of my life wandering the halls at the Mayo Clinic, too. I’ve been lucky that my challenges responded to proper treatment. My life is good. I do what I want, when I want, and the bumps from minor medical mishaps enhance, not detract from, my life.

Until that day I was in for a routine blood test. Continue reading

The Doctor Book

The Doctor Book

I grew up in my Grandmother Fanny’s house, getting most of my medical care from the same woman who treated Esther in this story. Esther describes the all too common wound of a foot punctured by a random nail.

Henry on crutches – after a 1936 snowstorm.

Henry on crutches – after a 1936 snowstorm.

As a wide-ranging eight year old child, bare foot most of the summer, I stepped on plenty of nails and sticks, pulling them out of my foot before heading home for Grandma’s treatment according to the “Doctor Book” that Esther describes. The standard treatment for foot wounds was to wrap the wound in bacon and wait. It may have worked, as the salt from the bacon could reduce infection.

The other treatment that is much more memorable was for sunburn. In the summer, neighborhood kids went without shoes or shirts. On the exceptionally sunny summer afternoons we’d come home beet red with sunburn. I hated the treatment described in the book. Vinegar. Continue reading

That sounds like fun

That sounds like fun. Let’s do it!

A couple of years ago a friend of ours found herself in a tough place. As she tried to put her life back together we talked about what she was doing to ease the transition. People tried to get her involved in activities, partly to get her mind off the difficulties, and partly because she was fun to be around. In a change from the past, she now responded “That sounds like fun! Yes, let’s do it.”

We loved her new way of doing things, partly because it meant we got to do more fun things with our friend. I’ve since realized that the change she made taught me an important life lesson. Unconsciously I’ve been following a similar strategy for years. Recently saying “Yes!” to new opportunities has become more intentional and frequent.

Three episodes come to the front of the line as I think about saying “Yes!” In college, one of my buddies in the next room in Sevrinson Hall asked me if I’d like to take his cousin to the prom, because she needed a date. It would have been easy to say no. What kind of loser decides she needs a date to prom, a week before the big event? There were plenty of parties with my other college buddies that could fill up the weekend. I should have studied for finals. But what the hell? I took the bait, and ended up marrying Judy the next year.

Fifteen years later my friend Jim called and offered to sell his 1953 Cadillac to us. The car was 35 years old, almost as old as us. We didn’t think we needed yet another hobby, as we were fully involved in projects, working, two young kids, and an old house to keep up. We sat on the porch swing and talked about what to do. The whole conversation was something like this: Continue reading

Mama

Mama

A hundred years ago a mile was a lot longer than it is today. In this story Esther relates that they didn’t get to visit her grandparents very often, and then just for funerals. The five hundred miles from North Dakota to the old home in Nebraska was just too much.

Grandpa Ted and Fanny in 1939

Grandpa Ted and Fanny in 1939

That distance barrier still existed in the fifties when I was a child. Esther and her husband lived in Montana at the time, and I lived with my mother and her mother (Grandma Luehr) in Jamestown, ND. Once we took the train to Libby to visit them. Once. I don’t remember much about the trip, but I do remember being on the train for a very long time. Maybe it was lack of resources, but we very rarely visited family other than the few who lived within fifty miles of home.

Esther starts this story talking about her mother’s name. I never used the word Fanny to address my grandmother. She was Grandma Luehr. There was no question about that. Continue reading

1984

1984

I love to read, and usually dislike reading a book again. For me, even favorite books lose their excitement the second time around. That made studying a little difficult in college. My vision of studying included going over the same material again. This boy wouldn’t do that, much to the chagrin of my study partners.

1984-b-and-nDuring my junior year of college we had a particularly difficult test coming up, and my buddy Dean felt that he needed some help. I knew that my recollection of the material was not good enough, too. We decided to spend the evening studying. I couldn’t do it. Going over the material again was too boring. We had lots of other things to talk about, so we did. Dean didn’t do well on that test.

Back to the books. I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve reread. There are only a couple that I’ve been through more than twice. As I think about that short list of books, I’m drawn to reading some them again. Other favorite books (Phi, for example) changed how I view the world, but I don’t need to go back.

Allow me to take another diversion here. I love reading, but I don’t like to reread a book. Movies usually bore me. We go to a movie every couple of years. Not interested. The interesting part? I can watch my favorite movies or television shows a dozen times. I can bring up scenes and dialogue from Casablanca in an instant. My biggest television addiction (addiction being something I must do that has no direct benefit) is M*A*S*H. I’ve seen every episode a half-dozen times over the last forty years. Judy leaves the room when I’m watching M*A*S*H, because I can speak most of the lines with the cast.

How do I reconcile the difference between books and television? Hold that thought while I return to a book I just reread, again. Continue reading

Promise of the Prairie

Promise of the Prairie

The Kunkel House

The Kunkel House

Grandpa Ted caught North Dakota Fever in 1919.

According to other stories about Ted and Fanny, Ted had spent a summer in the Red River Valley working on a farm, fell in love with the land, and decided that’s where he wanted to start his own farm. Thousands of other people caught that same fever. The 1920 federal census shows almost eight thousand residents in Kidder County, compared to less than two thousand just twenty years earlier.

Can you imagine the excitement of those years, as hundreds of people thronged the real estate offices and railroad stations? Every train from the east dropped off new residents looking for farmland or a place to open a store. Greenhorns and shysters everywhere. Continue reading

What changed?

Down in our basement are several big plastic tubs. If you took the time to open one of them, which I haven’t in years, you might find dozens, maybe hundreds, of N-scale model railroad cars, buildings, engines, and miscellaneous equipment. Poke around in my home office and you would discover more trinkets, track, and a half-built modular section.

The other day my friend Jay and I were talking at coffee, and we got on the subject of trains. Railroads held an important spot in our lives in the fifties. If you wanted to travel any distance, it was probably on the railroad. Both he and I had taken significant trips by train.

The little house we lived in until I was about ten was across the river from a railroad branch line. The line served the ice house (now there’s a whole ‘nother topic!), a lumber yard and a couple of other businesses downstream from our house. That line was important to me, especially during the winter when the river froze over. We’d walk across the ice, clamber up the steep river bank, and the follow the tracks for a block or two on our way to school. If we had a spare penny, we’d leave it on the track in the morning, hoping that sometime during the day a train would come by to flatten it.

I wish I still had one of those big pennies.

1962 NPRR Jamestown ND

Operations tower – NP Jamestown, ND

If we followed that branch line another three blocks north, we get to the Northern Pacific’s freight sorting yard. The yard extended a block or two east, and at least a mile to the west. To the east was downtown, where I found interesting equipment and operations, especially exciting for a boy who would become an electrical engineer. Just off First Avenue was a wooden tower, probably twenty-five or thirty feet high, with an operations room at the top. There were two or three men in the room, watching for trains. When they saw one coming, they’d operate switches and levers to activate the crossing signals that held car traffic on the avenues.

View looking west from main street switch tower - Jamestown ND - 1962

View looking west from main street switch tower – Jamestown ND – 1962

Those signals were nothing like the huge illuminated arms that block every lane of traffic these days. They were simple “wig-wag” signals, with a bell and a couple of blinking red lights. Hanging off the bottom was a tail like thing with one of those blinking lights. When the men activated the signal, a tail wagged back and forth to catch drivers’ attention. Eight or ten passenger trains, and many more freight trains, came through every day. The guys in the tower didn’t get much time to nap. Continue reading