Starting Over

Rochester MN 1925 City Directory

Rochester MN 1925 City Directory

Two things in this letter resonate with me. The first is Lucy’s description of the City Directory. My children may have heard of them, but their kids certainly have never seen such a thing. When I was a kid the City Directory was the first class version of the Telephone Book. The City Directory had much more information, things like who lived in the household and what they did for a living. In a sense, it was a corporate census of the town. I didn’t get to see one very often, as they cost a lot of money, but every business man needed one. They may have been a source to determine credit-worthiness. They disappeared in the nineteen eighties, after a hundred year run. Nowadays they’re a good resource for ancestry hobbyists. They hired unskilled people to make the rounds of homes to gather information; a good entry job for Lucy as she tried to get into the labor market.

The second thing that brought back memories was Lucy’s mention of Main Avenue. When I moved to Fargo in the fall of 1968 to attend North Dakota State University one of the things the guys in the next room taught me quickly was where not to go in Fargo. Main Avenue was one of them. There were some interesting bars down there, not the least of which was the Pink Pussycat. For several blocks along Main there were nothing but bars, the Salvation Army and the Bus Depot. They were not the place for a naïve teenage boy to hang around. The flop house era was just ending in those days, and single old men wandered about, drunk most of the time, waiting for their big break.

For Ken to help those guys out was incredibly charitable. For Lucy to go door to door down there would have been a real challenge.

These last couple of letters from Lucy have been difficult for me to read, and even more difficult to comment on. She came through a challenging time in her life, to come out the other side as a successful and joyful person. She mothered a wonderful girl who became the most wonderful grandmother any child could have. Lucy’s next several letters will lift you up even more than the last couple have dragged you through the nadir of her life.

Lucy writes:

Being left with a daughter and mother to care for was only the beginning of my concerns. I married out of high school and had never had a real job that paid a living wage.

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A New Life

1957 Sweet Adelines quartet - The Humbugs - Lucy is 2nd from right

1957 Sweet Adelines quartet – The Humbugs – Lucy is 2nd from right

Most of us start a new life at least once, and usually several times in a lifetime. The big choices seem to be voluntary. Who to marry, where to go to college, which new job to take, where to live. Making those decisions affects the arc of a life dramatically. Some of the choices aren’t voluntary, they’re forced on us. The day Lucy got the call from St. Luke’s hospital forced a big change in her life, and in Judy’s life. Lucy’s last letter described that day.

Once Lucy internalized that major event she faced hundreds of decisions that a woman of the mid-1950s usually didn’t have to handle. Those decisions were hard enough, but she was facing them alone; the love of her life was gone. As I read Lucy’s letter I try to imagine what that was like. Even with the friends and family around to help, from here it looks pretty lonely.

The good news is that Lucy was already involved in Sweet Adelines, a women’s barbershop chorus. That group grounded her, gave her so many friends and opportunities for years. When I met Lucy she was deep into Sweet Adelines, and so much of the benefit came from the quartet Betty suggested.

Lucy writes:

Here I was, a mother, a daughter and a $1000.00 life insurance policy I didn’t even know Ken had. No job – only helping Lizell work on a car auction sale – snack bar – not much to go on but still didn’t seem to worry about a lot.

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Irish Band

Judy's high school friends at the reunion.

Judy with high school friends at the reunion.

We had a great time at Judy’s high school reunion last month. It brought back wonderful memories of the reunion five years ago. Back then, several of Judy’s friends joined us for an extra curricular activity in downtown Fargo. A friend of hers played bodhrán in an Irish band, Poitin. As we listened to the band in Dempsey’s Pub, Judy got more and more excited. Watching her friend Bonnie play that drum sparked something visceral in Judy. I should have known what was about to happen.

A couple of months later Judy wanted to go to Hobgoblin Music in Red Wing. She came home with a bodhrán. That led to hours of practice, learning how to play. You know that YouTube has videos that can teach almost anyone almost anything, including Irish drum. One thing led to another, and Judy joined a session group in Rochester that played Irish folk tunes every month or so. We’ve watched Irish bands at the local Irish Fest for the last couple of years, too. Then this winter Larry and Melissa needed a new drummer. Judy was ready to drum, and ready to sing harmony. Now we are traveling all over Southeast Minnesota for festivals and celebrations. It’s been a joy to watch this develop from that evening at Dempsey’s Irish Pub in Fargo. Continue reading

Fishing in Flin Flon

The year in graduate school was one of the best years of my young life. Judy and I celebrated two years of marriage, I had a full ride scholarship, which meant I didn’t have to work at all, just go to classes. There weren’t even any teaching assistant duties. The guys I was going to school with were a lot of fun, too. One of the professors, Dan K, had an idea for us the week after school was out in June of 1973.

Ready to head north. Fred, Jerry, Keith.

Ready to head north. Fred, Jerry, Keith.

A dozen of us piled into two old vans along with several canoes, twelve pounds of coffee and several pints of whiskey. We headed north for seven hundred miles to Flin Flon, Manitoba. That’s the farthest north I’ve ever been. Then we continued north for more miles to get to the lake. It’s hard to remember now where we ended up, there aren’t a lot of roads there even today. After parking the vans we paddled for several hours and a couple of portages. This was wilderness. More wild, and more remote than the Boundary Waters. We set up camp on a point, high above the lake. The view was fantastic and there was room for all the tents and a large fire pit. Down by the lake there was a place to clean the fish and pull in the canoes. We settled in for a week of fishing, eating, telling stories and canoeing around the lake. Continue reading

War is Declared

FDR delivers the declaration of war request to congress.

FDR delivers the declaration of war request to congress.

World War in 1941 was not the same as the relatively little dust up in the Middle East in my lifetime.

In 1990 our president didn’t ask us for any sacrifices. In the forties everyone gave up something, often they gave up a lot. Lucy talks about some of the privations they endured. There was only one of them that I can really relate to.

In 1973, during the Vietnam war, I was called up for a draft physical. We stood around in the Fargo Army physical exam facility all day, just like Ken did in Lucy’s letter. Fortunately for me the outcome was a little different. I plan to write an entire story about that day in the near future. Let’s get back to the forties.

Lucy writes:

Being newly married, then have the threat of war was not easy to deal with. We would have to leave our little house – by the way – Ken was working on a car at the garage and a customer stepped on the starter and Ken lost the end of his finger. The insurance from that paid for our house – along with overhauling cars in the yard.

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Our First Home

Fargo ND

Guy & Judy’s first apartment, c. 1971

For most of us the first apartment or house after leaving home is a difficult transition. I’m having a little trouble getting my head around this story. Lucy talks about a terrible apartment, then goes on to describe a situation that none of us would accept as a place to live, even if we did own it.

When Judy and I moved into our first apartment we thought it was perfect for us. We rented the upstairs in a house built in the 1920’s. The rooms were large, with plenty of nice windows, and a full kitchen and bathroom.

Looking at the picture of the old house now, one thing strikes me right away. It’s a four-square, bearing an uncanny resemblance to our house in Rochester where we’ve lived for the last thirty-something years. There’s a lot of similarity to the house I lived in in Jamestown, too.

Enough about me. Let’s get back to Lucy and her home.

Lucy writes:

After living in Terrible apartments we decided it was a necessity to have a home. Continue reading

Dating and Dancing

Last month Lucy wrote about her first date and the dances she and her best friend Evy went to. One does not go to a dance alone, especially in the thirties.

Duke Ellington's band at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo

Duke Ellington’s band at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo

The dance Lucy describes in this letter was at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo. The first time I read this letter that fact didn’t seem to mean much. There were little ballrooms in every town, but this one was in Fargo, and Lucy had to drive 24 miles from Gardner to get there. That fact alone means the Crystal Ballroom was something special. Over in Kidder County, Grace lived in a boarding house in Steele because the 23 miles from the farm was too great a distance to travel every day to get to school.

The Crystal Ballroom hosted some famous bands, demonstrated by an album recorded in 1940 by Duke Ellington and his band, live at the Crystal Ballroom. Such a high-class place as that certainly wouldn’t let in the likes of people who dressed like Lucy and her best friend.

Lucy writes:

Dancing was the big thing in high school. If you weren’t dating and dancing you were considered a “wall flower.” My brother Lewellyn (Lew) taught me how to dance by standing on his toes when I was small. Loving music added fun to it of course – some times. Evy Malen (my best friend) and I would have 5 + 6 dances ahead. Guess that is not done now.

Evy and I went to Fargo with two men and we went to the Crystal Ballroom to dance. While we danced a big fat lady with a badge on her shoulder said we had to leave the dance hall because we were wearing anklets. She was a deputy and we were the talk of the high school. We thought it was fun.

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