[This piece is intended as an introduction to a series of stories based in family memories shared over the years.]
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear. Growing up, our home revolved around the kitchen table. It was at the top of the steps coming in from the garage, a step from the phone, and a few steps from the coffeepot.
This is where we shared our meals, both everyday and holiday. It is where we read the morning paper and opened the mail and struggled with our homework. It is where we left notes telling where we were, who we were with, and when we’d be home. It is where neighbor women would come when they needed a word of advice or encouragement from my mother who, although just a few years their senior, had a lifetime of wisdom and friendship ready to dispense over a cup of coffee. It is where my dad told and retold stories about fishing and flying. It is where we ate rice with food coloring every night when the cupboard was bare and the pocketbook thin. It is where we held family conferences to share good news and bad–and to make the big and not so big decisions. It is where my mother sat rubbing her forehead as she paid the bills. It is where my father now plays endless hours of solitaire—the kids all grown and his wife too soon in heaven.
The oak table is over a century old, handmade and the color of honey. It came with our family from our farm in west central Minnesota to our home in the suburbs when I was just eleven years old. It bore the scares from notches accidentally hacked into the edge from its first life when it was used as a surface to butcher chickens and pigs.
Not long after Minnesota became the 32nd state and the Civil War wounds were still fresh, our kitchen table was the center of my mother’s paternal grandparent’s farm life. When Grandpa Tody’s parents were first married, I imagine the table was used for meals, canning, sewing, repairs, reading, and a myriad of family projects, laced with the rich conversation that goes along with busy hands. As the years passed, the sturdy oak table was used as a surface to butcher livestock and repair harnesses. Over decades of daily use, it became covered with too many thick coats of varnish and soiled with the blood, sweat, and tears associated with the relentless rigors of Midwestern farm life. By the time it came to my folks, it was brownish gray and dull.
World War II was raging across the sea, and in 1944, the year of their engagement, my parents painstakingly toiled evenings and weekends, stripping and sanding that table. Soon they discovered their hunch was right. This was a beautiful piece of workmanship with scrolled beaded legs and hand-hewed sliders enabling the table to seat up to 14 guests. By the time they were finished, they had a solid and attractive piece of furniture to begin their household and their life together.
Since that day, our family has depended on that kitchen table and taken it for granted, admired its beauty and misused it, relied on its function and taken care of it–just as we have regarded one another.
Some of my fondest memories involve gathering around our kitchen table after school or work, scarfing cinnamon toast and telling stories of our day or gossip we had heard while out in the world. My mother would often preface a story by saying, “Now girls, this is kitchen talk. You don’t have to tell everything you know.” This was her way of saying that the kitchen table was sanctuary…a safe house for sharing. The telling and retelling and analyzing of these events turned out to be our classroom, exploring ideas and forming values as we laughed and cried.
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear.
Author Alexandra Elle once said, “There will be moments when you will bloom fully and then wilt, only to bloom again. If we can learn anything from flowers it is that resilience is born even when we feel like we are dying.”
A friend from Minnesota, Karen (Ray) Alvstad, recently sent me a photo of poppies blooming on a roadside with a note that read, “One of our Memorial Day traditions is to drive to the site of the Evansville farm where you grew up. The house, the barns, the machine shed, and the airplane hanger were bull dozed long ago but there are several stands of blooming poppies this time of year, reminding us of Flanders Field. If you ever take a road trip back home in May, you will want to revisit the site.”
A few days later I received a letter in the mail from Audrey Lerum (90) who was a dear friend of my mother’s before we moved off the farm in 1965. After catching me up on what’s blooming in her yard and which little animals and birds are frolicking around her house, she wrote, “Your mother’s big poppy plants once again are blooming and lots of people drive by to see them. Last year a fellow picked one and brought it over for me to see. I used to always try to drive by your old place a couple of times while they are in bloom, but no longer can I see to drive.”
I was only 11 years old when we moved off the farm in West Central Minnesota, so, intrigued I sent the photo to my siblings. My oldest brother, Carlton Huseth (we call him Hans) texted right back, “Wow! Fantastic! I am surprised they are still there!”
Here is what I learned. It was the summer of 1960 and my now 75-year-old brother was just 14 years old. The county road department had flattened the gravel road in front of our farm, to make it safer I guess. This involved cutting into the hill upon which our house stood, leaving a jagged cliff from our yard down to the road. He and our mother (Darlene Huseth) came up with a plan custom-made for Hans’s 4-H project. Curb appeal is everything, they agreed, even if cars seldom drive by. When I was little, I remember thinking that if I heard a car coming, we were likely expecting company.
They decided on two perennial cutting gardens on either side of the driveway running the entire length of our frontage. They ordered seeds from Gurney: black-eyed susan’s, yellow daylilies, white daisies, orange tiger lilies, purple irises, rose bushes, marigolds, zinnias, pink peonies, and splendid red poppies (but not the kind they make drugs out of she assured him.) Hans used the Farmhand scoop on the Farmall F20 to haul 20 loads of barnyard dirt transforming the cliff in our front yard into a more gradual ditch. Every minute not cultivating soybeans that summer, Hans was working on the garden. Digging, hauling, raking, planting, watering, weeding. It was back-breaking work but our mother and her firstborn got to create something huge together, as he was beginning to slip into adulthood.
The barn had been built into a hill many generations ago and the adjacent barnyard had seen more than its fair share of livestock over the years. And the barnyard dirt? That soil was infinitely more fertile than any soil found in those plastic bags at the fancy landscape supply stores. That soil was the real deal. Not harsh or likely to burn. Just good rich smelly fertile soil.
They planted the seeds in late spring and by summer those flowers were dancing happily in the sunshine. They took root easily. They were nourished efficiently. Long bright days and cool nights developed their vibrant colors and strong stems. Those flowers springing forth in the ditch were quite the attraction and soon people were driving out of their way just to take a look!
But as it goes in the natural world, by autumn the flowers wilted and bowed to the coming winter. Their pedals faded and withered, their dry stems were broken, their seeds scattered in the wind. My brother planted a few dahlia and tulip bulbs to give the garden a head start in the spring and soon winter covered the land in snow and ice.
And then, miraculously, just a few months later, those tiny shoots began with the work of it. Seeds that had been sound asleep under the snow now stretched toward the sun. Soon the days became long and those gardens in the ditch were again ablaze with vibrant color. Oh and my brother? You probably guessed it: a Blue Ribbon on his 4H project! That was in 1960.
If we can learn anything from flowers it is that resilience is born even when we feel like we are dying.
We’ve all had those times when we feel like we are wilting and dying after fully blooming. Those cold November winds whip up in all kinds of ways. Your body, once the picture of health, may fail you with a dim diagnosis. You may lose a loved one. Your beautiful kids may go astray. You may lose that dream job you worked so hard to get. You may be sent to war in the prime of your life. You may be flying down the highway on your Harley Davidson as free as a bird one minute and in some ICU far from home the next.
And then you may feel like you are buried under winter for a very long time. You can’t breathe. You don’t know which way is up and which way is down. Your once strong limbs feel like noodles, sort of like you’re walking in Jell-O. But trust me on this. One day you will see that resilience was born during that time, and soon you will feel the earth warming and the sunshine drawing you near.
There will be moments when you will bloom fully and then wilt, only to bloom again.
And sixty years later your splashy scarlet poppies will still be the talk of the town and will totally be worth a Memorial Day sightseeing drive down a dusty country road near Evansville, Minnesota.
If you are from Chanhassen, you probably have your favorite PRINCE story. Here is mine. The time Grandma delivered homemade chocolate chip cookies to Prince’s house and invited him to church….
During the early 1980’s when my Mom was in her 60’s, and Prince, riding the success of Controversy and Purple Rain, was newly rich and famous, he lived in my home town of Chanhassen, Minnesota.
When Mom told us kids she had casually stopped by his house, we were mortified because we were Prince fans and we had heard the rumors about all the stuff that went on behind those gates. Oblivious to all that, my Mom had baked cookies, packaged them up pretty, hopped in her rusty old Honda Accord, and drove out to County Road 117 to the very same address where my high school friend, Ron Lybeck, used to live. The guard house at the end of the driveway was new since Ron’s family lived there.
Whatever possessed her that morning we will never know! She pulled up to the gate and a huge and handsome and very polite black man with a ton of gold chains draped around his neck stepped out in front of her car. He slowly walked up to her rolled down window.
“May I help you, ma’am?”
“Good morning, young man. Is Prince home?”
“Why no ma’am, he’s not. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Well, yes you can. I brought him these cookies I baked this morning. And a bulletin from last Sunday’s service at my church. I would like to invite Prince to visit my church sometime. Oh, and you are welcome to come along too, if you’d like.”
Still chattering, she handed him the tin of cookies and the bulletin. “The name of the church is Lutheran Church of the Living Christ and I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s just south of town out on Highway 5. We really look forward to seeing you there. Service times are in the bulletin. Have a nice day.”
“Yes Ma’am. Thank you Ma’am.”
Well, I probably don’t need to tell you that Prince never did darken the door of my Mom’s fine little Lutheran church. But it made for a great family story, a story all her kids and grandkids love to tell each for their own reason. All the way from “My Grandma is so gutsy” to “Mom took every opportunity to share her faith with new neighbors” to “I think my Mom is losing it” to “Do you think that really happened?” I am sure the polite man in the guardhouse just thought she was nuts.
A few years later when my niece, Dawn, brought her new boyfriend over to meet Grandma, out came the ritual cookies and coffee. His name was Shawn and he was way too quiet. But in time the conversation meandered around to Shawn growing up in nearby Chaska. It turns out that when he was in high school, Shawn hung out with Prince’s bodyguard’s kids. What a small world! “Big Chick” Huntsberry and some of the Prince entourage provided a free and easy place for his kids and their friends to hang out, and Shawn was one of the crowd.
Dawn piped up, “Oh yeah! Hey Shawn! Did I ever tell you about the time my Grandma brought cookies to Prince’s house and invited him to go to church with her!?”
Pretty quiet up to that point, Shawn choked, nearly passing coffee through his nose! When he regained his composure, “THAT WAS YOU!!??”
Dawn couldn’t believe her ears. Shawn recounted one day back in high school he was hanging out with the Huntsberry kids when one of the bodyguards had come back to Big Chick’s house with home-made chocolate chip cookies which he shared with everyone, saying something about a little old church lady who had invited them to church. They had all had a good laugh as they munched on the best chocolate chip cookies in Carver County. When he stopped talking, my coy little Mom quietly looked at Shawn and asked him, “Well, why didn’t he come?”
My Mom believed for the best in people and she met them right where they were. While she could always be counted on to be the voice of reason in any given situation, we learned early to expect the unexpected from her. She passed away in 1998 when my sons were little, but I can’t help think that they would have loved her and would by this time have their own favorite “Grandma Grandma” stories.
You did not know your Great Grandpa and Grandma Huseth, so I write this as a little glimpse into your genetic roots and wings. Family is where YOUR story begins.
Donald Huseth was born April 27, 1922, and Darlene Christenson was born on January 19, 1924, in west-central Minnesota. Their little baby spirits appeared on this earth right between the two Great Wars and just before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 that led to the Dust Bowl years and the Great Depression. They must have been destined to be pretty great people because the current events book-ending their arrival were all labeled great.
In history class, you will learn about the Roaring Twenties and in literature class you may read The Great Gatsby. Imagine this: F Scott Fitzgerald sipping cocktails with Earnest Hemmingway, a Peugeot Type 176 driving by, and all passersby are clothed in flapper-style dresses or dapper suits with fedoras and spending every last dime on high fashion and speakeasies.
Of course, aside from jazz, style, and nightclubs, there was a fair amount of everyday life going on, not often portrayed in glamorous 1920s-era films. While the rest of America indulged themselves in glitz, glamour, and decadence, your great grandparents quietly slipped into a little corner of rural life in west-central Minnesota.
The Great Depression began when Donald and Darlene were 8 and 6 years old. The Dust Bowl years followed which was a decade of the worst droughts in over 1,000 years. When I would ask my parents about growing up in the Depression, they would often remark, “Ya, we were very poor, but as kids, we really didn’t know it. Everybody was poor. We were the lucky ones because we lived in the country. We had plenty to eat, a warm fire in the cookstove, and clothes on our backs, even though some of our dresses were made from feed sacks. We even went to school if we were lucky enough to catch the school bus which was a horse-drawn buckboard. But those kids in the cities, they were the poor ones, they really had it rough. They stood in soup lines and were dependent on handouts because their cupboards were bare and their fathers didn’t have work. Rats and disease were rampant in the city causing all kinds of despair. But on the farm, we had plenty of fresh air, exercise, good food, and clean water. And books. Plenty of books. And we had family. Family is where your story begins.”
The history books will not tell you about the Huseths and Christensons and the Jenstads and the Leraas’ who came to America from Norway in the 1800s to carve out a better life for themselves. In fact, most history books even leave out the Nordic sailors who explored the eastern edge of North America some 500 years before Christopher Columbus making their way into the interior as far as Minnesota and points south and west. The Kensington Runestone is one piece of proof and is dated 1362. It was discovered just 30 miles from where our people settled at Huset Lake near Barrett, Minnesota. (Darlene’s brother, Ansel, was friends with the man’s son who initially dug the Runestone out from under some tree roots.)
Early expeditions to North America are well documented and accepted as historical fact by most scholars. Around the year 1000 A.D., the Norse explorer Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, sailed to a place he called Vinland (because the land was full of vines and grapes.) That was the northern tip of Newfoundland and coastal North America. Leif had been converted to Christianity by the Christian King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, and after Leif’s first trip to Vinland he started preaching Christianity to the native population at the commission of the King, making Leif the first Christian missionary to the New World. Initial interactions with the North American Indigenous people were friendly with a strong trade relationship.
Renowned for their sailing expertise, Norwegian immigrants often joined the Dutch traveling trade routes to Colonial America. During the early 1800s, many Norwegian immigrants came for religious freedom with help from the Quakers. From the mid-1800s however, the main reasons for leaving Norway were agricultural disasters like the European Potato Famine which led to great poverty in our homeland. Later the agricultural revolution also put Norwegian farmers out of work and pushed them to find jobs in the more industrialized America. Between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to North America, some to the Midwest to work in agriculture and others to the Pacific Northwest to work in the fishing industry. Predominantly motivated by poverty and compounded by medical breakthroughs like the smallpox vaccine – which made it possible for more children in large families to make it to adulthood – there was simply not enough food or employment in Norway to keep up with the growing population. Norway is geographically a beautiful mountain range on the sea and consequently, only 3% of the land is suitable for farming.
Then on May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which promised 180 acres of free, fertile, flat land in return a small filing fee to the U.S. Federal government. A wave of Europeans rushed into America, some made their fortunes and returned, but many more stayed and made The United States their new home. Over its history, more than 2 million individuals filed claims, with approximately 780,000 obtaining title to the lands. More than 270 million acres were granted while the law was in effect.
I pause here to interject a little context. Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th president of The United States from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. The Huseths arrived on American soil in 1868 just three years after the end of the Civil War. The Leraas family settled in 1891. Lincoln led the nation through the American Civil War, which was our country’s greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis. Although celebrated and beloved today, Lincoln’s ideas and leadership were enormously controversial for that century and way ahead of its time. Voters either loved him or hated him; one even shot him! His presidency succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy.
The Homestead Act is considered one of The United States’ most important pieces of legislation allowing citizens of all walks of life—including former slaves, women, and immigrants—to become landowners. Abraham Lincoln got a lot done for the nation, but it came with a big price. For instance, Native Americans were gravely affected by the Homestead Act. The U.S. government took their land, handed it over to strangers, and before they knew it their home was populated by sometimes ill-equipped and inexperienced Europeans who shut out Native Americans from their traditional way of life and forced them onto reservations. Additionally, part of the homestead agreement involved cultivating the land, which not only decimated the natural ecosystem which had sustained primitive peoples for centuries but decimated the land itself leading to the Black Blizzards of the Dirty Thirties. During the Dust Bowl years, the rich topsoil of the American Midwest was carried east by dry high winds so far that the Statue of Liberty was sometimes obscured from sight by Oklahoma soil swirling through New York City air. The worst dust storm of the decade occurred on April 14, 1935. News reports called it Black Sunday. A wall of blowing sand and dust started in the Oklahoma Panhandle and spread east. As many as three million tons of topsoil are estimated to have blown off the Great Plains during just that one day!
With a stroke of his pen (and the blood of 2.75 million Americans who fought in the war), Abraham Lincoln changed the lives of African slaves and our Norwegian forefathers during the same presidential term! Our people benefited greatly from the Homestead Act, indeed most immigrants who filed claims would never have become landowners without this stimulus program. The theory was that Americans, immigrants, men, women, blacks, and whites would be able to build a better life for themselves through westward expansion and therefore build the nation. In practice, this theory worked better for some than others, but that is an important story for another time.
Hans Huseth (1848-1936) was 20 years old in 1868 when he landed in Quebec and made his way south and west via the Great Lakes through Sarmia, Ontario, Manitowoc and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Red Wing, Minnesota, and on to Goodhue County and finally settled in Barrett, Minnesota. He was a skilled blacksmith, farrier, (and occasional dentist), and soon he had saved enough money to go back to Norway for his brother, Knut. In time they sent for the rest of the family who arrived via the same route in 1871.
Hans married Britta Chilson and they had 10 children; Melvin was the 9th born in 1892. Melvin was Donald’s father.
Johannes Leraas (Leraas is a reference to his birthplace in Norway) came with his wife Nelline and their first baby, John, along with an older adopted daughter, Anna came to America on the Danish steamship Tingvalla in May, 1891 through New York and to Grant County. In that day, people with means took care of people in need, and a young widow in their village back home could not afford to feed her three children, so Johannes and Nelline took in the oldest girl, Anna, who remained a bonafide member of the family her entire long life. Johannes was an educator and a preacher. Agnes was their 5th born of 11 children. Agnes was Darlene’s mother.
The Leraas Farm remains in a remote area in the mountains near Bergen in Norway. The Leraas family operated the farm for 240 years! It has had many names since 1633, but when our people were immigrating to America, it was called Leraas so that is the surname they took with them. The farm is now called Leiro which means The Camp. As a working farm over the centuries, they raised sheep, goats, and cattle, and they sold cheese and butter. There were two running mountain streams, a lake with trout, and a lake outlet with a waterfall and a mill for grinding flour. It’s in a relatively flat area about halfway up the mountain near Eidsfjorden, a fjord coming in from the ocean. The closest village is Stamnes, about 5 miles up the fjord. There is not and has never been a road to the farm and it’s a one or two-hour steep hike to get there. In 1948 agricultural advancements put the farm out of business. It is now used as a hunting, fishing, and vacation site. There are two houses (used to be three), some outbuildings, part of the mill, some barns, and a church. Once a year on July 29, St. Olaf’s Day, the congregation from the local chapel hikes to Leiro to hold a worship service. Besides being one of the most beautiful farms in the area, the people gather there to honor their ancestors because Leiro is seen as almost untouched by modern times. If you plan a trip to Norway, you might want to include this hike.
Back to the story. Our ancestors risked a lot coming to America. They knew not what lie before them. Maps were not as precise as they are today. They did not speak the language. Weather could be a life-threatening factor. Common accidents and ailments could literally kill you. They left everything they had and everyone they knew behind and many of them never saw their mothers again. They had to pack all their own provisions for the long journey (one to three months depending on weather and time of year) by ship across the North Atlantic. It was a daunting task filled with many dangers, but they were tough and smart and adventurous. They made a way where there was no way, and they brought their own fun with them! I imagine them packing up to leave the home country for the new world, “It might not be easy, but it will be amazing!”
I tell you this, so you never take for granted those who came before you. Because of them, you can rest assured that you are well equipped to take on the hard stuff life throws your way and you will come out victorious! It is in your DNA! Even if you are not genetically related to Donald and Darlene, you were raised by people who were, so these pearls are for you too. This is the stuff you are made of! Strong in mind and body, tenacious in spirit, rugged adventurers just like our Viking ancestors.
We come from a long line of farmers, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t brainiacs on both sides. In fact, running a successful farm takes a fair amount of genius. Darlene’s Grandpa Leraas was quite a scholar. His son Harold was a college professor holding several master’s degrees. Donald’s Uncle Ed Huseth was known to figure compound interest in his head when talking to a banker. His son Jimmy went on to become a doctor. Many of our people became teachers and educators. There are pilots and authors and nurses and entertainers and … you name it! This list goes on and on. The more opportunity and education afforded to our ancestors, the further they climbed in American society.
The first Huseths to settle in Grant County excavated a dug-out or cave into the wall of a dry lakebed and lived there while they built a barn, cleared the land, and gathered the resources to build a house and establish their homestead. This took a few years. I imagine it was freezing cold in the winter and bone-chilling damp in the spring. The small lake is now filled with water and is called Huset Lake, about 5 miles west of Barrett.
Our American roots on both sides are near Barrett: The Huseth, Leraas, and Jenstad families all settled around Huset Lake and Cormorant Lake. The Christenson family came from the Wendell area. [Note: The earliest Huseths to sign immigration and homestead forms added the ‘h’ to the end of their Norwegian surname, Huset, thinking it made them seem more American and less foreign. Go figure.]
Hans Huseth was the first from the family to venture from Norway in 1868 at the age of 20. He came from O’Dahlen which is near current day Oslo. His hard work, imagination, and tenacity made it possible for the rest of his exceptionally large family to join him.
As the first settlers to the area, they withstood many hardships, one of which was gathering fuel to last the long winter. In the fall, Hans would hitch his mules at 4 am and drive to Dalton about 21 miles to the north, chop a wagon of wood, stay with a farmer friend overnight, and return home by the next evening. On one such trip, the farmer’s wife began to feel labor pains. Her husband tore off to find the doctor, but by the time they returned Hans had already delivered twins and was warming them by the fireside! All in a day’s work I suppose.
Donald’s mother was born Dora Jenstad and the story goes that she was the first Caucasian infant born in the area. This was on the east shore of Cormorant Lake on the Jenstad family homestead. The Native Americans who lived nearby came to peer at the pink-skinned newborn; they had never seen anything like it! In amazement, they pet her little bald head and touched her pale skin. Suddenly one of the young Native men grabbed the family’s only cast-iron skillet and ran away with it. Dora’s mother took chase, caught up with him, and recovered her skillet without incident! Talk about fearless! Or desperate. Or both. I imagine she knew it would be impossible to feed her family without her only skillet.
Norwegians were not the only ones who settled in that area. When Dora was a little girl, she and her brothers walked to school on a country road. Family lore has it that if they encountered Swedish school children, they would make them walk all the way to school in the ditch! It just goes to show that mankind (even, and come to think of it, especially children) will invent someone to lord over, even if they appear exactly the same. It must be something in our original sin nature. The settlers in this community were all immigrants, all farmers, all poor, all Caucasian, all Scandinavians, all learning the English language, all going to the same school. But by golly, they were determined to be prejudiced against the Swedes! What in the world?
Many years later, when Dora was an old woman, her nephew brought home a Japanese war bride after World War II. One day Dora got word that the clerk at the drug store in town was refusing to serve the young bride. She stopped what she was doing, drove WAY TOO FAST to town, where she read that clerk the riot act and let him know in no uncertain terms that from now on they would be treating Yoshi just like everyone else, no discussion! And they did. I tell you this to say that we all do some things that, in time, we come to regret. If you make a poor decision and treat someone unfairly at some point in your life, it’s never too late to admit your poor judgment and change your ways. It’s called growth. Always be nice to those in need of a kind word or helping hand.
Melvin Huseth married Dora Jenstad in October 1913 and they had four children. Burnell was born May 1914, he married Beth and they had two children: Llyle and Beverly. Evelyn was born October 1919, she married Cecil (Whit) Whitworth and they had two children: Ellen and Thomas. Donald was born in April 1922, he married Darlene Christenson and they had five children: Carlton, Richard, Marilyn, Janet, and Solveig. Delaine was born in February 1924, she married Monroe Olson and they had two children: Gary and Linda.
Darlene was popular and kind, a rare combination for a pretty girl. She loved people and could easily talk to anyone.
Her family was living on the Lee place near Barrett and she was a junior in high school when she met Donald, “and” as she later reminisced, “that was that.” She was 21 and he was 23 went they wed in 1945.
Darlene’s mother’s name was Agnes Matilda (1895-1963), and her parents were Johannes (1857-1942) and Nelline (Vikaunet) Leraas (1866-1939). They were married in Norway in 1885, immigrated to Barrett in 1891, and raised 11 children there. Nelline had been raised in a large lovely white house with the Norwegian Sea at its face and the mountains at its back. She was a schoolgirl when a young schoolmaster came to the area and was so taken with her lovely red hair and her mental quickness that he waited for her to grow up and he married her. That was Johannes, Darlene’s Grandpa Leraas. He was very bright and excelled at book work. His knee had been injured when he was a child, and he was bedridden for much of his childhood; as a result, he became the most educated person in the family. Unable to do any heavy work growing up, he read early and well and he loved learning. The family owned very few books but they did have a Bible which he read over and over again. He spent his life as an educator, pastor, and cantor (song leader) in the Lutheran faith. He was well known as an engaging storyteller and an inspirational teacher. He liked to tell stories about the Norse Kings and heroes who had shaped Norway’s history. His great grandfather told stories about the hard times in Norway during Napoleon’s time when the people had to only bark, bread, and fish to eat.
After they immigrated to Minnesota, in addition to traveling around the region as pastor of several churches, Johannes would teach winter school. This was a religious instruction class held during the six weeks after Christmas when country schools were closed due to weather. Between 20 and 30 children would come to their home and stay for weeks to receive religious instruction and catechism class. Nelline would feed and bed the whole bunch! No wonder Johannes was crazy about her!
Polio struck two of Johannes’ and Nelline’s children: Agnes and Joe. Polio was bad but the Spanish Flu was worse – so virulent – so random. The Spanish flu was unlike anything anyone had seen before. It struck the old, the young, the healthy, the infirm, the rich, the poor, babies, children, anyone. Harold was the youngest and remembers, “Ten people were living in our home and nine were down with the Spanish Flu; only one was well enough to care for the others.” The Spanish Flu of 1918 took Joe, Anges’ brother. He was just 25 years old. Pneumonia had settled into his lungs and he was dead within three days. One day he told his dad that Jesus was in the house ready to take him home. The next day he was buried, within 24 hours which was the Spanish Flu mandate.
Darlene’s mother was Agnes. She had polio as a child which left one leg weak and she fell easily. She also had blood poisoning as a young mother, which left her with a deformed finger and limited use of that hand. Once she recovered, it didn’t slow her down much. She was a quick study, learning to read fluently when she was just four years old. She had a strong and melodic voice and a raucous laugh and was lively and energetic. She never lost her love of books and passed those traits along to her kids. She loved her flower gardens. During the war years when her sons, Ansel was in WWII and Anders was in Korea, she said she watered her gardens with tears shed over her sons in such danger. It was said that she was the best person to ever enter the Solem Church, just because she talked to newcomers. She had a heart of gold and opened it to everyone she met.
Darlene’s father was Theodore (Tody) Christenson. Tody‘s dad was Anders Christenson (Darlene’s youngest brother is named for him). Anders was a well-to-do businessman who had built and run many successful businesses in Wendell including the hotel, the meat market, the harness shop, and the livery stable. He died of cancer when Tody was 17. Tody was the youngest in his family and according to Donald, who adored his mother-in-law and did not like how Tody treated Agnes sometimes, he was spoiled and temperamental. He would often leave her with all four children and the farm work to go soak his sore bones in the hot springs in Arkansas or the mineral mud baths in Chaska. In all fairness, Tody had survived six months in bed with rheumatic fever in 1930. It is said that “rheumatic fever licks at the joints, but bites at the heart” and Tody suffered from both for many years after he recovered. Over the years Tody tried his hand at a few occupations. Farming didn’t quite suit him. Sales was more his style. He was a big, loud, friendly man, but quick-tempered we are told.
Tody and Agnes lived with Grandma Christenson on the Christenson homestead near Wendell for 11 years after they were married. During that 11 years, five children were born to Agnes and Tody: Ansel (1921) was the oldest, then a full-term baby girl was stillborn, then Darlene (1924), then Gloria (1927), and Anders (1929).
I pause here to tell you a little about Gunhild Christenson, Darlene’s paternal Grandma, Tody’s mother. While you are growing up and things look too hard and you feel like giving up, I want you to find this little essay and re-read this section:
Gunhild was born in Norway in 1854. At age 13, her occupation was to herd cattle to the mountains near her home and make cheese from the milk to sell. One day she got so frustrated with the herd, she slapped a cow way too hard and it damaged her arm. It withered her hand and her arm got stiff; she had no use of it for the rest of her life. When she left Norway all by herself, she traveled 13 weeks by ship, all her food and provisions for the trip and all her possessions in one trunk. At first, she lived in southern Minnesota working for a farmer and his family. He was not a very nice man. He prohibited her from washing the bread bowl after it had been used, of all things. He also threw her Bible on the roof of the house she couldn’t reach it. Gunhild could not wait to get out of there! She married Anders Christenson, moved to Wendell where they raised 11 children. Christian was the oldest and Tody was the youngest. One of their children, Ole, was born in a dug-out in the side of a hill near the Mustinka River. When she was heavy with child when and it was nearly her time, there were rumors of Indians nearby, so to play it safe she walked a mile to the dug-out, had the baby, and walked home the next day. When the Indians came by the house, everyone was afraid but Gunhild knew they didn’t want to hurt anyone. They were hungry and only needed for food for their children. Her observation of the whole ordeal: Indians are just like Norwegians; the women do all the work!
These were the dry years when Gunhild was a young woman; she herded the cattle two miles for water leading Christian, her oldest, and carrying Ole the baby. She tended 200 chickens, 2 sows, and 2 cows. She did all her own chores, including the milking with only one arm. She also shucked grain, cooked, and kept house, all in the same day. Just imagine all the diapers she changed, and washed, and dried, and changed again for 11 babies! With one arm! She always made currant wine to have with her friends at Christmas time. Her husband was an entrepreneur, so she was home with the children and the farm work. After her husband died, she moved to town but that lasted one day. She moved back to the homestead where she lived with Tody and Agnes until she died. Ansel remembers, “She spoiled us kids rotten, God rest her soul.”
Tody and Agnes got extremely sick and both almost died in 1930, Tody of rheumatic fever and Agnes of blood poisoning from a little prick on a rusty piece of screen. Back then, nearly anything could kill you. It was a very rough winter and they were bankrupt by spring. The children had to stay with relatives while their parents recovered. Gloria spent a lot of time with Grandma [Gunhild] Christenson, and truth be known she was her favorite. Gloria was tall and pretty and that was important to Grandma. All the Christensons were tall, healthy, and good-looking, but were sometimes blunt, even ill-tempered. For instance, many years later I remember my mother hand delivered my high school graduation picture to her Aunt Annie, Tody’s sister. She was very old by then. Aunt Annie took one look at my 1972 long smooth hairstyle, shoved it back at my mother, and said, “What’s this? She looks like a prostitute! All that long straight hair hanging down!” Nothing surprised my mother coming from Aunt Annie anymore, but she was taken aback by that comment. Our mother thought her daughters were the prettiest girls ever born!
In 1931 Grandma Gunhild Christenson died and Tody’s family moved to the Sand place. Anders was two years old. Darlene had fond memories of living at Grandma’s and often commented how beneficial it is for children to live in a multi-generational home. She was not so sure how the women liked it, but it was great for the kids!
I suppose all old farmhouses had mice and the little vermin are a teencie bit startling to everybody, but Darlene was especially afraid of mice. She felt they were always looking at her, even the dead ones. Donald would later remark, “Your mother was so afraid of mice, she could hear a mouse walk across the lawn!”
When the Tody and Agnes’ kids were teenagers, Sunday morning was for church, and Sunday afternoon was for fun. There were horseback riding and picnics and ballgames and a lot of kids coming and going at the Christenson home. Ansel had a horse named Jerry, who he trained to do amazing tricks on command. That big old horse could sit on his haunches and put his front legs next to a card table, appearing to play cards. He could also kneel down with his head on the ground and his hindquarters in a standing position, allowing Ansel to stand up on his hind end. The crowds would go wild!
Ansel and his buddies started a saddle club and began to put on shows for the neighbors so Jerry would have someplace to perform. Ansel remembers the line-up of one show: The Bunion Busters Orchestra played polka music along with the Crazy Cadet Singers, Edna Haggert played accordion, Lawrence Thompson did roman riding and rope tricks, Gordon and Roger were trick riders, and the headliner was Ansel and his trick horse, Jerry. Tody was quite a good horseman too: Ansel remembers his dad could pick up his hat from the ground at a full gallop. Gloria and Darlene would sell refreshments and lunch. Agnes would make white cake with whipped cream and Kool-Aid, which made any event festive. Tody sold tickets and policed the event. At 25 cents per ticket, they never made much money, but they had a great time. Ansel and Jerry went on to tour the rodeo circuit throughout Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
This family was the definition of “you bring your own fun with you!” In today’s climate of so many things to keep us entertained like TV, video games, computers, movies, sports, etc. we would do well to choose things that require participation and creativity and not just watching.
In 1942 Ansel enlisted in the Army Cavalry. He never even got close to the Cavalry but was assigned to Artillery and learned a lot of new things like driving big trucks and working in the mess hall. In 1944 Ansel went to war in Europe and in 1945 he was in Germany at the Battle of Metz and The Battle of Ziegfried. By April there were rumors the Germans were giving up and by June Ansel was back home on furlough. He thought his next stop was Japan, but things changed, and he was discharged in September 1945.
I pause her to let you know what a sweet, kind, positive, human being Ansel was. He never said an unkind word about anyone, even those who might have had it coming. So his phrase, “things changed and I was discharged in September 1945” made me wonder. I googled what happened in WWII between July and September 1945 and found the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in August. But for Ansel, “things changed” and he got to come home. Never an ill word about anyone or anything.
Ansel married Doris Stahl in 1952, they had no children. I seem to remember hearing that Ansel had mumps as an adult which was known for leaving men sterile. Lucky for us they treated all their nieces and nephews like their own kids!
Anders enlisted in the Army in 1949 where he learned to fly. He served in Korea and was discharged in April 1952. He became a teacher and a pilot, married Jean, and had one son, Charles.
Gloria moved to Tacoma to go to college, lived with Uncle Herald and Aunt Helen, and met Frank Witt who had just been discharged from the service. They graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, married, and had three children, one of whom went on to change federal law as it pertains to LGBTQ people serving in the US military. Frank and Gloria just celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary in 2020.
Darlene attended Normal School in Glenwood in 1942 and then taught for two years in a one-room schoolhouse. What is Normal School you ask? The first normal school in America was established in Vermont in 1823. Most such institutions changed their names to teachers colleges during the 1930s. Normal Schools derive their name from the French phrase ecole normale. These teacher-training institutions, the first of which was established in France in 1685, were intended to set a pattern, establish a norm, after which all other schools would be modeled. And now you know.
Darlene enjoyed teaching in a one-room schoolhouse near Barrett for about two years. She carried the firewood, stoked the fire, shoveled the steps, and prepared the lessons before the children arrived in the morning. In the winter when the roads became impassable, she used cross country skis or snowshoes to get to school in the pre-dawn hours. In those days married women were prohibited from teaching school so she quit when she got married. Those were the rules and no one questioned the rules, although it seems strange to think of it now. Equal rights for women have always been hard-fought, but even slower to take hold in the remote areas of our nation.
It was March 25, 1945, and on the other side of the world, Winston Churchill briefly crossed the Rhine River near Wesel in an Allied landing craft, symbolizing Britain crossing into Germany, something no foreign army had done since the age of Napoleon. The Second World War dominated headlines around the world, but on that rainy Sunday afternoon just a few months before the end of the War, Donald and Darlene were quietly married in a little white clapboard church in Grant County: Immanuel Lutheran Church in Lien Township.
Here is a little snapshot of their wedding week. Their words, not mine: hilarious and tragic:
The week before the wedding it rained, rained, and then rained some more. The day before the wedding, Donald was at the Barrett place rushing to get the house ready for his bride. He had painted the floor in the kitchen, and he was so proud that it looked so shiny and clean. That morning he had to shovel 350 bushels of grain by himself; his partners knew it was his wedding weekend but didn’t bother showing up to help him. That sort of irked him.
He went into the house to light the stove, got distracted, and by the time he came back into the kitchen, gallons of fuel oil had leaked all over the kitchen floor, and when he tried to wipe it up a lot of the paint came up with it. That irked him even more. Darlene returned from Glenwood with the flowers and the wedding singer. Donald noticed there was a quarter-inch bolt in one of the tires of her dad’s Packard. It had been raining for days and the ground was soft and muddy which made changing the tire downright dangerous. What an irksome day from start to finish, Donald remembered.
The wedding was set for Sunday, March 25: More rain. Rain. Rain. Mud. Mud. And more mud. They got up early to drive to Revered Sandburg’s home to ask Mrs. Sandburg about playing piano for the soloist. Mrs. Sandburg was a little pouty and would not cooperate, so that was a wasted trip on an already busy day, during a time of gas rationing. The wedding itself went well. Reverend Sandburg officiated the ceremony at Immanuel. He had been the pastor to confirm Darlene and would go on to baptize their first four children. Donald’s mother and dad (Melvin and Dora) were living in California at the time, so they were not at the wedding. The groomsmen were Donald’s brother, Burnell, and Darlene’s brother, Anders. Darlene’s bridesmaids were her sister, Gloria, and her cousin Charmae. They had two flower girls, Darlene’s cousins Arlou and Verlie Ann.
Darlene wore a slender-fit white satin gown that Olga Newman had made just for her. It was adorned with pearl beads that had been part of her mother’s wedding gown (Dick’s girls, Dawn got the beads and Dayna got the wedding dress when Darlene passed in 1998). Wedding fashion had sure changed since her Grandma Nelline Leraas was married in Norway just 60 years before. Nelline was a beautiful 19-year-old bride with stunning red hair and wore a black tight-fitting homespun dress trimmed with small buttons. Sixty years later, Darlene was in a simple white satin gown; she looked like an angel and when he saw her, it took Donald’s breath away.
However, they laughed about the wedding pictures for years to come. The photographer took all the wedding paraphernalia (candelabras, flowers, etc.) and lined them up on the altar, and then arranged the members of the wedding party like they were in a police lineup. Darlene remembers thinking how beautiful and handsome and young and healthy they all looked on her special day, but the photo makes them look like they were at a funeral. Or a police lineup.
In the words of Donald, the honeymoon was tragic. Rain. More rain. Mud. More mud. A friend gave them a ride to Alexandria after the reception where they caught the Greyhound bus to Minneapolis. They hadn’t really paid attention to the time and date and when they made the plan and when they arrived late on their wedding night, they were reminded by every weary hotel clerk that the Minnesota State Basketball Tournament was going on and there was literally NO ROOM AT THE INN. Anywhere. Donald remembers helplessly standing outside the bus depot on First Avenue, tired from the big day, hungry, with no place to stay, when suddenly out of the blue, who comes walking down the street toward them but his Aunt Esther (Aunt Esther was married to Tony who was Dora’s brother). “Well, hello! What are you two newlyweds doing here?”
Long story short, the lovebirds spent their first night of wedded bliss in Donald’s Aunt Esther’s spare room. The next morning, she prepared a lovely wedding breakfast for them and they caught the bus to St. Cloud where they checked into the only hotel room they could find. It seemed a little sketchy, but it was the best they could do. Donald remembered tossing their suitcase onto an overstuffed chair and the dust billowed into the air like a cartoon dust cloud. He went to the bathroom to open a window, found the window already open and the bathtub coated in soot. By now things were getting comical. They went out to a fancy chicken dinner and the chicken was so tough that they each grabbed a leg and pulled with all their might but still could not pull it apart. By now they were in fits of giggles. The next day the skies cleared, and it was time to get back home. The best part of the honeymoon is the giggles they got every time they shared that story over the next 54 years.
Sometimes we build something up in our minds and when things go wrong it can be a huge disappointment. A wedding, a first date, a holiday celebration, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, even a meal. We’ve all been there. It’s best just to laugh it off and move on. Maybe a story that makes us laugh is the best that day has to offer.
After the crazy wedding weekend and the dreadfully funny honeymoon, the newlyweds moved into the old farmhouse on what is affectionately known as the Barrett place. She was no stranger to hard work and once she married, she took on the life of a farm wife with a vengeance. Whether on paper or not, she was most certainly a full partner in the family farm business. Over the next 17 years, she would have five healthy beautiful blonde babies but still helped in the fields during planting and harvest, kept a clean house and a nice garden, tended her mink traps, prepared three meals every day from scratch for hungry children and hired men, and still had the energy go out dancing on Saturday night. Because why? You bring your own fun with you! That’s why. The Barrett Pavilion was the place to be. Local bands and the more famous celebrities like Lawrence Welk, Whoopie John, Gordon Leraas Band, and Ferlin Husky, would often perform. She was resourceful and strong and would do anything for her family. She was an expert shot and won more trophies than Donald at Rifle Club.
Donald had been farming full time with his dad and his brother since the tenth grade. He remembers working in the fields that summer; the first day of school came and went and no one said, “Hey Donnie, it’s the first day of school. Come out of the field. Wash up and go to school!” Not his dad, not his mom, not his sisters, not his teacher. So, he just stayed in the field. He was happier there anyway. He did not like school. The kids and teacher alike called him “Dumb Donnie” and taunted him when he missed a question.
I share this sad detail to let you know those words cut him deeply and continued to have an impact throughout his life, even into his many successes and old age. Here is a little hint for a happy life. Always be the hero and stick up for the one the others are picking on. Never join in.
Donald and Darlene rented 80 acres near Barrett; that’s where their first four kids were born: Carlton in 1946 (we call him Hans), Richard in 1947 (we call him Dickie), Marilyn in 1954 (they call me Mia), and Janet in 1955 (we called her Holly.) Solveig came along in 1962 on the Evansville place, we call her Solveig.
The old drafty farmhouse on the Barrett place with painted floors was a five star luxury hotel for gangster mice who thought they ran the place. They frightened the living daylights out of the young bride. Hans remembers, the house had electricity and a cistern under the porch, but no running water or plumbing. In winter, a glass of water would freeze by morning in the bedroom Hans and Dick shared. The boys remember carrying fresh water in and wastewater out every day. Always farming in the summer, Donald had winter jobs as well, such as running telephone lines to rural homes and cutting huge ice blocks out of Barrett Lake for Soo Line Railroad cold cars.
I remember my folks talking about a big controversy, something having to do with electricity. It seemed some politicians in DC wanted to free up some federal funds to run electrical infrastructure into rural America. Most farmers back then were Democrat, but not all. Darlene’s family had been raised Republican. Donald’s family were raised Democrats. There would be fist-pounding screaming matches around the pros and cons of farms having access to electricity.
Can you even imagine?! Some politicians simply did not think the change was necessary! Others thought it bad for the American way! The Rural Electrification Act was drafted in 1936 by two prominent New Deal policymakers, who paid a price for their bi-partisan legislative work aimed at improving the lives of rural Americans. One was booted from his party and had to run as an independent in the next election. He won anyway, even though powerful pro-business Republicans, such as Henry Ford, called them “socialists” for supporting public electric power.
Can you imagine people today living in the country with no electricity? Next time you hear pro-business politicians labeling a program or an opponent as “socialist” because they want to improve the lives of the underserved, think back on this moment in history. How silly! By choice or by chance, change is inevitable in this life. Why not make the change that is good for the people who need a helping hand and be on the right side of history? It makes me wonder about the “big controversies” those ninnies in Washington are bickering over these days. Many of those fist-pounding filibuster fights will undoubtedly go the way of NO MARRIED WOMEN SHALL TEACH SCHOOL and NO FARMERS SHALL HAVE ELECTRIC LIGHTS. But I digress.
In 1956 Donald and Darlene moved off the Barrett place but kept farming it and bought 180 acres near Evansville; that is where Solveig was born in 1962. The winter before they moved, Donald spent every waking hour remodeling that house for his family. He converted a back bedroom into a kitchen, ran plumbing and power to it, built plenty of kitchen cupboards, sanded and polished the hardwood floors, updated the bathroom, and started construction on a garage. There were bedrooms enough for all of them and heat registers in the bedroom floors so a water glass would not freeze overnight. Dick remembers thinking the house felt so huge and opulent with its colonnades and shiny hardwood floors. Donald was a skilled carpenter, plumber, electrician, machinist, farmer, and soon to be pilot.
Over the years, Donald and the boys farmed up to 700 acres, but it was never enough. They eked out a living for the family of seven from 1945 to 1965 and then made the official move to the Cities. After the move, they rented out the Evansville place for a number of years and then sold it in the 1970s — just before the price per acre went thru the roof! Just their luck.
Farming was and still is an expensive and risky endeavor. Donald used to joke, “Did you hear the one about the farmer who won the $50 million lottery? When the reporter asked him what he was going to do with his winnings, he said, “Well, I guess I’ll keep farming until the money runs out.”
Hans and Dick both got to grow up in the country and they graduated from Evansville High School in 1964 and 1965, but their roots remained in Barrett.
Their coming-of-age years are engraved with the farm: planting and harvesting, driving that old red International Harvester Farmall tractor and the 1949 green Chevy pick-up, working with cattle and pigs and chickens, riding horses, hunting, fishing, and trapping. These were simpler times. Hans remembers our telephone was on a party line and our number was two longs and a short. Families had to wait their turn to make a call and make it quick because someone might be trying to get through. Dad was a Chevy guy and in 1960 he bought his first brand new Chevy Impala; none of the other boys at school had such a cool car, Hans recalls.
Donald learned to fly the year I was born in 1954 and by 1955 he began crop spraying in his spare time after he had logged about 200 hours. He was a fearless but a commonsense pilot. Flying was his destiny. Even after he crashed that little Piper Cub, there was no turning back.
He retired with 22,000 hours in the air as an FAA Designated Examiner in 1992 but continued teaching seaplane and instrument ratings for another decade. I think Holly still has those dozens of logbooks around somewhere. Donald was especially known for teaching the old ways. He once told a crowd at an award ceremony in his honor, “You can’t teach experience. You acquire experience. When we teach people to fly an airplane, we are teaching them how to safely acquire experience. If we are taught to feel the airplane, to really hear it, then we begin to understand. And when we begin to understand why an airplane flies, we become pilots.” Which is quite different than those airline computer operators, he would sarcastically add under his breath. Donald would have loved the Sully Sullenberger story. He was a real pilot. Donald hated the John-John Kennedy story and nailed that investigation a year before the findings were released. Bottom line, the president’s son should never have been allowed to fly in that soup (pilot-speak for fog.) He was only cleared to take off because of his celebrity status. Weather does not care one bit about celebrity status. Weather cares only about the laws of physics. Weather is completely unforgiving.
Many years later, I was a teenager, and it was just beginning to dawn on me just how much nerve it must have taken for my Dad in his forties to uproot the whole family from the only life generations of his people had ever known, to embark on a brand-new life, I asked him, “Dad, when did you first know you didn’t like farming?” He paused, looked up into the right-hand corner of the ceiling, and replied, “Hmm, I guess when I was about 8 years old.”
Donald was always a pilot at heart and thankfully he got to live the last half of his life in the air: first as a crop duster, then as a flight instructor and ground-school teacher, then as an FAA Designated Examiner and expert witness for court cases and insurance claims. He was also co-owner of Beech-Aero Club at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie. He mysteriously kept passing his physicals and didn’t give up his pilot’s license until he was 80 years of age.
Of all of his five children, only one took a fleeting interest in flying. Solveig started lessons when she was 17 and soloed at 18. She had a harrowing experience during her solo cross-country certification where she found herself lost and all alone in a Beechcraft Sport at 15,000 feet. Heart beating in her throat, she kept her cool, “What would Donald do?” Just then she saw a town in the distance, reduced altitude, and flew close enough to the water tower to see the name on it. “New Ulm. OK, good. Got my bearings back. And now, back to the airport.”
Donald was a very well-respected and sought-after flight instructor because he had superb technical skill, an almost mystical sense of the weather, and a lot of common sense. He was an exceptional teacher. It was sadly ironic that he had a sort of a mean habit of making fun of teachers when he had one too many. I imagine that may have been rooted in the old childhood trauma of that one-room schoolhouse, “Dumb Donnie! Dumb Donnie!”
Donald was happiest when he was flying airplanes. AND when he was telling stories about flying airplanes, the smoke from his Marlboro twirling skyward like elusive aerobatic barrel rolls.
They say the best revenge is a life well-lived, and in the end, Donnie got to live his dream of soaring through the clouds. For a living! He moved his family off the farm and into the burbs, traveled for fun to interesting places around the globe like Banff & Lake Louise in Canada, Washington DC, New Orleans, Mexico, New York City, Europe, Seattle, Indianapolis, Hawaii, Arizona, Florida, Nicaragua, Black Hills, Las Vegas, Alaska, California, Colorado Springs, and Norway FOUR TIMES. He got to grow old with his loving family around him. He did not let those mean kids in that one-room schoolhouse have the last word. He overcame the best he could.
Life on the farm was a complicated combination of community and isolation, hard work and hard lessons, adventure and solitude. If you asked any of us, I am sure you would hear vastly different perspectives from our differing roles and decades. We had a little dog named Sparky in the 1960s and that pup was legendary in the number of stories he could generate around a dinner table well into the 1970s and 1980s. He brought us a lot of joy. There was a lot of fun for kids growing up the way we did. There were puppies born under the granary. There were several colts born on the place. There were trees to climb and woods to explore. Darlene’s Uncle Harold once wrote about the Huseth home, “This is a busy, funny, crazy, fun, and cordial place where you can feel welcome any old time.”
But here is one tough memory I will never forget. It was a warm summer evening in the summer of 1961, and our parents were away. Hans was at Uncle Ansel’s and heard the story on the local news along with Ansel and Doris. Dick and Linda were home with Holly and me. Our neighbor, Osborne, came to tell us that our dad had crashed his Piper Cub and had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. The rest of the night is a blur – I was so little. I remember our Dad was gone for a long time. When he came home it was autumn and he was in a body cast. He had spent months in traction in the hospital. The neighbors rallied together and helped to bring in the harvest. Only one asked for reimbursement of his gas money. This was a tight-knit farming community, and they all loved our folks.
Donald could not move from his neck to his waist all winter, but he slowly built a wall-unit in our living room consisting of a brick gas fireplace with bookshelves and cabinets on both sides. He would sit on a little stool in front of the fireplace and Holly and I would carry bricks one at a time from the kitchen sink where our mother was washing and drying each one by hand. When it was painstakingly finished, I remember it was golden oak and a thing of beauty.
Darlene had also been in the airplane when it went down, a secret they both kept well into their 70s. She had broken her tailbone but could not go for medical help since he was certain to lose his pilot license if word got out that she was illegally a passenger in his crop-dusting plane. So, she suffered in silence, except when sobbing into a wet washcloth as she soaked in an Epson Salts bath. Like I say, she, like many pioneer women before her, would do anything for her family. That little airplane and her husband’s pilot license was their ticket off the farm, and she was not going to mess that up with a trip to the ER.
Our cousin Linda spent many summers and holidays with us up north, sometimes at Grandpa Huseth’s farm and sometimes at our farm. This started when she was 7 or 8 years old. She preferred life in the country to life with her parents in Crystal, a northeast suburb of Minneapolis. She was between Hans and Dick in age and we all looked forward to her coming every spring. She was a big help to Darlene, who told us many years later that she loved Linda with a mother’s love. She was definitely one of the family. Holly and I loved to have a “big sister” around. I remember she bought a bay gelding named Amigo and nicknamed him Fred, kept him at our farm for a few years, then took him back to the Cities with her when she graduated. He was a good old horse, the perfect companion, and he lived for decades thanks to Linda’s expert care. I picked up my love of horses from Linda. She taught me so much.
Hans remembers that when they got a little older, he and Dickie would walk a mile to a neighbor’s house to watch TV because the Huseths were the only people in the area without a TV. They didn’t get one until Hans was 16 years old. Dick remembers at some point, wanting to purchase another horse (he had more than a few by then), but Dad said money was tight. As a family, Donald said they could make a choice: another horse for Dickie or the family’s first TV.
Mom said, “We can get a new TV or we can get a new horse for Dickie. Let’s vote. Who wants a TV?” Dad said, “I do.” Hans said, “I do.” Dick said, “I don’t, I want another horse.” Mom said, “OK that settles it, we’ll get another horse.” And they did.
Even then, I think she was sneakily orchestrating any means necessary to keep us outside playing and learning and out from in front of the TV. Finally, she couldn’t hold out any longer. If Hans was 16 when we got our first TV, I was 8 and I vividly remember the first show we watched. Bonanza.
In August 1965, I had just turned 11 in June and Holly was 9. We were full into Beatlemania thanks to our Minneapolis cousins, Elly and Tom. We begged and begged and finally, our Mom gave in. The tickets were $4.50 each and the concert was at Metropolitan Stadium where the Mall of America currently sits. Holly and I boarded the Greyhound bus in Evansville and rode ALL BY OURSELVES all the way to Minneapolis. Uncle Whit picked us up at the bus depot and took Elly, Tom, Holly, and me to the concert. What an experience! We heard the first note and then after that, only screams of the girls around us. OK … show of hands … who reading this essay right now, is putting their little girls, ages 9 and 11, on a Greyhound bus, unaccompanied, for a four-hour bus ride, to see a rock ‘n roll concert, all by themselves? Anyone? Anyone?! It surely was a different time!
In the fall of 1965, Don and Darlene moved us to the Cities: Chaska for a year, then Chanhassen for the rest of their lives. We were ages 3, 9, and 11, and the boys, off to the military and to college, had moved on by then. Hans and Dick were big strapping capable farm boys but joining the Army proved to be quite an eye-opener. They sort of felt like Gomer Pyle arriving at boot camp. They both remember it was jarring to crash into the great big world of 1960s America.
Donald was 43 when he traded his coveralls for aviators and began to teach rich people how to fly. He was 8 years old when he knew farming wasn’t for him and that flying was his future and he was 43 when he made it happen; 35 years is a long time to wait for your ship to come in.
Darlene was 41 when she left rural life became a teacher’s aide at Minnetonka East Jr. High School and, after 20 years out of the classroom, she discovered she had a way with Jr. High kids. She loved them and they loved her. She enjoyed a long and happy career at East making a difference in those young lives. Just like her Grandpa Leraas, teaching was her calling and she relished every minute! Those 13 years were entirely wonderful followed by 1 year at Minnetonka High School, which was entirely miserable, and yet she persevered. She then took a year off from teaching and worked for Dick selling Electrolux. She loved it. It was something completely different. After that, she worked for five years at Excelsior Elementary as a health care para in the school nurse’s office. Again, she loved this job and all the people she worked with. I think this is where she developed a close group of friends and they called themselves The Star Chamber. After the 1983 movie. Look it up. It’s just a little frightening.
She retired after 20 years and five parties were thrown in her honor! Darlene was so loved by her tribe.
I pause here to share Donald and Darlene’s ages (43 and 41) at the beginning of their second act. I want you to know that, in your 20s, that relentless feeling of restlessness can often consume you to the core and make you feel like a willow in a windstorm. Be patient with yourself. Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes along the way, for they are the greatest teacher. If we learn from them. Learning from our mistakes deepens our understanding of ourselves and everyone around us. It gives us empathy and grace toward our friends and our children. And please KNOW that 40 is just the beginning of the second act of your beautiful story.
Look at it this way: Donald was 8 years old in 1930 when he knew farming wasn’t for him; it was the first year of the Great Depression and almost a decade before Pearl Harbor. Donald was 43 in 1965 when he moved the family off the farm to pursue aviation full time; news of Viet Nam and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blared across the airwaves.
Oh, how the world had opened up for them during those years! They imagined a better version of themselves and then … they showed up every day. I make this comparison to tell you never to give up on your dreams. But it’s important to show up every day. No matter how long it takes. Perhaps you need the time to prepare for the next step, but more likely the world needs time to prepare for you and open up for your dream.
We always attended church because church was important to Darlene. She was a loyal and faithful parishioner. In all, she attended 4 churches in all 73 years on this planet. Confirmed and married at Immanuel Lutheran in Lien Township near Barrett, she was a member of Lincoln Lutheran on the other side of Barrett after the move to Evansville, she attended St. John’s Lutheran in Chaska when we moved to the Cities, and finally, we were charter members of the Lutheran Church of the Living Christ in Chanhassen where there was standing room only at her Memorial Service in 1998. When a pastor would be assigned to the church she was attending and he just wasn’t her cup of tea, she would quietly just wait him out, “I’ll be here long after he is gone”, she’d think to herself.
She loved getting to know the people at church. She came up with the idea of throwing “pew parties” where she would invite the people who sat in her pew, the pew behind her, and the pew in front of her, to a dinner party. She became infamous for her Sauerkraut & Nifflies recipe. After the party, she would move to the other side of the sanctuary and start all over again making a whole new set of friends. Four dinner parties per year and she soon knew everyone in the church.
Darlene made friends easily, and some of her best friends she made at church. She volunteered with Sunday School and VBS and attended Bible Study. She joined a quilting group, and those women were her lifeline near the end of her life. She was a joiner, always interested and interesting.
When we moved to Chanhassen we lived at 7332 Frontier Trail in Sunrise Hills. It was the 1960s and the only hard and fast rule was to be home before dark. The neighborhood was full of kids our age and we made the most of it. Oh, how we loved Lotus Lake and all the fun it had to offer! We had a little speed boat we christened The Silver Bullet. It had a 35hp motor and we would zip across the clear glass lake on two skis and then one, the wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders! We had a little sailboat and an old aluminum canoe. We definitely got our money’s worth out of those lake toys! The neighborhood maintained (and still does) a beach lot, fishing dock, and diving raft, where kids basked in the summer fun, our skin oiled with Bain de Soleil and our hair dripping with Sun-In.
It occurs to me now, how very far away Lotus Lake is from the cave dug into the side of the Huset Lake bed where our people settled upon their arrival at their destiny. What would they think if they could see these little blondes in their two-piece swimsuits slalom ski round and round the edge of Lotus Lake?!
They might say, “Just look at them! The world has gone to hell in a handbasket! Put some clothes on and get back to work!”
Or they just might say, “Just look at them! They are our wildest dreams come true!”
Mia, Holly, and Solveig graduated from Chaska Public School in 1972, 1973, and 1980. The Sunrise Hills Huseths were known for flying the Norwegian flag beneath the Stars & Stripes on a flagpole in the front yard on special occasions and on Norway’s Constitution Day, the 17th of May. We served lutefisk and lefse every Christmas dinner; the voices of our ancestors whispering to our souls with each bite.
Donald and Darlene welcomed their first grandchildren into that house on Frontier Trail. Darlene wove a myriad of rich traditions into the visits of her grandchildren: King for a Day, Queen for a Day, the Surprise Drawer, lots of reading and storytelling, Christmas Eve dinners and the best entertainment in town, fishing excursions to Lotus Lake, chocolate chip cookies, and fresh raspberries right from the garden; her voice whispering to their souls with each tradition, “The bond of family is strong and cannot be broken. Family is where your story begins.”
As the family grew, some of the grandchildren were not of her blood, and yet her voice is steady and still whispers to each one, “The bond of family is strong and cannot be broken.”
And sometimes, when the great-grandchildren of Donald and Darlene Huseth are very still and listening very closely to the old stories, or zipping around the edge of a clear glass lake on two skis and then one, or trying lefse for the very first time, or boarding an airplane for the next adventure, or sticking up for the underdog, or having cookies and raspberries after school, they too will mysteriously feel the voices of the past whispering into their souls, “Our family bond is strong and cannot be broken. Family is where your story begins.”
References and Further Reading:
The Leraas Family in America by Dr. Harold J. Leraas (1979)
Leraas Family History, compiled by Steve and Linda Leraas Ray (2019)
Audio Tapes recorded by Darlene (Christenson) Huseth (1994)
Minnesota Flyer Trade Magazine (June 1992)
Tell: Love, Defiance, and the Military Trial at the Tipping Point for Gay Rights by Major Margaret Witt and Tom Connor
One Saturday morning in June 2007, the phone rang.
“Hey brother, guess where I am!?! Never mind, you’ll never guess. I’m at the Greyhound Bus Depot! Just pulled in.”
“Ah, um, that’s nice, but I’m on my way to Vincennes this afternoon to sing at a little church in the morning. Come along if you’d like. Mia and the kids are out of town.”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Pick me up.”
So, after enduring a 22-hour Greyhound bus ride from Shreveport to Indianapolis, Kurt watched for Karl to pick him up at 350 Illinois Street. Off they went, down Interstate 70, heading southwest all the way to Vincennes. Those two hours flew by as Kurt, then 46, gave his big brother Karl the CliffsNotes version of the circumstances that drove him out of Louisiana back to his hometown of Indianapolis.
About how he had just been released from the county jail near Bossier City, Louisiana, serving a year on a charge of “failure to appear.” Seems something got in the way of his court date after being arrested for walking out of a store with a case of beer. He got out early on good behavior and he was free for now, but there were still bench warrants out for his arrest because of a few bad checks he had written. He went to another brother for help, but having long since wore out that welcome, he was met with, “Here’s the best I can do for you: I can give you a ride to the bus station and buy you a one-way ticket to back to Indy.”
When he stepped out into the bright sunlight on Illinois Street, after riding a Greyhound Bus for the last 22 hours, Karl remembers thinking his little brother had the unmistakable look of someone fresh out of prison. Long Gregg Allman looking hair (without the benefit of shampoo not to mention rock-star hair products or stylists at his beckon call.) All his earthly possessions were on his back or in the little old suitcase he probably picked up at a shelter along the way.
But just a few hours later, in Vincennes, after a nice hot shower and a big steak dinner, he was sound asleep in Karl’s hotel room. The next morning, he sang harmony on I’ll Fly Away. Karl remembers thinking they sounded really good together, like they had practiced or something. Kurt was so appreciative and grateful for every little thing. He felt safe and loved for the first time in a very long time.
Sunday afternoon Karl and Kurt got home about the time that Jackson and I pulled in the driveway from a soccer tournament in Fort Wayne. Walker and some friends were playing basketball in our driveway. Karl had given me a heads up that we had a house guest.
And here is how I remember what happened next.
It was a perfect summer evening in the suburbs. The scent of freshly cut green grass was delicious. The sounds of happy children playing echoed across the neighborhood. Families riding bikes greeted us by name as they waved. Bright blue sky with wispy white clouds signaled that all was right with the world. And sitting in my side yard, an assortment of Adirondack chairs painted in pastel colors in the shade of a giant pin oak tree.
I said, “Kurt, come sit with me. Tell me your story. What the heck happened?”
His words began to fill in the nooks and crannies of the 20 plus years since he got out of the Army. How he had moved to Shreveport where his brother Eric lived and looked for work. How he had married a woman two decades his senior. They stayed married for a long time and it sort of made sense to us that he would choose an older woman; after all his own mother abandoned him when he was just 14 years old. Alcohol and weed became habitual around that time and it occurred to me that talking to him was a little like talking to a 14-year-old, perhaps a textbook case of arrested development.
He worked for Eric in the oil business for a while and when that didn’t work out, he got a job working for the county on a road crew patching blacktop and picking up roadkill. He was content and he was paying his bills. Things went well for a number of years. Beer and pot were always a part of his life, but he managed to keep his marriage and his job together, and that was good enough for him.
Then one day he met a younger woman. She was flirty and fun and way prettier and easier to be around than his now aging wife. The problem was, she was addicted to crack and she introduced Kurt to his first bowl.
Kurt took a deep breath and gazed up into the leaves of that old oak tree. “It was like heaven,” he told me. “It is the finest most beautiful experience in the world. Everything melts away and it’s just you alone with heaven. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s like you’ve had a visit from God Almighty Himself. And then you come down and CRASH! You immediately want to experience that same high again. But that’s it. No high is ever like your first high. Just ask any crackhead. But you keep chasing that fantastic feeling of your first high.”
“That is exactly what happened to me. I kept chasing and I ran through every dollar I had. My wife kicked me out, so I lost my home. I missed too many days of work, so I lost my job. I emptied my retirement account and burned through what little inheritance I got from my folks. I even sold that old ’72 Fender Telecaster Karl gave me. When the cops impounded my car after a DUI, I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket and the impound fees, so I lost my car.”
“Oh and the girl? When I couldn’t buy crack for her any longer, she moved on to the next guy who would trade crack for an hour or even a few minutes with her. Addiction is a real bitch, man!”
“I was so down and depressed. This is not who I am. This is not how my life was supposed to be.”
“Then in 2005 those big hurricanes, Katrina and then Rita, brought such a storm to northern Louisiana and it poured buckets for weeks with such strong winds, we had no power and no prospects of getting it back anytime soon. All of Louisiana was under a state of emergency. The girl had run off with God knows who. I was cooped up at a buddy’s place in a trailer that had been, get this, duct taped to another trailer to make a bigger trailer, way out in the middle of nowhere. It was hot as an oven inside, but the relentless torrential rain kept us from going outside.”
“I was alone and broke and broken-hearted. I felt like I was nearing rock-bottom. But guess again.”
“When the rain finally let up, I got the bright idea to walk to the convenience store a few miles away to get some beer. But of course, I had no money, so I walked in, grabbed a six-pack of beer, and walked out. I heard the cashier calling me back but I just kept walking. I made it all the way home and drank my warm beer.”
“It tasted so good that a few days later I went back for more. Walked in. Walked out. This time with a case of beer. Again, I heard the cashier yelling for me to stop.”
“Halfway home on a dirt road, I heard a car. Shit! Cops! I scrambled down into the ditch. They drove by. I snuck back up to the road. A little while later I heard another car. I dove into the ditch. They passed by. Back up to the road. It was so hot and muggy. The mosquitos were the size of damn hummingbirds. And I was carrying a case of beer! The next time that cop car drove by I wasn’t quite quick enough, and they nabbed me. I spent the night in jail.”
“My buddy bailed me out and my court date was months away. When the day came, I somehow did not make it to the courthouse. The girl had long since left me. In time, the police came to my buddy’s place looking for me. I hid. And when they left, my buddy said, “Hey dude. You gotta split. I don’t need this kind of trouble.”
“Long story short, I ended up serving 9 of a 12-month sentence for stealing about $25 worth of beer. I hate to think what it cost them to house me for stealing $25 worth of beer. I know, the charge was “failure to appear” but it was really for walking off with $25 worth of beer and not having the scratch to pay for an attorney.”
“The county jail near Boozier City was more like a huge warehouse for humans, way out in rural northern Louisiana. I got along with everyone for the most part. And if I was assigned a hostile cellmate, I would put in a request for a move and it was always granted. I got out early on good behavior but mostly to make room for the hundreds of non-violent offenders cycled into the hoosegow after falling victim to the habitual offender laws.”
My words here, not Kurt’s: The habitual offender laws are Bill Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” laws which still to this day drive the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.
Kurt continued, “I was one of just a few whites in the place; all the rest were young and poor, black or Hispanic, doing time for possession, not distribution, of dope. Did not seem fair. It’s like those young guys never had a chance in life.”
As Kurt’s story unfolded before me, the sun was heading toward the western horizon and the sky was turning pink.
I had just spent the weekend at a premier soccer tournament where my son had competed at the highest level for his age group. Sitting in those pretty pastel Adirondack chairs, we heard birds chirping and dogs barking hello to joggers passing by. The humidity was low, and the air was fresh and clear. A young couple in helmets glided by on their rollerblades.
My next-door neighbors came out to say hello, on their way to a wedding at the Indiana Roof Ballroom; they were all decked out and gorgeous, like they had just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. Their middle-school aged son was laying, shirtless, on his stomach on their warm driveway, nose to nose with their purebred Vizsla puppy, deep in conversation and mutual admiration.
Another neighbor had finished mowing his lawn, and, with a towel wrapped around his waist, waved hello to us with a bar of soap in his hand, as he walked to another neighbor’s outdoor shower.
My boys and their friends played a friendly game of horse in the driveway. Pushing. Shoving. Talking trash. Taunting. Laughing.
Me? I was hanging on Kurt’s every word. Every. Heart. Breaking. Word.
My brain was hardly able to reconcile these two realities.
And then (you will not believe this!), out of nowhere, two figures appeared and streaked across the yard!
Girls. Painted head to toe. One completely blue and one completely gold. Carmel’s colors: blue and gold. Sports bras and short shorts! And that is all. Except body paint. And bubbly smiles. Running across my yard. Right though the driveway pick-up game. The boys are taken quite by surprise. Walker recognizes one of them. And now the chase is on! The boys catch up with the painted girls in the neighbor’s yard. And tackle them, of all things! All we see is a tangle of teens. Giggling. Rollicking. Laughing. Tumbling. Painted. Young. Beautiful. Innocent. Before the world gets a hold of them.
Kurt and I couldn’t believe our eyes. I laugh out loud turning to him and say, “Wow Kurt, if you had known there was so much excitement in the suburbs, I bet you would have come home a lot sooner!
And he agreed. And the sun set. As it does every day. Knowing that today is done. And over. And behind us. And when the sun rises in the morning It is a new day. All things new. New choices. New challenges. New opportunities. New vistas. All things begin anew.
I wish I could tell you that Kurt got his shit together and we all lived happily ever after, but that’s not exactly how it turned out. But, as Oprah says, that’s another show for another time.
The love of my life, and I do mean this in the biggest way possible, came down with Parkinson’s about 4 years ago.
W. T. actual. F.
Big, strong, and vibrant when we met 40 years ago, and now — weak as a kitten and racked with pain. I cannot stand it! We recently had a virtual doctor’s appointment (one benefit out of this COVID mess) with his neurologist and after we described the laundry list of new ailments, the doctor looked straight into the camera, into Karl’s eyes, and said, “It looks like we have reached a new level in the progression of your Parkinson’s. I don’t like it. And I can’t stop it.”
I don’t like it and I can’t stop it. His words rattled around in my head for days. That is true about a lot of things, I guess. It is certainly true of all the losses that pile up as the years fly by. Gerald Sittser said it best in his book A Grace Disguised, a book in which he describes the deep grief he encountered after his mother, wife, and daughter were killed by a drunk driver: “I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became part of who I am.”
Parkinson’s. What a shit show! We don’t like it. And we can’t stop it. With each new symptom we feel a little piece of us fading away. His car is gone, and with it, his independence. Fear and anxiety now overshadow confidence and self-assurance. His public identity is slipping away. Singing is getting more difficult. Playing guitar is proving to be more of a frustration than a joy.
We don’t like it. We can’t stop it. But what we can do is reframe it and reflect on the good stuff. Perhaps strike another tune using the same notes.
One day this week we were talking about his guitars—anything is better than rehashing doctors appointments and filling pill boxes. We were reminiscing about the guitars he has owned, past and present, the ones he kept and the ones that got away, the ones he wished he would have held onto. There is an emotional connection between a musician and his instrument, something we accountants will never understand. But it’s fun to hear the stories.
We still have some of his guitars hanging on the walls of our home. Others are long gone, having served a good purpose. Our conversation took us through the many twists and turns of a bold and adventurous life, with each guitar a little guidepost along the way. Each one purchased, each one traded or sold, each one gifted to him or given away marked a different stage of his personal and professional life. A life of someone who followed his dream of making music for a living. A life of someone who honors his Creator with his musical gift. A life full of fond memories of the people along the way.
When Karl was just eleven years old, his parents surprised him with a 1963 Sears Silvertone electric guitar with an amp inside the case. The next summer, Beatlemania was sweeping America. Karl spent hours in his room teaching himself chords by playing along with their 45s. The basics came easy to him as he worked out the chord progressions to “She Loves You” and “Love Me Do.” Looking back, he wonders how his dad ever pulled together $100 for his birthday present. Money was tight. He knew his mother appreciated his interest in music; after all, she sang in USO shows during The War. But his dad was more of a “no monkey business” kind of guy, so it meant a lot to Karl that it came from him. What a sacrifice, and what a gift that Silvertone turned out to be. It truly opened a whole new vista.
At age fourteen, when Karl was in the eighth grade at St. Andrews Catholic School, on Indy’s east side, his reputation as a strong vocalist had spread and he was asked to join The Knightsmen, a talented and popular group from Arlington High School. At first, he sang lead vocals and harmonies, but in time he added a Framus bass with a Sears bass amp. His neighbor John Wagle had mentioned in passing, “Karl, if you seriously want to earn a living in music, learn to play bass. Bands will always need a bass player. There are plenty of lead guitar players out there. And a bass player who can sing? You will work in music as long as you want to!” Even at fourteen, Karl knew music was his destiny, so he picked up the bass. And besides, if it was good enough for Paul McCartney, he figured, it was good enough for Karl Hinkle.
The Knightsmen covered Top 40 pop music and performed at private parties and school dances. They were regular winners at local Battle of the Bands contests, warmed up for Kenny Rogers and Tommy Roe, performed in the Indianapolis 500 Parade, and played fraternity parties at IU and Purdue. That is quite a lot of livin’ for a boy fresh out of Catholic school eighth grade! Karl’s family moved from Indy’s east side to the suburbs in the middle of his junior year, so he had to leave the band. By the time The Knightsmen got back together to play at their thirty-year high school reunion, their Top 40 playlists were labeled “Oldies,” but their audience loved the old familiar music and still knew every word to every song.
There is something about a person’s coming-of-age music. It never leaves you. It is said that every generation is convinced they were the first to invent music. And sex. This is especially true if you were a child of the Sixties.
While finishing up high school at Franklin Central, Karl bought a Harmony Archtop 6-String Acoustic. Sometime during his senior year, he took up with the Zerfas brothers in a band called Jubal, where he sang and played bass using a clear acrylic Danelectro with an Ampeg Bass amp. Those guys had a lot of fun, but they rehearsed more than they had paying gigs. Karl spent so much time at the Zerfas home practicing loud music and sleeping under their basement stairs, back home his own mother dragged his bed out into the front yard at 10068 Southeastern Avenue in Wanamaker, and put a For Sale sign on it. The story goes that she made him buy the bed before he could move it back into his bedroom!
After graduation, his folks convinced Karl to enroll in the Winona Hospital radiology program. On the first day of class he was all set to go. In his backseat were his textbooks and his uniform. However, in his trunk were a couple of fishing poles and a tackle box. He called his buddy Jerry Sparks and said, “Hey, wanna go fishin’?” And that was the end of Karl’s hospital career. He felt a wave of relief wash over him with the first cast. He could finally exhale. Over the next two years he played bass in Jubal, doing what is perhaps best described as underground rhythm and blues, and worked at the Eastgate Harry Levinson’s Men’s Clothing to make some money.
Karl was twenty in 1972, when he was invited to join the The Wright Brothers Overland Stage. They even offered to pay for two weeks of rehearsal time before their first engagement. Wait! What? Can you say hook, line, and sinker?! Their harmonies turned out to be magical, but the clear plastic bass proved to be a little too much for a country rock band with big Stetsons and Western boots. He traded it in for a 1972 Fender Telecaster, which made him look country cool and served him well throughout the Overland Stage and Ironhorse days, especially after the legendary Wayne Kemp shaved down the neck and installed a rosewood pick guard. The Wright Brothers Overland Stage was a pretty big deal in the early 1970s, so much so that they sold out Butler’s Clowes Hall. Twice!
It was the winter of 1973, and the Overland Stage packed the trendy new hot spot, The State of INNdiana, every time they played there. One night, Indiana Senator Birch Bayh (and father of Governor Evan Bayh) walked in with his dinner party and took a table at the back. Emcee Tom Wright recognized him to the crowd, to a warm round of applause. Bayh stood to acknowledge their greeting, and then to everyone’s surprise he began to make his way toward the stage. Easy in front of a crowd, Bayh took the microphone and asked if they knew the song “Put Your Sweet Lips A Little Closer To The Phone.” The rest is Indiana history. Tim, who can play any tune by ear, began with a few chords, Karl and Tom followed with sweet harmonies. The senator joined in; it turns out he was a pretty good singer! Senator Bayh finished his rendition to thunderous applause and beamed all the way back to his table. (Family legend has it that Karl’s dad would, back in the day, play poker with some guys at the the Foster Hotel & Motor Lodge at 21st and Illinois. At the time, Birch Bayh was a political rising star but would often join their game anyway. Just one of the guys.)
After the untimely demise of the Overland Stage and before the Wright Brothers Band started back up, Karl was in a couple of duos, trios, and a bluegrass band called Ironhorse, where he played an Ovation 6-String and the ’72 Telecaster Bass. The Ovation had been made famous by Glen Campbell and was quite the envy.
Ironhorse was power-packed with blazing musicians playing high-octane bluegrass at 110% miles an hour, in a contemporary, edgy, “new grass” kind of way. If you appreciated blistering fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and steel guitar executed by the fastest pickers in town, then you loved Ironhorse! Besides, they were really fun people to hang with; their musical paths crossed often over the decades to come, and they remained good friends for many years. Michael Clark went on to produce some of Karl’s solo albums and played on all his recordings after Karl’s switch to Christian music. Those two were a mutual admiration society. Karl always thought Michael was the most amazing picker he had ever known and would often remark, “That Michael, he just needs a lucky break. He is so talented and no one works harder!” And Michael would say, “I have always said that Karl was the best, most gifted singer I’ve ever played with or heard on records, even the big stars or critically acclaimed artists.”
What ever happened to that awesome ’72 Telecaster? Karl’s brother Kurt lived in Shreveport after he got out of the Army and was a pretty good musician in his own right. The story goes that Karl loaned the Telecaster to Kurt in hopes he would be able to get his chops back and make some money with it. Kurt kept that guitar for twenty-nine years, but alas, at some point he needed cash and sold it. The one that got away. When Karl found out, he said, “Well, I guess he needed the money more than a guitar.” And that was that. No hard feelings.
During his final stint with the Wright Brothers, beginning in 1978, Karl played an Ernie Ball Music Man bass guitar. That guitar carried him from coast to coast through live shows too numerous to count: national television performances on The Grand Ole Opry, NBC’s The Today Show, Hee Haw, Nashville Now; signing with the Warner Brothers recording label in Nashville; songs in Billboard’s Top 40; and warming up for numerous country music legends, including Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, just to name a few. Anyway, Tim, Tom, and Karl made some great music together, had a lot of laughs, and enjoyed the best audiences in the business.
That Music Man bass guitar traveled in the back of the equipment truck next to Karl’s turntable, record collection, and tin foil (to cover his hotel room windows), from Indiana to Alabama, New York to California, Texas to Minnesota, over thousands of miles across America and back home again. It was on one of those road trips to Minnesota that Karl and I fell in love. We had our first kiss in July and were married in December! But that is another story for another time.
Karl sold the Music Man to a good friend of the band, Andy Potter, who still plays it. And according to Andy, it still sounds great. He treasures that bass guitar and all the stories of fame and fortune that came along with it. Just twenty feet from stardom.
The year 1985 was the beginning of Karl Hinkle Music Ministries. Karl was serving as youth pastor under the founding pastor of Carmel’s Northview Christian Life Church, Pastor Tommy Paino, who quickly realized that Karl’s musical abilities far outpaced his abilities working with teenagers. So, they formed Karl Hinkle Music Ministries, and Karl hit the road spreading the gospel in word and song.
In the early days of KHMM, Karl had an Ovation, a Martin 00-18, a Yamaha 6-String, and a Guild F-212 12-String. The Martin was a perfect fit for his hands. He loved the Guild because of its full sound when leading worship; the Yamaha because it was easy on the fingers and had nice projection; and the Ovation because they had road history together.
At one point Karl mentioned to a friend at church, Keith Chamblin, how much he liked the sound of his black Takamine. So Keith let him borrow it for a while. Karl kept it for two years. It fit him so well that in time he bought his own Takamine 6-String with a Sunburst finish. He played it day and night. It was his new favorite.
Then, one day in March 2004, Karl was in Nicaragua and was moved by God Almighty (and the sight of the ramshackle guitar a young man was playing) to give his new Takamine to nineteen-year-old Luis Costello. So he did. He left it right there. Over 3,100 miles away. In the heart of Managua. With a promising young man who would go on to use the guitar to spread the Word of God with his charismatic presence and musical talent. When I asked Luis about it while gathering details for this story, he said, “I still have that beautiful guitar; it is a great blessing from my brother.”
Sometime during the late ‘80s, some friends from church surprised Karl with a Hofner bass guitar. After hearing how much he admired Paul McCartney, how he began playing bass as a kid because of the Beatles, and how he had always wanted a Hofner just like McCartney’s, our friends Ed and Linda Ralston showed up at our little farmhouse in the country. They slowly opened the case, and there it was—a Vintage Hofner Bass (500/1) 1964–1984 20th Anniversary Special! They had purchased it at Phelan Music in Carmel, from Jack Phelan, who had recently bought it back from an eighty-year-old woman who had purchased it new but found she just wasn’t playing it like she had hoped she would. Funny thing: she had glued a pick holder to the front of it. Mortified, Jack gently removed it. When The Knightsmen got back together for their thirty-year class reunion to play their favorite ‘60s music for their aging classmates, Karl played the Hofner. When they were still performing the oldies at summer festivals a decade later, he still played his treasured 20th Anniversary Hofner (minus the pick holder glued to the front).
Karl acquired a little 1964 C. F. Martin 00-18C Classical Guitar, made in Nazareth, PA, from Jack Phelan in 1973. His wife, Karri, remembers an older gentleman coming into Phelan Music wanting to sell it. It was in a cardboard case and was very dusty. She cleaned it up and restored it to beauty. Jack called Karl to come see it. Karl fell in love with it and bought it on the spot. Jack passed away in 2004, way too soon. Everyone in the Indianapolis music scene loved Jack. A premier bass player, he had studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, after attending IU. He was a consummate master of guitars, especially the bass guitar. He ended up in our church worship band, because John Cernero, then the worship pastor at Northview, asked Karl if he knew of a bass guitar player who might be interested in playing Sunday mornings. Karl suggested he call Jack, and it was the beginning of a long friendship both personally and professionally. Jack’s story was truly a story of redemption, love, and reconciliation. Not to mention extreme talent.
Our lives are all richer for having known Jack Phelan. Karl remembers Karri saying, “If you ever decide to sell it, call me first. This little Martin has a special place in my heart.” One Sunday morning when Karl was ministering at a sweet little church somewhere in Indiana, the well-meaning sound tech went to move an antique wrought iron music stand away from the guitar stand that held the little Martin. When he lifted the stand by its top, it suddenly disconnected from the heavy bottom of the stand, which fell over, violently striking the Martin squarely in the back and knocking a hole clear through the precious instrument. Karl was heartsick. He did the concert, packed up, came home, and the next day shipped it off to the C.F. Martin Guitar Company to have it repaired. I asked Karl how he could just go ahead and play the damaged guitar. He smiled and said, “Well it already had a hole in the front, sooo . . .” It survived the assault with a little cosmetic blemish, but it keeps sounding rich all these years later. He still loves that old guitar. The show must go on, as they say, even if a jarring diagnosis may temporarily knock the wind out of us.
I surprised Karl on his birthday in the early ‘90s, when our sons were little, with an Ibanez Exotic Koa Wood 6-String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric. It has traveled with Karl’s ministry all around the country, in and out of prisons, jails, small churches, big churches, and more. In February 2013, United Airlines broke its pretty neck on the way home from a trip to Oregon, where he did the Sunday worship service in a riding arena at a horse expo in Portland. United Airlines refused to fix it, due to some fine print in their baggage disclaimer. Customer service was at best indifferent and, frankly, rude in the response to our demand that they pay for the repair or to replace the instrument. We were not the only ones. Someone actually wrote a song about a similar experience, called United Breaks Guitars.
IRC Music was able to make the repair, but the poor dear has a nasty keloid scar across its neck. It still sounds good even though it looks like its best days are in the rearview. To this day, it is Karl’s “go-to” guitar. When we were on Beaver Island, Michigan the year after the PD diagnosis, he recorded Mary Gauthier’sMercy Nowoutdoors with that old axe.
In July 2010, Karl’s brother entered an eleven-month, faith-based addiction recovery program near Cleveland, an eight-hour drive from Indy. On his first visit, Karl brought his Yamaha Classical 6-String for him so he would have something to do in his spare time and in hopes that he might get involved in the worship team. Nine years younger than Karl, he has always looked up to his big brother. Addiction runs in the family, and he had struggled with it for years; we all hoped that this immersive program would be the help he needed. He was grateful for the opportunity, and he did well for a few months, but alas, he took the Yamaha and left the program before completing it. When he got back to Indy, he pawned the guitar, fully expecting to go back for it, but he never got around to it. He hates talking about it now that he’s clean and sober. Again, Karl said, “Well, he must have needed the money.” And again, no hard feelings.
Back in our double-income-no-kids days, Karl picked up a Thin Line Ibanez Exotic Wood 6-String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric with Red Sunset Burst finish. These days, it mostly just hangs on the wall looking gorgeous. I guess that’s important sometimes. There are times when beauty and fond memories are reasons enough to keep something around.
Over a span of thirty-five years, Karl’s music ministry took him to churches large and small throughout the country and abroad, but mainly in the Midwest. Many churches invited him back year after year, and there he met some of the most astounding people quietly working in Kingdom work. No fanfare. No celebrity. Just quietly working the harvest. One of those churches was Calvary Chapel Fellowship, in Stroh, Indiana. In August 2012, Pastor Gary Rifenburg asked Karl to accompany him to his car after the morning service. He popped the trunk, and there was a guitar case. Inside was a Magnum Handcrafted Personalized 6-String Acoustic with a built-in pre-amp AND a mic inside. It was designed and built by Bob Grant, of Grant Guitar, LaGrange, Indiana. It had the initials KH in abalone inlays on the head. It was beautifully crafted with African rosewood for the back and sides, Sitka spruce for the top, ebony overlay, mother of pearl, and abalone shell inlays. The vine represents Christ’s leadership of the Church and all the believers who are grafted into Him. The vine entwines the cross where the true vine was sacrificed for our sins, giving the grafted branches new hope and beginning. The verse is from John 15:1. Those are the stats, but here is the story: God had been nudging Bob to create a guitar just for Karl for a few years. Wheelchair-bound, Bob was an old-school craftsman, and he finally heeded the Lord’s nudge and designed a personalized guitar just for Karl. Surprised, shocked, humbled, and overwhelmed are just a few of the emotions swirling inside Karl as tears welled up in his eyes. All he could muster was, “Thank you so, so much!”
From that 1963 Sears Silvertone to the handcrafted Magnum, it has been a wild ride for Karl and his music over the last half century. He took the notes of his childhood and wrote a new song. And now, in the face of this Parkinson’s shit show, we are asked to strike yet another tune using the notes given us. We don’t like it. And we can’t stop it. But alas.
Christmas Eve 2020 was the first in thirty-five years that Karl was not able to sing his signature “O Holy Night” at some church somewhere. One Christmas Eve, he even sang it for some tourists and howler monkeys in a Belizean rainforest! But this year, between the pain, anxiety, weakness, and medicine, he just was not up to it. One more loss. Thankfully, his friend Dan Lawhorn had recorded him a few years ago, so they were able to hear Karl’s version at church anyway. Lord willing, he will be able to sing on Easter Sunday 2021, but if not, we have his recording of “Amen” and we are so grateful to Dan for recording it for us.
Looking back, Karl can honestly say he has no regrets. Not that he didn’t have his share of hard times and high water. But all those guitars—whether bought or sold, acquired or given away, lost or found, damaged or repaired—they all hold their own place along the journey. Along our journey. Each one served a singular purpose and connected some particularly awesome people along the way. Collectively, those trusty axes provided a livelihood, a dream job come true, sustenance, entertainment, worship, art, and, best of all, some really beautiful music. And now it is time to strike up a new tune with the notes we have.
December 21, 2018! And what an amazing day it was! For this was the day that the Creator of the Universe preordained from the beginning of time that Surraye Khyri-Simone’ Hinkle would come power-sliding into this world. I do not think it was any coincidence that she landed in Indianapolis; a city known worldwide for speed. She walked early, she talked early, she ran early, and she shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. She is sure to set the world on fire one day!
The celestial world saw her coming on the Winter Solstice of 2018 and lit up the sky with a Long Night Full Moon, the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter, AND a Meteor Shower all the way from the Little Dipper. In an act of even greater rareness, Full Moons and Ursid Meteor Showers filled the night sky on both Friday and Saturday. The next time a Full Moon will coincide with the Winter Solstice will be in 2094, the year Surraye will turn 76 years old.
It was a Friday night in Indy and A Christmas Carol was playing at the IRP, Yuletide Celebration at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, The Book of Mormon was at Clowes Hall, and Die Hard (the quintessential Christmas movie) was playing at the Historic Artcraft Theatre. The city was all dressed up with brightly colored lights and glitter for Christmas, but as far as we were concerned, it might as well have been a great big celebration of Surraye’s debut.
Jason Momoa’s Aquaman opened in movie theaters across the nation on the day Surraye was born, but the crazy premise of that movie paled in comparison to real life in America in 2018. We were two years into a reality show presidency and the dealmaker was threatening to shut down the government at midnight if he didn’t get his way on a border wall. The same day, The Notorious RBG had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung and sadly, it would not be the last we would hear about her cancer. Also, on that day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest of the current administration’s knee-jerk approach to foreign affairs. On a brighter note, they named a stretch of the California 134 Freeway after Barack Obama and hung the signs on that day. A record 117 women had been elected or appointed to Congress a month earlier, the most diverse class in our nation’s history, and record numbers of women ran and won in state and local races all over the country. Just imagine the leadership possibilities awaiting a baby girl born in 2018. Especially for a baby girl who is NON-STOP!
On the day Surraye was born, it was her paternal grandparents 37th wedding anniversary. They were married in 1981 in a historic landmark in Minnesota on a Winter Solstice night so cold the icy wind snatched their breath away and the snow squeaked beneath their footsteps as they rushed into the church. The longest night of the year! Surraye’s grandfather was 29 on his wedding day 37 years ago.
Surraye’s daddy had turned 29 just a week before her arrival. The long-awaited day had finally arrived. Walker, Imani, and Darcy (Imani’s mom) headed to St. Vincent Women’s Hospital. Her daddy was so excited to meet his baby daughter but holding Imani’s hand and watching the epidural process he fainted and ended up on the floor, out cold, right there in the delivery room! All three nurses rushed to his aid. One was fanning him. Another ran for juice. The other tried to gently coax him awake. In screaming pain, Imani piped up (in three syllables) , “HEL-LO-O! I’m the one in labor over here! Have been for almost 23 hours now!” They laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time; it took three needles before they got it right and she still bears the scars to prove it. When that precious little girl finally decided to make her grand entrance, her daddy began gazing at her pretty little face and hasn’t stopped. This thing is for sure: she is the apple of her daddy’s eye and he is the apple of hers.
Surraye’s big brother was 7 years old when she was born. Christian was so excited to have a baby sister. He told anyone who would listen all about her: friends, family, teachers, total strangers, anyone! Some were afraid he would hug her too tight, but he held her as gently as a butterfly. When he went to meet her at the hospital, he wore a shirt that said, “Keep Calm. I’m The Big Brother.” Christian will be a fine big brother to Surraye.
For Surraye’s Gigi, this was a very big day and she wasn’t going to miss a moment. Imani is Darcy’s only child and Surraye would be Imani’s first born. There is something about that first grandchild; just ask any grandparent. Excitement, anticipation, fear, trepidation, anxiety, pain, exhaustion, mysterious bodily fluids, panic attacks, hot flashes, a bad reaction to the epidural, tears, rubber legs, more bodily fluids, and pure joy are a few of the words that come to mind that describe the rodeo that followed in that hospital room. The Holy Spirit walked with Darcy all through the night and into the next day; she was overwhelmed by the presence of God in that place. She was cool as a cucumber as she spoke calm and reassurance to her little girl all grown up. Seems like just yesterday she was the one giving birth to an adorable baby girl, but that was in 1993, a lifetime ago.
After a day of agony for everyone involved, this world was rewarded with a strong and courageous warrior in the form of a helpless newborn baby girl, Surraye Khyri-Simone’ Hinkle. She came flying in, up on two wheels, power-sliding her way into our arms and into our hearts. And we can’t wait to see how she will set the world on fire when her time comes.
What’s in a rock … or a pile of rocks … or a mountain of rock?
Racing through the canyon on a train from Temoris to Creel, standing in the vestibule with the wind in my face, a blur of grey and brown is all that can be seen. The tracks are cut deeply into the mountain; steep walls cradle the rails keeping sunshine out, creating a dizzying view. This canyon system in the heart of the Mexican state of Chihuahua is five times larger than our Grand Canyon; the two deepest and narrowest canyons were left uncharted until 1986. This is the Copper Canyon, widely recognized as the wildest and most rugged area in North America. So inhospitable it took our top engineers 100 years to complete the railway from Kansas City to Los Mochis on the southern edge of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific trade routes.
Jagged and crushed under years of pressure and weather and stress, the canyonlands offer a harsh existence to the indigenous cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indians who call this their back yard. After more than a decade of drought, the vegetation has turned blonde and crunchy; not like lush green plant life pictured in the tour books. Huge boulders lay bone-dry in parched riverbeds. Streaks of polished granite show where grand waterfalls should crash and spray its life-giving water. Dust and despair coat the leaves turning them a ghostly grey, giving us the eerie feeling of driving through a negative.
What’s in a pile of rocks? Look closely and you see grey, brown, copper, blue black, and adobe. Look closely at this landscape and you see wilting leaves on dying trees, brown needles on evergreens, sharp stones and gravel on steep inclines. Scrubby shrubs and fallen timber litter the landscape. Top soil blowing away year after rainless year.
But wait! Just around the bend opens up a vista, a panoramic view of this amazing canyon. Blue sky with pillow white clouds backdrops the horizon outlined by shimmering rims and plateaus, one beyond another, beyond another. Such incredible depth and light and shadow. Majesty … breathtaking …stunning … awe inspiring … magnificent. Divisadero!
What makes a pile of grayish brown rock and dust covered leaves so dazzling in the morning sun? I think I know! Perspective …distance … contrast. And most of all …. light!
Light cast on jagged peaks standing timeless against the sky. Sun dancing on copper streaks cascading down canyon walls. A misty blue haze veils the furthest rims. Light and shadow and dimension and perspective. And most of all light … the sun bringing beauty and majesty to ordinary gray and brown rock.
So I must ask. What is it that brings majesty to an ordinary life? A life that may, up close, look tedious and drab and out of focus. A life perhaps in the desert of its landscape. A life covered in the dust and debris of the daily grind. A life devoid of flowers and springtime and crashing waterfalls. What brings majesty to such a life?
Could it be … perspective and distance and most of all … light? God uses his life-giving sun to make beautiful the rugged, crushed, jagged thing He has created. Just like the Canyon, God created my life and then formed it with His very hands to be the thing of glory He intends it to be.
Father God, thank you for years, built of days, made of minutes. Thank you for the little things that may not be too pretty right now, but will unfold with the seasons to be the thing of beauty You have formed with Your very hands.
Father, allow me to step back and see with Your eyes, Your panoramic, majestic, illuminated view. Help me to see what’s important to You. Help me to see your children in the most flattering light. Show me Your timeless vista today and everyday.
Show me that even in the most hostile landscape, the most hostile heart, You are present and your strong and patient hand is forming a thing of beauty and majesty.
“The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
I hadn’t read the Introduction the first time I read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. This little gem on page xxvi took my breath away because it is so accurate. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
My mother died in February of 1998 and while we were caring for her during her last weeks on earth, I jotted down little details about those weeks. This thing that was happening as we watched her shell diminish, this thing of care-giving for the dying, was at the same time, vast and tedious, energizing and exhausting. It left no solitude or space for writing or even processing what was happening.
She was diagnosed before Christmas and was gone the day after Valentine’s. It took all five kids and our Dad to manage all the details of pain medicine, comfort measures, meal prep, insurance fights, doctor appointments, visitors, mail call, and let’s not forget, cleaning closets. We all scurried around our mother 24 hours a day trying to fight off this intruder who had invaded her body and our family, this cancer, that in the end, was completely undaunted by our scurrying and tender care.
It wasn’t until well after the funeral that I pulled out all those little scraps of paper and began to put them in order. And then, very late at night, when the family was asleep and the house was quiet, I began to craft the story of my mother’s last weeks on earth. Night after night I would relive each scribble and recall the tiniest details of those weeks that had raced by in a blur. The tone in the doctor’s voice when he gave us the news, the countless meals magically appearing at dinner time, the sound of the doorbell announcing the arrival of one more visitor, the rattle of pills bottles (they each had their own sound), the daily mail-call, the smell of the bedside commode in the morning, the whirr of the oxygen condenser, the crunch of a bag of frozen peas applied to wherever the pain was that day (a never-ending game of hide and seek; what worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work today), the sight of the school bus stopped in front of her house picking up kids the morning after she died (the very audacity, didn’t they know my mother had died?!! What could possibly be so important at school?!!)
I found myself bringing those scribbles to life as I crafted each sentence, every paragraph, the entire piece. I cried. I laughed. I added. And I deleted so as to not hurt feelings. And then I made copies for my siblings who made copies for their children who made copies for their friends. And each year on my mother’s birthday or death-iversary, one of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, now all grown up, discovers it for the first time. And then their spouses, who never met Grandma, get a glimpse into our family in our darkest and closest hour. A teacher friend in Minneapolis reads the essay aloud in class and uses it as a springboard for discussing death and dying with her inner-city middle school students. Death and dying and the pain that comes with it is completely universal it turns out.
Those many nights sitting in the dark with only the clickity-clack of the keyboard in the soft glow of the monitor with all those little scraps of paper, gifted me with something life-changing. At first, I thought this gift was from my mother, or from losing her, or from ever having her in the first place. But it turns out the gift came from writing it down. Toiling over each phrase, each comma, each ellipse (it’s full of ellipses used in all the wrong ways) resulted in more than a nice family essay. Writing it down laid my soul bare and spoke healing and comfort into my spirit. I could physically hear her voice, “Yes, you are sad. Yes, you are going to miss me. More than you know!! But I’ve lived a good life with God as my compass. I raised five good kids and I have lots of friends and I have a husband of 54 years. Go ahead and cry. Trust me, I know your despair is real. Go ahead and cry. And then, cherish each day we had together, the good days and the tough ones. And cherish each day ahead of you. And don’t forget to hug those babies!” What sweet words to live by. And so true. And “so Darlene” as my sisters would say. Completely authentic and exactly the way she thought about things.
But try as I might, I could not tie it up in that pretty little bow. I still find there are so many questions I want to ask her, so many experiences I want to share with her. I was 43 when she left us, barely old enough to know what questions to ask. I had the world by the tail, but in reality, I didn’t even know what I didn’t even know. I am perpetually amazed at how many times I catch myself picking up the phone to share some little things with her or ask for some life-altering advice. Even now. Decades later.
But death puts a period where you want to keep writing. And death puts a period where you want to keep reading. My mother may have given this life all she had, she may have left it all on the field, but there was so much more I wanted to hear from her.
Famous Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, once said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. That! That right there is “so Darlene”! She told us in her last days, “I taught you kids how to live, now I get to show you how to die. People raised on the farm understand the cycle of life. As your dad likes to say, “Ain’t many of us gonna get out of here alive.”
Murakami also said, “There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” There I was in the deepest messiest despair of my life and writing it down was the thing that helped me make sense of it and to navigate the grieving. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises!”
It is true, generally speaking. There is nothing new under the sun as it says in Ecclesiastes. Murder and larceny are as old as Cain and Abel. However this is a true story of murder and larceny, the details of which are so uncanny I am nearly certain it’s never happened like this before. King David indicates the days of our lives are numbered. Seems a little fatalistic, but maybe he was on to something.
It was 1998. Martinsville, Indiana. A hot July day just like any other. And when that day was over, three people were dead … but I was not one of them.
I had been hired to do some forensic accounting work for a vending machine company in receivership. What that means is, the owner of Crown Vending had spent years embezzling cash, nearly half a million dollars, from the company and now he could not make his debt payments to his banks and suppliers, so the courts had stepped in and put someone else in charge of his company. That trustee was my friend and employer, Bill Rice. The trouble was that they didn’t remove the owner from the operation, so he was free to come and go as he pleased.
Bill Rice and I had worked together on other receiverships and business ventures, and so when this deal came around he hired me to interview employees and comb through old financial records to uncover and document the extent of the missing cash. We would then create documents for the lawyers representing his lenders, and try to find a buyer for the beleaguered company.
After four months investigation, the noose was tightening as his staff and company records painted a picture of systematic theft to support the owner’s lavish lifestyle. Nothing new here.
The guy’s name was William Drury, and he was a gold chain wearing, cigar smoking, crude talking, hard drinking, good old boy, racist, great big blow-hard in cheap cologne. And here is the scary part … more than a few people in that town thought him charming.
He controlled his employees with bravado and temper. It turned out he had been using company credit cards for personal spending AND skimming a minimum of $100 every day right out of the room where they counted cash from the vending machines, as long as anyone could remember. After all, he told them, this was his own company and the money belonged to him anyway. No one argued. No one really knew any better. His office employees were hard working women with high school diplomas and too many kids, working for a paycheck and following orders.
In late July the noose was tightening and the owner sensed it. The bookkeeper and the cash room supervisor were nervous as cats. Our efforts were ramping up after discoveries and transcriptions and spreadsheets and supporting documents were submitted to the court. Then on July 27 the owner was served with a court order to vacate the premises and never return. The company he had built from the ground up was no longer his. The locksmith was on his way. The security guard was in place to enforce the order. The sheriff had handed him the affidavit and briefly explained what it meant. He glanced over the first few pages and left quietly, but not before the names of the witnesses there on the front page were burned into his mind: Trustee William R. Rice, Assistant to the Trustee Mia Hinkle, Bookkeeper Sue Dorff, and Cash Room Supervisor Denise Arthur. These four had built a case against him. It was now to be an open and shut case.
Within the hour, he would be dead, along with my friend Bill Rice and the cash room supervisor. The bookkeeper only survived the shots meant for her because she hid under her desk when she heard him coming.
Back in Carmel, Bill’s wife, Mary Jane passed through the kitchen of her nicely appointed home. Oprah was on and it was one she really wanted to watch, but the hour was slipping by as she took care of just one more thing. It is always just one more thing. She and Bill were almost sixty, nearing retirement with schedules just as crazy as when their three children were little. Now they are all grown up with little ones of their own. Bill and Mary Jane were still lovebirds after almost 40 years of marriage, current membership in the National Guard, a stint in the Marines, two births, one adoption, six moves, and now caring for aging parents. More and more dinner conversation focused on their retirement dreams. When … where … the book he wants to write … the course he wants to teach … the countries they want to visit … the time they want to spend with grandchildren. Bill was a kind and generous man of integrity. He was smart and interested and interesting. At his funeral Mary Jane would be taken aback by just how many people told her, “I am going to miss Bill. He was my best friend.”
Mary Jane really wanted to catch today’s Oprah because the guest is an expert in autism, a condition that one of their grandchildren was recently been diagnosed with. So she makes herself stop and she grabs a cup of tea to relax into her favorite chair just in time to hear a late breaking news flash interrupt Oprah and the autism expert.
“We interrupt this program to bring you news of gunfire in a warehouse belonging to Crown Vending in nearby Martinsville. Two are confirmed dead and one more possible. The gunman is missing. We’ll bring you more news as it develops. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.”
She can’t believe her ears. She tries to reach her husband, who she kissed good-bye this morning as he took off for that very place, but no answer at the Crown Vending or on his cell phone. By the time the police knock on her door confirming her worst fears, six hours have passed. The most horrifying six hours of her life.
Back at the warehouse, the bookkeeper was in her office. Uneasy was a vast understatement for how she had been feeling all morning, ever since she had seen the document naming her as a witness. Right there on the front page … in black and white … unbelievable! He was sure to see it there, she remembers thinking. This would for sure push him over the edge.
Sitting at her computer, she couldn’t concentrate. Her body tensing with a sense of urgency with every sound. Then she heard it. Gunfire. One loud CRACK! And then Bill’s voice. “Don’t do it. Stop! Don’t do this! Please.” And again … CRACK! CRACK!
While other minds were scrambling to make sense of what they were hearing, Sue knew exactly what was happening. Her boss had made good on his promise that there would be trouble if anyone tried to take his business. “Over my dead body…” he had said.
When the attorneys had offered Sue protection for her testimony, she knew full well there would be no protecting her in this small town if her boss set his mind to finding her. She had worked for him nearly 15 years. He knew where she lived, where her kids went to school, and what kind of car she drove. She agreed to testify because she knew it was the right thing to do. She knew she was one of only a few who could collaborate our suspicions of fraud. From time to time over the years she had been uncomfortable with the way he did business, but when we began asking the right questions, it dawned on her just how huge this was. So she agreed.
And at this moment she couldn’t be sorrier she had.
She then heard the muffled voice of a woman in the hallway and then another loud CRACK. She knew who it was … the other woman named on the front page, the cash room supervisor. She later found out that Denise had stepped out of the counting room and into the hallway and found herself face to face with the shooter. He had pressed the gun to her clavicle and pulled the trigger. One shot. A piece of the shattered bone pierced her heart and she was dead before she hit the ground.
There was a creepy quiet after the shots and Sue knew what was coming next. She locked her door and dove under her desk.
Knock, knock, knock. “Sue, can I come in? I want to talk to you.” Again a gentle knock, knock, knock. “Sue, I just want to talk.”
Terror gripped her heart at the sound of his honey coated voice. She remained frozen and cowering like a small animal, wondering how her kids would grow up without a mother.
“Open the door, Sue. Let me in. I’m not going to hurt you.”
His voice was so calm yet so cold. For a split second she considered obedience. Then CRACK! CRACK! Woodchips from the hollow door came flying across the room. One bullet lodged in her printer, another skimmed the back of her chair and lodged in the wall … the same chair she’d been sitting in just a minute ago. Frozen, she sat in the knee opening of her desk, the deafening rush of blood in her ears and her heart pounding so loud she was certain he could hear it. Time was standing still and careening forward at the same time.
She could hear Cindy, the receptionist (the shooter’s own daughter by the way) down the hall speaking to dispatch at 911 describing the scene unfolding. “He’s got a gun! He’s shot two people already, maybe three. Now he’s reloading. He’s walking back down the hall. He’s opening the door to Bill’s office.”
Then she heard one more CRACK! And a final groan.
The receptionist continued, “He’s getting in his car. Come quick! Send an ambulance.”
At that, Sue bolted. She ran out the back door and across an empty lot to an auto dealership, Larry Bird Ford, where she asked them to call the police.
It wasn’t over for Sue by a long shot, though. The damage was just beginning for her. The nightmares, the grief, the counseling, the guilt, the loneliness, and despair continued for a long time. The thought she could have somehow kept it from happening …that it was somehow her fault. It was months before she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. She still finds it hard to trust anyone. I think when someone you know very well tries to kill you it shakes your faith in mankind a bit.
Bill Rice had been on the phone with the attorney that hired us when the gunman had opened fire. Debbie Caruso of Dale & Eke heard the whole thing. She heard the shots. She heard Bill beg for his life. Then she heard … silence. Years later when Debbie and I run into one another on the soccer fields, we give each other that knowing nod…. the one that says, “We have been through something really big together.” She always asks about Mary Jane.
So Bill Rice lay dead in office we had once shared, Denise lay dead in the hallway, and Sue was terrorized and in hiding. The gunman sped off in his car knowing the police would be there at any moment. He tried to outrun them. His wife, another daughter, and his pre-school grandchildren on their way into Martinsville from their Painted Hills home, had seen the police chase and recognized the car. They followed. There had been a big thunderstorm over the weekend and the side roads and ditches were soft and muddy. While trying to flee the police and doing a U turn, his wheels got stuck in the mud. The police car caught up to him about the same time as his wife’s car did. The officer (a good old buddy of his) approached the car to talk him down. He looked into the officer’s eyes, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger; his wife, daughter, and grandchildren just a few yards away.
And at his funeral the following week – I couldn’t make this stuff up – they played the song, “I Did It My Way.”
But wait. The uncanny part of the story is yet to come. Follow me here…
My name was also on front page of that affidavit. I normally would have been in the warehouse, either with Bill or by myself. In the final days of the investigation, things were changing very quickly based on the information we gleaned and our reports to the attorneys. So I would drive down to Martinsville about every other day, gather information and ask questions. I would stay home on the off days and generate the necessary documents. Bill would go down every day and call me on his way home to let me know what the plan would be for the next day, and what time he would pick me up the next morning. When Bill didn’t call me the night before to firm up plans for the following day, I thought it was a little strange but I was busy with the kids (Jackson was 6 and Walker was 8 at the time) and I figured he’d call when he needed me.
But sometime during the next day I noticed that our phone hadn’t rung all day, and when I picked it up, instead of a dial tone I got a loud buzzing noise. I went next door and called the phone company to send a repairman. Walking back, I noticed orange paint lines across my neighbor’s lawn from the phone box behind my shed to a Bradford Pear tree in my neighbor’s yard that had blown down in the storm last weekend. I guess the utility company marked orange lines for the guys who were coming to grind down the stump.
When the telephone repairman arrived, he tested the lines in my house and determined the trouble was at the phone box behind my shed. When he lifted off the lid, revealing a million wires looking like a big bowl of colored spaghetti, he noticed one tiny wire that had been crimped over the edge of the box which apparently was causing the loud sound on my phone and my dead line. He figured that the utility guys who painted the orange stripes for the stump grinding crew, had put the lid back just a little off so as to crimp one little wire. One of a million wires. My telephone line.
Coincidence? I think not. If Bill had called me the night before, he would have just heard my phone ringing and ringing. And I would have never heard the call coming in. He got up the next morning and headed off to Martinsville to serve the papers.
At the end of the day I was there when two policemen in their dress blues came to Mary Jane Rice’s door to deliver the dreaded news. One was old and seasoned. One was young and wet behind the ears. It was obvious this was his first time to deliver this kind of news. I felt sorry for him.
Mary Jane and I fell into each other’s arms and she said, “Oh Mia. I am so glad you didn’t go with Bill today. I am so glad it was him and not you. Your two little boys at home. I am so glad you didn’t go with him today.”
So began a period of shock for both of us that lasted a very long time.
We know that murder and larceny have been around since our oldest ancestors. But this kind of elaborate orchestration specifically purposed to keep me far away from danger when my number wasn’t quite up yet? Hard to wrap the mind around, I know. But maybe this kind of intricate handy-work is in play each and every day until that moment when the number of my days IS finally up.
Perhaps King David was on to something after all. ~~~~