by Emmett Smith
[THIS Was a talk by me at the Minnesota Storytelling Festival on Saturday, 3 March 2007, in Austin, Minnesota — ES]
TODAY I have some stories about my mother’s dad, my grandpa.
HE Was born in 1886 of Swedish immigrants from Smaland and Dalarna, in the old country, and died in 1968.
I am an amateur historian and have been reading and thinking about history for more than fifty years, and lately I’ve been writing and producing Mankato History This Month on KMSU-89.7 FM out of the state college that calls itself a “university” now, up there in Mankato. This has been since the Fall of 2003 at “MSU” and is mostly interviews with local people, centering on Mankato. I’m so sorry that today so many of your scheduled guests didn’t show up on account of the blizzard and poor Mike Cotter had to make do with some riffraff from Mankato, and that’s me, but….
What I try to do, in my radio-broadcasts and recording stories of our remembered past here at home in southern Minnesota, on what Mr Al Batt out of New Richland, MN, calls the “North Coast of Iowa,” is that I try to tie our stories to the larger tale unfolding around us — of the end of the modern age and the passing away of the Old Atlantic West.
As I say, my grandpa was born in 1886 and he died in 1968, twenty-one years before the end of the late-modern age in 1989, with the collapse of communism and the pulling-down of that wall in Berlin….
Many historians, amateur and professional alike, are in a quandary about what these times actually are that we infest now, today. Somehow, to talk about the “postmodern age” doesn’t seem quite good enough, but that’s all we’ve been able to come up with until now in our perplexities. Which is what makes telling these stories to one another, about our remembered past, so really, really important. Especially if we are going to find some sort of direction into Tomorrow, and that’s all the more important to me now that I’m a grandpa myself — four of ’em, them grandkids, since 2001!
So, these are some stories about what my grandpa said:
THE First summer I stayed on my grandpa’s farm on the high ground north of Eagle Lake, MN, was in 1956. I was seven years old and I was just delighted — my idea of “helping” Grandpa and Uncle Emmett was to run around and get just as dirty as I could, dirty denim pants, dirty hands, dirty face. And when he was doing something greasy around the tractor, or dusty with the hay-baler, whatever, every so often my grandpa would look at me and laugh:
“SOOTA Inta nada, pojke djevel!” Don’t get all sooty, you little boy-devil!
[THE “Swedish” in this transcription is more-or-less phonetic — ES]
AND Then when I would carry the ashes out of the house in the morning from the kitchen range, in the coal-scuttle, and trip on the doorsill of the porch or make some other mess, Grandpa would say:
“NU Skall dig djevel tog med hull och har till helveta!” Now the Devil will take you hair and all to Hell!
THEN, After dinner at noon in that hundred-and-five degree kitchen on those boiling ninety-degree days, he would poke me sometimes in the tummy and say:
“YOU’RE Getting a belly on you like a minister!”
NOW You know in the old country, I learned later from his sister Huldy Olsen, their parents growing up had had to walk three-four miles each way twice every Sunday to church, and by God if you didn’t go somebody would peach on you to the landlord. Now my Great-Aunt Huldy was also awfully proud of the fact that some cousin did become a prest, a bishop, in the state-church, but I give you my word that there are a lot of reasons why people did decide to get up and come to America. Sixty million between the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of war in 1914 — sixty million!
They came from Germany and of course England before that, Ireland, Scandinavia, Italy, Russia, Poland, Spain I suppose, Greece, Syria, the Balkans. They didn’t begin to have words to express in their own languages the heartbreak they felt at leaving the ancient places of their ancestral suffering and persecution and sickness and war and murder and death and humiliation, but these holes were their beloved homes and they were leaving forever. And they all came here with one great hope in their hearts, that their children would grow up and learn to speak American and how to say all the right things, all of the right words that would make everything better forever….
IN The Summer of 1957 I was all excited about going back to the farm and by that time my mom had gotten me a subscription for my birthday to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, and of course that wasn’t enough. I was a young yuppie on his way up like everybody else and I wanted the monthly Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comicbooks too, and so every time we had even a smidgen of a hope of rain on the horizon, a rainday, I would pester my bachelor Uncle Emmett who stayed at home and worked with his dad all his life, to take me to town in his new 1957 black-and-yellow twodoor Ford “Fairlane” with the monster overdrive — that would push you clean back through the seat every time Uncle Emmett poured it on! This was all in order to buy more duck comics, and Grandpa would sit shaking his head on the old green bench on the porch at the door leading up into the kitchen. He would say:
“BY God, if you’d stay to home and not run to town all the time, you wouldn’t see all that stuff to WANT!”
GRANDPA Was not a man who ever said a lot — not like his little part-Irish grandson! — but once a summer I would do or say something that would make that quiet and steady-moving old man just laugh out loud. And he would laugh then, and laugh and laugh….
Summers in the 1950s back then before “global warming” were hot affairs indeed and there would come a week or ten days of 100-degree heatwaves that would break in crashing thunderstorms. As I went to bed my Great-Aunty Leona Magly, who kept house for Grandpa after her sister — my grandmother — died, would say:
“Buddy! It looks owly tonight. If I wake you, you get right up and we’ll go down in the cellar in case of a twister!”
So I’d lie there in the dark night and watch the distant flashbulb of lightning get nearer and nearer through the black-painted rusty screens. Then there’d come a gust of wind in the elm-tops and the footsteps of my aunty to get me up. The kitchen light would go on and I’d run out there in my shorty pajamas to get on my boots. I had a pair of rubber boots all my own so that I could follow Grandpa and Uncle Emmett all over the farm through the pig-manure and cow-manure and now I’d put these on, so as to be ready for anything.
And, I had a flashlight all my own that Leona got me — to hunt twisters with!
So I’d lean as far as I could out of the backporch screendoor and shine my light straight up in the sky through a singing cloud of mosquitos to see if there was any funnels, until the first big raindrops fell. And, of course, I never saw a twister, not a one. But as soon as I’d let enough mosquitos in the house, Grandpa would say:
AND So we’d all go back to bed. While the storm would go banging and crashing away to Janesville and Waseca, and we’d sleep until the steaming morning….
One hot day down at the bottom of July in 1958 and just after dinner — the puddles in the farmyard steamed — in at the door there came a shiny new car full of young people I’d never seen before. Well, lo and behold, they were students from that state college up there in Mankato that calls itself a “university” nowadays, and they were campaigning for Democrat Congressman Eugene McCarthy in his first US Senate campaign. This was the Saturday of the annual and rather-absurdly called Eagle Lake “Tater Days” festival — ridiculous on the face of it because taters hadn’t been a cash-crop in our part of the country since at least the 1920’s, although I think they still call the yearly drinking-brawl “Tater Days.” Less embarrassing anyway than, well, “DWI Days,” I guess….
Anyway, the college-youngsters now wanted to hire one of Grandpa’s haywagons for a float:
“Leona, please, can I be in the parade…?”
“Hush — Buddy…!”
My Great-Aunty told the Mankato State kids they’d have to talk to Grandpa. I heard his slow footprints in the gravel behind me as he walked up from the gray machine-shed where he’d been working on the New Holland hay-baler with its squat powerful LeRoi engine (all of Grandpa’s farm buildings were painted battleship gray, with white trim, and I used to pester the grownups lots, about “can’t we have a real red barn someday?”) and now my heart sank. We were all more-or-less Republican to home in those days and I knew enough to know that Congressman McCarthy was a DFLer, so I figured gloomily, no parade today for me….
The deal was made in ten minutes. Twenty dollars — in real 1958 money! — changed hands, wagon-rent and for some bales to sit on. The college-kids were all over, stapling crepe ribbons, putting up signs. And I was running through the house, rummaging in closets for my black raincoat and toy “Bat Masterson” cane with the gold-colored plastic knob and a toy felt bowler hat I’d gotten at the Garden City Fair the summer before. Plus on the way out of the house I knicked off of my Grandpa’s writing-desk a cellophane-wrapped cigar, all brittle now, that somebody had given him years ago. My Donald Duck-Scrooge McDuck comicbook-idea of a politician….
And so I rode all over Eagle Lake in the afternoon parade, hollering at the top of my voice, “McCarthy for US Senate,” and “Vote DFL — Skunk the Republicans!” We went right past my Great-Aunt Huldy’s house on Agency Street. Huldy Olsen grinned all over her face when she seen it was me on the McCarthy-wagon, and she laughed out loud when I yelled “Huldy, look at me — I’m a DEMOCRAT!”
That night then after supper while Grandpa sat on the steps on the south side of the backporch and tied his leather shoes — my Grandpa never wore socks in the hot weather — in the long beams of dusty evening light I said, “Politics are fun, Grandpa — I’m going to run for election when I grow up!”
That old man — he was born in Cleveland’s first term — looked at me and he laughed. And he laughed and he laughed, and he laughed so hard that finally he looked at me with wet and shining eyes, and he said:
“BY God, I should SLAP your ass! Well the world will tame you I guess…you talk foolish!”
AND Then that old man and his only grandson went together under the swallows sweeping low down to the barn, to feed cows and do the milking-chores….
ALL Through the later 1950s my mom liked to watch the Lawrence Welk show on TV on Saturday nights there in our south Minneapolis livingroom, while my pet tomcat, Lawrency Lion and who was named after Lawrence Welk because it was his favorite show too (especially for keeping warm in the winter), used to sleep all over the top of that big, square overheated Muntz TV with its black-and-white tube. During the show this one guy would play lead-violin with a sappy expression all over his face and my mom was convinced — and so I had violin lessons.
In 1960 I took the new fiddle with me down to the farm and tormented all of the adults who would put up with any of it for even a few minutes with my mostly-unmusical squeaks. Grandpa told me that his dad had said to him that, back in the old country in Smaland, his father used to whale the tar out of them kids when they got caught sneaking off in the woods to listen to the gypsies play fiddle. That was about it for my grandpa and music — which meant he hadn’t missed out on much of an interest in life, not much anyway in view of the kind of singing we had in the Grace Swedish Lutheran Church in Mankato:
“[This is sung all in one note — ES] A-mighty-fortress-iss-our-God-ja-sure….”
(Those Swiss-Germans of my Great-Aunty Leona’s at the old Immanuel Lutheran Church on North Second Street, my God, they could sing! I don’t mean to talk rude here today, but in the German church if you would fart everybody grinned and nudged each other. However, the old Swedes just got severe with you and pulled back. It’s all the difference where you come from, I believe — plus I suppose what you had for supper….)
I Guess that I am most fortunate as a member of this pretty-much overrated “baby boom” generation that, when I was a boy, Grandpa still had workhorses.
When I was real little on a day-trip down from Minneapolis — I was four years old, I believe — Uncle Emmett took me by the hand down to the barn to see the horses. It was after dinner and he told me to stand right in the middle of this open gate while he called up them mares from the pasture. “They won’t come near you, Skipper — when they see you stand there they’ll turn away,” said Uncle Emmett. But when I stood there and looked east down that long pasture lane under the elms and seen them Belgians, Queenie and Duchess, lumber up closer and closer and more and more enormous, oh, I started to bawl — and, of course, the horses swerved off to their right to to the watertank. Uncle Emmett came over to me and laughed and said “I’m sorry, Skipper, I bet they did look pretty big to you standing there.”
And then he set me up on the back of one of the horses and I’m telling you, in thirty seconds, I went from tears to sunshine — and I do not think now that I have ever felt any more safe in my life than as a small boy than on the back of one of them mares….
Now in 1962 Grandpa still had his last workhouse, a gelding called Colonel, part-Belgian, part-quarterhorse, bred that way on account of the hot summers. So when I was thirteen I got to make rounds with a dump-rake — and was I ever full of myself!
I yapped and hollered and bellered as we went around, my quasi-pubertal and sub-adult, junior high, voice ranging and cracking and breaking up and down the scale:
“Colonel, God damn you!” I would squawk. “You brain-sonofabitch!” I bleated. And, I squeaked in a high and manly dudgeon: “PULL, you black bastard!”
Afterward, Grandpa walked out from under the north eaves of the grove and we led the horse down by the well under the elms. In the shade we took down the harness and give the horse just a capful of water. Grandpa must have been watching my farming for awhile from the edge of the grove, because then, as he wiped the sweat from Colonel’s flanks with old gunnybags he always had hanging from the windmill-frame, Grandpa said to me:
“BY God, if I was that horse I wouldn’t have done a damn thing for YOU!”
IN 1963 I was fourteen and Colonel horse had been poorly in the spring, and Grandpa had him put down at the end of June.
In the afternoon, late, after baling hay I believe it was, and before supper and chores, I helped Grandpa and we dug and dug, breaking the sod so Uncle Emmett could bucket a hole. It was to bury the horse. My Grandpa said to me:
“A Mean devil would get twenty-five dollars for the carcase — but a horse should be buried where it worked.”
I Suppose if you was to do something like that today, why, you’d get every pollution-control agency from the federal government down to the township on your neck! Jesus Christ….
IN 1964 I was fifteen and just full of myself about Barry Goldwater and was the biggest sub-adult Goldwater-stalwart in the south Minneapolis 12th Ward Young Republican Club — I was pretty insufferable. Although none of it was too far off from my mother’s family’s opinions, and so there I was yelling all excitedly to Grandpa about how the war-talk in Vietnam was alright and atom-bombs too, if need be. After all, we were just trying to use the Army to help save a lot of defenseless people from being slapped around by the communists.
Grandpa just looked at me and laughed quietly to himself. For one thing I now am quite sure that he knew full well that my atom bomb-jabbering was just a bit self-interested and, well, hypocritical. After all, I was already blabbering around the place about going to college and damned well had no interest in enlisting in the Army myself to take any real part in this fight.
Besides that, my grandpa had seen three wars in his lifetime, World War One and World War Two, and Korea. “And for what?” as he said. Now Grandpa said to me:
“YOU Know, all this wild talk reminds me of Don Quixote and the boy. You know, Don Quixote come along the road and that feller was just whaling the tar out of that kid, so Don Quixote roughed HIM up a little and told him to mend his ways and then went on his way — so then the feller beat that kid even harder!”
MY Grandpa had had five winters in a one-room schoolhouse. And he knew about Don Quixote and the boy! I believe that that old man knew as much if not more about the human nature than a whole lot of the “professional” people my age running around loose today.
Grandpa knew about Don Quixote and the boy….
IN 1965 after Winston Churchill died, there I was that summer declaiming to Grandpa how wickedly Reader’s Digest had slandered the World War Two Prime Minister. They had put out some story that when Churchill was First Lord of the British Admiralty in World War One supposedly he’d let the RMS Lusitania cross the North Atlantic several times with her holds just stuffed full of dyanmite and ammunition. It was so that if some German U-boat did take a poke at her she would be sure to blow up and sink for sure. A lot of Americans would get drowned and this would drum up American support for war with Germany. I was scandalized because of my English father and I had grown up admiring old Churchill no end. When I was really small I liked him because in the photos he looked so much like Dr Dolittle! And so now I hopped on top of an upside-down CenPeCo five-gallon oil-bucket and did one of my squeaky teenaged Churchill-imitations:
“‘What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. If we can stand up to it all will be well, and the future of mankind may enter upon the broad sunlit uplands of a happy future. If we fail, the whole world, including all we have known and cared for, will enter upon a new dark age, made more sinister and protracted perhaps by the lights of perverted science. Let us brace ourselves to our duties therefore and so bear ourselves that though England and its empire last for a thousand years, men will still say: “this was their finest hour.”‘
“So you see, Grandpa, I can’t believe that a guy like Churchill would have done something like THAT!”
My grandpa said to me:
“I Don’t doubt it a damn bit.”
THE Summer of 1967 of course I was all fired up about starting in at Augsburg College, up in Minneapolis.
I had an idea at that time that I was going to become a pastor in the Lutheran Church.
My grandpa asked what I was going to study in college and I said that I thought I would major in history. I added shyly — I still remembered his jokes about “a belly like a minister,” even though Grandpa was a regular churchgoer at Grace Lutheran, in old Mankato — that I thought I would like to become a pastor.
Grandpa said to me:
“OH, History! Why would you STUDY to do all that damn stuff all over again — you should go into science!”
GRANDPA Was a man of the late-modern age, born as I have said in Cleveland’s first term. He died in 1968 and lived his entire lifetime in modernity. Those people had all come over after all to get away from “history.”
My grandpa asked me what kind of a degree I was going to get, anyway? I chirped back at him, “why I’m going to get my BS from AC!”
“THAT’S Alright, by God — when you get done with that you can come down here then, I’LL teach you the rest of the alphabet!”
WHAT Comes next will be hard to hear, I know, but in the summer of 1968 Grandpa picked me up at the Mankato Greyhound bus-depot on South Second Street, by the Post Office, and while we waited for my Great-Aunty Leona to get done shopping in the old National Tea store (the same building on old North Front where the state unemployment office was located for many years), I talked about how shocked we all had beenat Augsburg College, by the shooting of Bobby Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King before him that spring. I was nineteen that summer after my freshman year.
My Grandpa said:
“SOMEBODY Should have shot the sonofabitch!”
THAT Was the year my grandpa was dying of cancer. Melanoma. And I do not pretend even now to know all of the fear and anger that went into those words, or the very real hatred Grandpa felt for some things going on in his lifetime. All I know as an historian is that there is no single cause for anything that happens or is said. In history you learn that real quick –so-called “monocausal” explanations are the bunk!
In his cruel remark I suppose there was a lot about the real worthlessness my grandpa felt about any kind of “government” as he had experienced it in his life. And now underneath it all I have no doubt there was all of the immense profound horror at the nightmare he faced. And the inexpressible grief he had — at having to leave all he had worked all his life to build….
IT Rained all summer that 1968-year — some of you may remember — it rained three inches a week all summer long and then on the night of August 7th it rained nine inches all in one downpour and the trees all slid down the Glenwood ravine in old Mankato. So I awoke way late the next morning and wondered “my God, why didn’t they wake me for chores?” and looked out the upstair window and wondered “my God, why is the barn upside down?” and got my glasses on — and sure as Hell it was the reflection of that gray-painted, double-walled, triple-trussed barn my grandpa had built in 1927 — reflected in the flood, nine feet of water in the yard!
I looked up to where my grandpa had his, you guessed it, Ford “Futura” parked up by the driveway onto the county road, and there was my Uncle Emmett’s Fairlane. As I looked down I saw out from under my grandpa’s Falcon there come some dirty, cat-size, filthy white rat-looking thing with a long bare tail:
The first possum I ever seen in these parts. I suppose she was drove out from under some stump-pile out in the pasture by the floodwaters….
I went down and poled myself around the yard on a floating gate-section on a folding chair with a manure-fork, like kind of an admiral of the inland sea. Grandpa sat in a folding chair up by the house at the foot of the walk with his shoes off and the legs of his striped bib-overalls rolled up to his knees, with his white feet and legs in that dirty muddy water. My grandpa said:
“IT Feels pretty good, like when I used to fish for bullheads off the trestle when I was a boy.”
AND It was only then that summer that he told me the only other two stories he ever did, about his dad.
In the old country my great-grandfather from Smaland, like many of the Smaland-people, was a stone-cutter. They were too poor, the land was too poor, to farm anything except their own gardens. So he went to an institute or school back there in Sweden to learn something about farming in America!
With him there were some rich men’s sons. They were going into the cavalry and now they had to learn about the care and handling of their horses, because hitherto they had been driven around in carriages and waited on by footmen and didn’t know a thing about it. Now they had to learn about the care of their horses, groom and curry them, watch for signs of sickness and above all they had to take care of their hooves, pick up the feet and make the sure the shoes were right, frogs of their hooves clean and all of that. These kids from town didn’t know anything about it and there was my great-granddad with the horses, patting down their legs and picking up their feet, cleaning hooves, all just like nobody’s business. One of these town kids, officer-cadets, hollered out:
“Ja, landsmann — hyr mycket du hrosset liftan?”
Hey, countryman, how do make these horses lift up?
THEN When my great-grandfather got here he took a train from New York to Chicago, intending to join up with his brothers up on the other side of St Cloud, MN. In those days around 1880 train-fare was something like a dollar, New York to Chicago, but it was still a lot of money even though fares recently had been cut and he had to get off the train in Pennsylvania. He was walking down the road in the quarry-country and come to a stoneyard, he asked the owner if he could have a “yob.”
The feller laughed at him, “how much do you want me to pay you for this ‘yob’?”
My grandpa said that his dad said:
“‘MISTER, That’s all right, you can pay me whatever you want — just so I can write to my wife and tell her I have work.'”
WE Have no idea what people before us have done — but I think any child blessed who’s lucky enough to have people telling it stories as it grows up, and that child is as blessed as many times over as it has people telling those stories. Because every story teaches all about life in one go.
My grandpa taught me all about life one time in 1956, my first summer on the farm, I was seven….
You know the first time he ever said “I should SLAP your ass!” I missed his grin and was kind of scared. You can see why for yourselves — at the end of my yuppie-lifetime of grabbing everything and all the money I can get whether it’s mine or not, I give you my word my hands today are only half as big as Grandpa’s were from working and milking cows by hand all his life. So when he talked about ass-slapping I worried and mentally tried to figure the match between widths, Grandpa’s palm and my fanny.
But he had other ways of letting you know when you weren’t acting right.
IT Was at the Blue Earth County Fair in Garden City.
My Great-Aunty Leona had given me a quarter, I was seven. Off I went with the neighbor boys, Gordie and Bill, six and eight years older than me. Off we went down the Midway and there I took my first definite steps on what Pastor Johns at Grace Lutheran Church always called “the thorny path of sin.” There was a deal there where you could win a canary in a cage — maybe you’ve seen it, clear glass saucers on tincans on end over a chickenwire screen, and of course the plates are just soaked and slathered in Wesson oil so your job is make one of the nickels land in a dish so you can win a canary. Well I threw my quarter away and went back to my aunty — she told me then, “this is it, Buddy!” — got another and threw it all away too….
I think this all must have been an omen and I sure don’t mean to make out by telling you this stuff today that I think I’m any better than than anybody else, but anyway I went back to Leona and started to whine:
“Please, Leona…I WANT a quarter…give me MORE money…!”
The grownups were all sitting on benches in front of an outdoor stage waiting for some show to start, and all at once my grandpa said:
“BY God, that’s enough.”
HE Stood and caught me by the scruff and tucked me under his arm head backwards like a little pig, and he walked out of the fairgrounds past all those gaping people with their faces hanging out. I give you my word that after the first three steps I kept my head down. In the parking lot he put me in the backseat of his 1954 blue-and-white Ford and drove all the way back through old Mankato to the farm north of Eagle Lake in complete silence.
And in that shaded parlor, blinds drawn against the heat of the day, I sat nervously on the edge of the davenport and peered nervously around the corner of the kitchendoor out where that old man, seventy years old, changed back into his work-duds. As he tied his shoes on his bare feet and stood to go outside, he said:
“BY God, I never been through something like that in my life….”
WELL Pretty soon I got lonesome in the house and tagged along outdoors to where he was at work in the barn. Pretty soon I found and handed him the hammer he’d lost in the straw when he went to hunt nails for nailing up a hay-manger, and by the end of the afternoon we were friends again when my great-aunty rolled in with her pals from the fair….
WE Were pretty much Swedes there at home on the high ground between Eagle Lake and Madison Lake — with my Swiss-German Great-Aunty Leona and her sisters and brother playing the more gabby Irish part so to speak. So we didn’t talk about feelings much except for being “madder’n Hell” from time to time when something or other (always more or less deliberately!) didn’t go right.
But I used to lie down beside Grandpa on the summer porch every afternoon after dinner for a nap, he showed me how to use hammer and saw and draw-knife and, in the winter at Christmas, I’d tuck in with him every night in the warm feety-smelling bedroom upstairs between flannel sheets — so I knew I was loved. You didn’t have to say every damn thing in those days like people do now….
What my grandpa did tell me whenever he figured I needed to hear it was:
“DON’T Be a damn fool now….”
THAT’S What Grandpa said.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 3 March 2007]