Monday, May 31, 2010

Ralph and Avis and Harold – A War Story

It started out seeming like a bit of a sad story - but I had no idea just how sad it would turn out to be.
I was transcribing a pile of newspaper clippings, and happened upon the story of a Korean War soldier, Ralph, who was missing in action.  I will only refer to the people involved by their first names, as it is entirely possible, no, probable, that at least some of them are still living.  Ralph had married Avis, a 15 year old girl, before enlisting and being sent to Korea. Just a few months later, Avis received a telegram from the Defense Department saying that her husband was missing after a skirmish.  In that days’ mail she would also receive a letter that her husband had written the day before his disappearance. 
How sad – but it wasn’t the end of the story, by any means.
Several weeks later, Avis received another bit of a surprise.  Her husband, who was captured by the Chinese, had scribbled a note on a piece of war propaganda, and was able to send it to his friend in the same squad.  It read, in part -
"Dear Jack,
I'll write you a few lines to let you know I am safe and okay.  I was captured by the Chinese the 30th of Dec.  They treat me very good.  They also give me plenty to eat.  They try to feed me according to what I am used to eating.  I would appreciate it if you would write to my wife and let her know I am okay as I know she is worried."
I needed to know the rest of the story – was the note really from Ralph?  Was he ever released, or was he killed by his captors?  I checked an online database, and his name appeared in a list of Korean War casualties.  A sucker for happy endings, it was a bit disheartening for me to see his name there, but there was also a note that he was returned to the military in 1953.  What - his body?  Him?   What???  I had to know more.
The next article I found detailed Ralph’s return to the United States, being met by a drove of reporters as his boat docked.  An excerpt follows, edited by me to remove identifying information:
“The young army corporal back from 20 months in red captivity stared glumly into space Sunday when he was told his wife had remarried in the belief he was dead. ’I had never heard that until you told me,’ Ralph said after a newsman informed him of the marital mixup. Veins stood out on the young soldier’s forehead and his blue eyes glistened as a news story was read to him saying his wife, Avis, had married Harold last March. Then, the brown-haired corporal, wearing an almost dazed look, joined several of his buddies who were taking pictures of each other.  It appeared a desperate but futile attempt to be nonchalant about a world turned upside down.”
Oh my.  I don’t know which of my emotions was stronger – the heartache on behalf of the young soldier, or the disdain for the reporter who apparently valued the shock of the story over any sort of decency and empathy for Ralph.  I had to find out what happened – regardless of the late hour, there would be no sleep until I knew.  Did Harold step aside?  What did Avis want?  Would Ralph be able to pick up with Avis where he left off? 
The next article I could find was a month later, stating that Ralph had been granted a divorce.  It was also disclosed during the hearing that Avis was “expectant”, and of course, it was not Ralph’s child.  The grounds for the divorce, the newspaper said, was Mental Cruelty.   It sounds to me like a case of Mental Cruelty for everyone concerned, doled out by life itself.  This is where the newspaper articles appear to end, but, of course, not where the story ends.   There’s more, lots more, no doubt, but it’s out of the public eye, as it should be.  I can only hope that Ralph, Avis, and Harold all found some semblance of peace with the situation, and were able to get on with their lives.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From Pedestrian to Motor Vehicle Operator: My First Car

Subtitled: “If you don’t like my driving, stay off the sidewalk.”

I guess no matter what generation you belong to, as teenagers, we all felt the same as we gawked with pride at our first cars.  No matter what the old pile of nuts and bolts really looked like, what the eyes saw was filtered by the heart, with a touch of hormones, and the end product was a sleek, mean, speed demon that would be the envy of all those pimply-faced pedestrians as it zipped past.

I was a mere fourteen years old when my father found a car in the classified ads of the local newspaper.  I wasn’t sure why he decided I needed a car at that tender age, but wasn’t about to argue.  We went over to see it, and my heart stopped.  There it was.  A 1967 Ford Galaxy 500 hard-top convertible, in Robin’s Egg Blue, with black interior.  It instantly became the car of my dreams, and after discovering it currently belonged to one of the most popular older girls in school, I was certain it was not my destiny.

I spent the next four months behind the driver’s wheel of that incredible piece of machinery, savoring every blissful moment, even if it was locked in the garage the whole time.  I had a countdown going until my 15th birthday, when I would get the keys and permission to drive back and forth to my friend’s house, six blocks away.

I spent the next two years practically living in that car – I bought an 8-track tape player, my friends sewed Robin’s Egg Blue and Black pillows for the back seat, and the car even had a name, which I won’t share.  Ok, it was “Growler”.  We spent our Saturday afternoons driving around our little town seeing who else was driving around our little town.  Everyone pitched in a buck or two for gas as they got in the car, and oftentimes I made enough money for gas for the whole week, plus a Diet Coke or two, but I never told them.

I’ve had many cars in the 35 years since Growler was retired, and I’ve not been quite that excited about any of them, nor do I anticipate it ever happening.  For it’s not just a First Car, it’s a rite of passage, and it’s One Per Customer.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Virtue of Perseverance

Scan the front page.  Flip it.  Scan the back page.  Put it back in the binder and take the next page out.  Repeat.  I am up to Scan #245, about 2/3 of the way through the first of two binders of papers.  When I have them all scanned, I’ll start reading and transcribing.  I can hardly wait.

You see, these are the writings of my great grandmother, Virta, who had the beautiful lace curtains in the old farmhouse.  These journal entries span from 1956 to 1967, and as I scan each page, I catch snippets of her life – all of our lives – surfacing for just a moment, to tease me about what comes after the scanning.

From a trip to town to Montgomery Ward’s, to a vacation in Oregon to see one of her sons, it’s all here.  Illnesses… the destruction of my grandparents’ house by lightning… company stopping over… their retirement from the farm… it’s all come past my scanner this evening.  And I know what’s coming – the birth of their first great grandchild (me) – grandsons going off to war – and the death of her husband - and so much more interspersed between the major events of her life.

I’m tempted to stop the scanning and just dive right into devouring it, but I saw what happened to my mother when she did just that – we didn’t see her for a week!  And as much as I want a scanned copy of this journal as a backup, I know if I read it before I scan it, the scanning won’t happen.  So I will not read it until I’m done, which will roughly be another 500 scans.  Quite frankly, I’m not very enthusiastic about this part at all.

In the meantime, I’ll keep scanning, checking to see who’s signed on to chat, scan more, read some blogs, scan another page, check email, etc., and try to remember that each scan puts me one scan closer to reading.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lefse – Breakfast of Champions


I don’t usually blog about my food.  But anytime lefse is made, eaten, or even passes through my mind, I think of my ancestors – I can’t help it.  As I’m rolling out the paper-thin sheets of potato-based dough, I wonder if my grandmothers through the generations have felt that ache in their upper arms, before remembering that they probably did this much more frequently than I!

As I put each round sheet onto the griddle to cook, I wonder if my grandmothers were fascinated by the characteristic brown splotches created in such a haphazard pattern.  My guess is, if I were able to ask them, they’d look at me like I was crazy.  Making lefse, to them, was probably in the same category as doing laundry or sweeping the floor. 

I wonder how they served their lefse – if it was a part of their evening meals, as we use bread; or if they enjoyed it for breakfast, as I often do, or how they prepared it.  Plain?  Brown sugar?  Butter and cinnamon-sugar?


Whether I’m making lefse or eating it, it’s the one time that I feel very close to the Norwegian women who have come before me.  No amount of genealogical research compares to doing what they did, and having made it a part of my family’s lives.  It’s as if my grandmothers, Agnes, Lise, Anne Johanne, Marie, and Alfhilde, are somehow there with me as I do the work and savor the product.  A little part of them lives on.


Lori, of Genealogy and Me, wrote a great post this week about interviewing the old folks – I’d like to take it a step further, and suggest you learn the customs and family traditions as well.  If not for my grandmother, Lisa, who took the initiative to talk about these things, even when I was too young to really appreciate it, and my Aunt Mary, who taught me to make some of the treats she enjoyed as a child, these traditions would be nothing more than a vague memory for me, and non-existent to my children.  This Mother’s Day, let’s be the women who pass down our traditions.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Harriet Van Brocklin – Doing God’s work on the Prairie

Nestled between cornfields southwest of Freeport, Illinois, sits a lasting reminder that Harriet Van Brocklin was there, and that she had faith.

Harriet Searle Van Brocklin
It takes a special kind of person to be a pioneer.  Harriet’s husband, Conrad, was that kind of person, and while he stands out in his community’s history, it’s clear that Harriet was his kindred spirit in that respect.  Not just any young woman would leave “civilization”, as well as her family, and take her two babies to what was at that time the western frontier, and live among Indians and wolves.  But Harriet did, in the spring of 1836.  She was taking herself, and her children, to an area where there were no doctors, no neighbors, and what you had was what you brought.   For some time, the Van Brocklins were the only settlers in Florence township, in sparsely settled Stephenson county.  It would be a year and a half before another settler moved into the area.  How lonely she must have been.

But Harriet had brought faith with her.  She was converted as a child in New York, and her relationship to God was vitally important.  They held their own religious services, and had public services as early as 1846 in an old log school house near their home.  In 1852, Harriet organized a Methodist congregation, and by 1860 it was part of a circuit of 5 churches with two ministers.  In 1866, the Van Brocklin church building was completed, built on land donated at least partially by the Van Brocklins, with money raised by subscription.   In more recent history, services were still held every other week, sharing a minister with another congregation.  Harriet has long since gone, but her work lives on.

Van Brocklin's Day
On Yellow Creek they built a Church
And enemies said, "'twill be left in lurch,"
For the waters were high and the debt was large,
And God, they said, was against the charge.

But the day was bright and the sun shone clear,
And a pontoon bridge they crossed without fear;
And though the feet slipped the heart was true,
And they walked on ice to see the thing through.

The Elder preached well of Christ and love,
And carried our thoughts to temples above;
And when he stopped, Brother Best did write,
And soon the debt was out of sight.

Yea, more than asked, with a hearty will,
Because our God their thoughts did fill;
And thanks to friends and God we'll give --
Praise here, and then go home to live.

May angels often come and see
Repentant sinners bend the knee,
And new-born souls begin the song
They sing in heaven's assembled throng.
--J. Wardie
Freeport, Feb. 20, 1883