Off Track

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or well over a year, I’ve struggled with a story I started 4 years ago, that I felt was necessary to tell. In the review /edit process, I got off track. I wasn’t comfortable with what I thought was a finished novel late last year. It wasn’t the story I really wanted to tell.

To any and all who read parts or all of my concept draft: Please don’t consider my comments a slam on your technical efforts to help me do a better job. I know each of you had my best interest in mind, and the derailment was my doing. I just didn’t recognize the intent of your input – you had no intent to change the story – you just wanted me to do a better job. So, thanks for your efforts – I’ll keep what you meant in mind as I rewrite.
When I realized my consternation about the work, I feared my original work was lost. I needed it for reviewing and focusing on my original intent. Fortunately, I’m somewhat of a digital hoarder. It took nearly an hour of searching my own variations on what I thought my original title was, but I found it on an external hard drive.
I also found some of the first reader’s non-technical comments that inspired me to continue the work.

SS – I was captured by the story so much the first time that I thought it was a true account, even though the preface stated that it was fictional. I was surprised how strongly the narrative captivated me again. It also helps and is enjoyable to read a book that describes places and things that I am familiar with.
RB – I can’t put it down…will finish “Recovery (chapter)” last 10 pages and go to sleep. This is so plausible and readable and will appeal to a much broader audience than old spooks.
SM – You have woven a fascinating story with a wonderful twist. I love those kinds of stories. You have built the locations and characters rich and full, so I can see them as I read. Your dialogue flows naturally, not forced.
NO – The characters seem real. My favorite is Annemarie. As far as I’ve read so far there is a Christian thread but, it’s not preachy.


S

o, it’s back to work with renewed energy. I’ll try very hard to not get derailed again.

Nothing New

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othing is new under the sun or in an American winter. December storms move east and north from the Mid-South and Mid-West and inundate upper New York and New England.

A soldier is delayed on the road to Boston’s Logan International Airport, but his flight is already delayed by snow. The delay turns into cancellation and the soldier sleeps on a bench until the next available flight to Chicago.
O’Hare is snowed in while he waits for his flight to Minneapolis. He sleeps on the marble floor near other soldiers delayed on their flights to other places. After arriving late at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport, he catches a shuttle that slips and slides its way to the intercity Greyhound station.
All busses are delayed until daylight the next day and the soldier sleeps in a coffee shop booth until he is displaced by paying customers in the morning. The four-hour bus ride to his central Minnesota home town takes six hours on the snow drifted roads.

The ten-hour trip from Boston to his home town for Christmas leave takes 3 ½ days. Later a three-day train ride to Ft. Lewis, Washington, takes five weather-delayed days.

The soldier was me, the year was 1956.

Cold as…

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orth Dakota is famous or more likely infamous for bad, worse, and worst winters in memory. Many who grew up there have at least one story about how bad the winter of … was.

Rolvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth tells about pioneer times and how the Hansa family copes with life in the Dakota Territory. Hansa’s wife insists that he brave a storm to get a minister for a dying neighbor, but he gets stranded in the blizzard and dies alone on the unforgiving prairie.
My immediate ancestors survived the winter of 1917-1918 – one of the worst in North Dakota documented history. North Dakota’s coldest temperature, -60 was recorded at Parshall in February 1936. Van Hook, near Parshall, is the setting for some of my winter memories. With a few exceptions, because we did not understand the seriousness of the situation, the winter of 1948-1949 was fun for kids. That was the winter of the mid-west hay lift when military C82 Flying Boxcars dropped hay to feed the starving cattle in what was called Operation Hay Lift.
School being closed for long periods of time was more enjoyable for us than for adults. Many nights we could not see through the blowing snow to the light on the utility pole next to the road. During some of the stormy days we could not see the outhouse only a hundred feet towards town from the house. These were good enough indicators that it was not safe to send children to school.
One day the blizzard stopped and there was not a cloud in the sky. Even early in the morning, looking outside was painful to the eyes. I was twelve and knew about snow blinding. Two of my younger school age brothers and I were summarily pushed out the door with scarves over our faces and our lunches in mittened hands. Can you imagine how welcome the clear still day was for my widowed mother who was weather locked into a three-bedroom house with seven children under the age of thirteen? Among other things, we hadn’t been able get to the outhouse, so we filled buckets in the cellar. During any break in the weather Mother would dig open the outhouse door and dump the waste on top of the frozen pile in the pit of the three-hole facility.
We got to the school and found it closed. I read the note on the door, “Pipes frozen – closed until further notice.” A news broadcast that night told us that the temperature in some parts west central North Dakota had been -53 degrees the previous night.
We returned home and saw that Mother had managed to get enough of the hard-packed snow away from the outhouse door, so a boy and a bucket would fit through. I was the oldest boy so guess what! She didn’t have to tell me to close the door and latch it when I was through dumping the pails of waste. I remember one time earlier in the winter (or it could have been the winter before) when the door blew open and the snow filled it up to the seats. I had to shovel it out.
I heard a story that outhouses in towns were always placed towards the town so if someone missed in a winter storm, they would end up in town instead of on the open prairie like Per Hansa. Our house was at the edge of town and our farmer neighbor tied a rope from our back porch to the outhouse, so we could guide ourselves back and forth in the dark. He told us that having the rope was also a good idea in case of the arrival of a sudden blizzard while someone was indisposed away from the house. But that winter, our rope-line was buried like Mother’s car with only the radio antenna showing above a drift.
That Christmas my six siblings and I got two sleds from an anonymous giver. We had our share of hand me downs even at Christmas, so we were extra excited because the sleds were new. The Trailblazer sled was long enough to seat two boys in tandem, but the Flexible Flyer was just a one boy sled.
Before a new sled ever came into our possession we had learned that the paint or last year’s rust had to be removed from the runners and the runners had to be waxed for efficient sledding. One of the best ways to accomplish the removal of paint or rust was to belly flop the sled few times on the gravel road. After that, we coated the runners with paraffin from Mother’s canning supplies. Sometimes we would hold a small piece of that wax with jam or jelly still on it near the stove to soften it and then chew it like gum. I liked the crab apple jelly or orange marmalade the best.
The surface of the snow was so wind whipped that its crust was thick enough to support a full-grown man. It was perfect for sledding. We usually went sledding where the road had been cut through an ancient river bank just a few hundred yards outside of town. The drifting snow had filled the cut, so the original shape of the bluff was restored. And, it formed a cornice on which we dared each other to slide. It was wind packed so well that it never did break even when the older boys took our Trailblazer to test their mettle. They asked to use it, but more often than not we had to bargain to get it back. It was a really good sled.
All of the roads and even the railroad had been closed for some time so there was no way in or out of town except by horse and sled. Nearly every local farmer had both but not many in town were so equipped. It would not have made much difference anyway; the nearest ‘store bought’ supplies were probably in Minot about 70 miles away. I remember hearing that some of the townsmen borrowed a horse and sled to get what was left of the coal in abandoned lignite mine just outside of town. Lignite is the lowest of coal grades, so people did not use it because more of it turned into clinkers than heat. However, when the good stuff ran out, it turned out to be a suitable substitute for no fuel at all.
On a day when the wind was not blowing, my brother and I took a grocery list to the store. The store shelves were nearly empty and had none of the items on Mother’s list. We did have home canned vegetables and our farmer neighbor kept us in eggs and milk. We made butter for our homemade bread by whipping the cream that rose to the top of the raw milk.
I don’t remember listening to a Minot radio station, but I do remember WCCO Minneapolis and KFYR Bismarck. Every evening one or the other would have Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Captain Midnight, and other shows designed to stir the imagination of boys my age. This was good listening for those long, cold nights. I was fascinated with the latest news about the Berlin Airlift too.
That winter, Van Hook, North Dakota, was snowed in for over thirty days. When school was out in 1949, we moved to Minnesota where frozen lakes became part of our “That winter was so bad that…” stories.

 

Winter of 1935-1936

 

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he winter of 1935-1936 is very well documented, but I wasn’t born until October of ’36.

Mother told me about the Missouri River at Sanish, ND, being frozen over. Getting into Sanish from Grandpa Louis L. Larson’s farm on the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation was by farm sled pulled by a team of horses. Winters typically left travel anywhere off state or federal roads nearly impossible by motor vehicle in rural areas (even in the modern times of the late 30s). Better-offs had sleighs like one would see on a Christmas card. Farm folks kept runner sets ready to put on their farm wagons. Mother said that it was easier for Grandpa to drive the team over the frozen river than to go overland into town.
Mother was already working at the hotel in Sanish, but with no easy way to get home and back (only an hour in this century, but 4 or more hours, even on the frozen river shortcut back then). So, her first Christmas away from home was in 1935.
I’m not sure if my dad (they weren’t married yet) was back in Sanish at that time or not, but in August, 1935, he was at a CCC camp in New England, ND. The Aug. 8, 1935, Tent Town Tattler says, “…considering making a deal with Johnnie Benson’s girl so that she would let the banjo plunker off for practice once in a while…”
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Bismarck, ND, 45 below, was set on Sunday, Feb. 16, 1936. However, at Parshall, just 21 miles east of Sanish, it was 60 below. Langdon, ND, 245 miles east of Sanish was below zero for 41 consecutive days that winter. “In spite of the weather,” Mother recalled, “there was still a Saturday night dance at the hotel where I was working.” She told me there was seldom a canceled Saturday dance.
During one of our discussions about weather when I was a teen, she told me that the only good thing about those times was that there were no indoor plumbing pipes to freeze. However, it’s hard to imagine having to thaw snow for water, then boiling it to kill any unseen critters. And, having to use a frozen outhouse for… well, you know.
It wasn’t just the cold, but the fact that it lasted into the planting season. Crops in the region didn’t have a chance to set roots before the record hot summer started. My grandparents Larson gave up trying to till the North Dakota dust and moved to MN.

Winter of 1917-1918

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he winter of 1917-18, particularly in the prairie states, was bad by any definition; in fact, it was one of the worst recorded. One report said that it was unusual because of the length of time the record low temperatures persisted and the size of the area impacted. It goes without saying that I didn’t experience it, but my grandparents did. I certainly don’t know all the facts, actually, what I think I know is supposition from letters from that time and second party tales from my preceding generation.

The Midwest weather only added to the economic impact of America’s involvement in a European war. That winter, Grandfather Bjorn Benson, a college educated man, found the only work he could. He was hired as a bookkeeper for Kimball Lumber Company, LTD, in Kincaid, Saskatchewan, 270 miles north west of their Charlson, ND, home. That would be less than a day trip by road in the 21st century but a very long trip during a severe winter, even by rail. Grandmother Josine and nine children were necessarily left to fend for themselves, because, like most small towns in North Dakota, there was no income in Charlson.
Grandpa Bjorn wrote On November 27, 1917: “…Surely a funny neighborhood you are in when chickens are changing roosting places overnight. (Other people were hungry too.) Better watch your coal and wood closely and try and have it securely locked up. I wish I could be there and help get them rails split, but wishing won’t help any. Better get something easy for the boys to chop as I suppose there is no one to get to chop wood. …”
Agnes (17), Dorthy (16), and Alfred (15) were away for boarding high school, and Joel (13), Arne (11), Nels (9), Elizabeth (8), Arvid (6), and John (3) were at home.
On November 30, Bjorn wrote: “…I enclosed a check of $200\00 issued on the 1st State Bank of Charlson in your favor. Pay up your note of $100\00 and the rest is as you command. Just had to dig up $42.33 to the Austin Bank for overdraft. There is another $50\00 short that I never figured on but I must have made a mistake in forwarding my balance. I figured we’ll have enough money out of my November salary to get home on provided no bad luck pops up….”
December 3: “…You mention Christmas presents. Well dear I really don’t know what to say about that. I presume we will likely again receive gifts and then not to give makes it look so bad. But you know Dear everything is so high during these war times that money does not seem to amount to anything when it comes to buying things. You know better than I do how you are getting along down there financially than I do and if you feel that you have a little cash to spare for to buy gifts for outside of the family do so. Will leave this to your good judgment and what you do will be all right with me.
I planned it this way myself that by sleeping here in the office I can save at least $20 per month which will help me out just that much in providing rail road fair and expenses coming home for Christmas. I at times feel that I should not go home for Christmas but I again feel that it is my duty to come home and I am afraid it would be almost unbearable to stay away all winter. … It will cost me between $50 and $60 which is a lot of money but what is money good for if we can’t use it while here as long as it is rightfully spent.
December 10: “…We have experienced some very cold weather 35 below zero one morning and Saturday we had an awful blizzard. And it is storming again to-night….
In the series of letters, Grandfather Bjorn also responds to what could be Grandmother Josine’s telling him about the poor health of the children and her own difficulties. Bjorn did get out of Canada, but not directly home. He found a banking job in Montana, but was back in Charlson where he registered for the draft at age 43.
Things did turn around, and quite well – Bjorn’s 1921 federal tax return shows gross income from salary, investments, and farm activity of $8,834, but with deductions and deductible farm expense, they didn’t have a tax bill. Average annual personal income in the United States was just over $1,500 in 1921.
But, good fortune after surviving the physically and economically devastating winter of 1917-18, left Josine a fairly well-off widow with eight dependents. How that changed is not well documented.