CHAPTER ONE / WORLD WAR II
You can't educate a boy overnight; it takes years. What Diggie learned in school didn't add much to his education. He was largely "self taught". In Diggie's his case 70 years have gone by since he was a boy in school, looking at airplanes through the window. He never was the brightest penny anyway. Now you wouldn't recognise him, overweight, with wrinkles and grey hair. But he was Diggie a long time ago. Picture a little boy, five years old, standing in the middle of a graded dirt country road in his striped engineer work clothes and bare feet. His hair was red and his skin was freckled. He was learning to be a farmer.
Today, Diggie has been happily married to "she who is always correct" over 50 years. Their children, two girls, are now middle aged and off on their own and Diggie has retired. Where'd the time go.
When he got out of the Air force in 1958 he began working as a salesman, then sales manager, then minor executive, and finally a burned out minor executive. This process took about 30 years, then he quit to go fishing. He got bored quickly and purchased a small engraving business that produced trophies, awards, nameplates, small signs and badges. 12 More years went by before he retired again.
Looking back and counting his time in the U. S. Air force, he had worked 54 years and was never unemployed. Diggie was me, and this recollection begins when was about 4 years old.
Growing up, my mother wasn't around much as she and Dad worked to put food on the table. From the beginning it was my Grandmother that made me clean my ears. World War II was going strong and it became my job to tend the Victory Garden in back of the garage. My Grandmother showed me how to pull weeds and make things grow. The garden produced carrots, radishes, and the best weeds in town. By the time I reached about 4 years old it was obvious that I drove my mother to distraction. She was a nervous type with a quick temper. My father always said it was because we were too much alike. The fights became serious and something had to be done about it. Just then my Uncle Warren and Aunt Erma agreed to take me to their cabin on Lake Splithand for the summer. One thing led to another and I spent each summer there for the next ten years.
The cabin became my summer home and my mother celebrated. The cabin was not as crude as Thoreau's place at Waldon Pond, but it was close. It had an ice house behind the cabin next to the woods, and an outhouse in another direction but also next to the woods. I don't remember Thoreau's place having either.
During the first summer I got the lay of the land. By the second summer I had learned to pick berries, shoot a 22 gauge single shot rifle, steer a tractor, fork hay and sneeze, catch fish with a cane pole and bobber, and swim off the end of the dock. Uncle Warren rarely yelled at me but I could sure tell when he wanted to. It was his job to watch over me, and it wasn't long before he gave me a list of daily chores. Gradually I learned about the thick woods surrounding the lake and the critters that lived there. Soon my day was filled with farming, fishing, walking trails, and becoming familiar with large and small animals.
It was Uncle Warren's routine to work summers to help Joe and Rose Koch. They had a farm about a quarter mile through the woods behind the cabin, and then another 3/4 mile on the post road toward Grand Rapids. Not too far but a good walk for a kid.
Joe and Rose looked after the cabin during the winter months, and Joe cut ice from the lake and filled the Ice House. In return, my Uncle plowed, raked, cultivated, disked, and pulled stumps - and more or less pitched in wherever Joe needed help. I was still pretty young when I first rode with him on the tractor. Sitting in his lap I could steer and work the hand throttle. By the time I was six I could (just) reach the pedals.
At the end of the workday we returned the tractor to Joe's barn. Then, usually, while Joe and my Uncle sat on the fence and had a cold beer, they sent me with the cow dog Shep out to find the wandering cows and bring'em back to the barn for milking. At first Shep and I had problems getting the cows to move toward the barn - but once they started it was easy. You know, cows are not very smart. If you can get a couple going in the right direction the rest tend to follow.
Joe and Rose came from Germany direct to the farm. Within a few years Rose learned passable English. Joe never did. He grumped and growled and pointed and butchered our language. He's the one that first called me Diggie. Neither he or Rose could handle "Dicky".
When Joe and my Uncle went into town they rode in front. I rode in the open back of Joe's beat up old pickup truck. I wasn't allowed to stand up (ever) no matter how rough or dusty or wet. This was before pickups had hydraulic brakes and springs, and every bump was felt hard. The graded dirt country roads were corrugated with ruts and bumps, and were they ever dusty. I had to hang on tight as we bounced along and watched the huge rising dust trail behind. When stopped the dust blew right on me, and by the time we reached town I was filthy dirty. First thing on reaching Grand Rapids, Joe would pull in to a gas station. Uncle Warren would wet a rag and clean my face while the gas man guy filled the tank. Then the three of us drove down the block and parked near the cafe and went in for a bite or a beer. As the conversation with the other farmers got deeper and deeper, my Uncle would give me a quarter and send me down the street to a place where I could get a supply of candy to take back to the cabin.
At the end of each summer I was returned to civilization and my family in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. Compared to Grand Rapids it was a huge city with sky scrapers like the Foshay Tower and the Sears building. There were electric street cars all the way out Excelsior Blvd. World War II was on the newspaper front pages every day. American boys and men anticipated being drafted anytime soon. They knew that America would be joining within weeks and they wanted to help. Then in 1940 my Dad fell off the roof. He slipped on the snow and Ice up there that had arrived in late October. He really did a job on himself. He returned from the hospital in a solid, thick, plaster cast from his neck to his knees, and laid flat on his back in bed for two months. Meanwhile, my pregnant mother all of a sudden had to rush to the hospital. The day before, on November 1st, a blinding blizzard began and by November 2nd it covered all of Minnesota in several feet of snow. It was bitter cold. The streets were extremely slippery, dangerous and almost impassable. The hospital was about 10 miles away. Dad was flat on his back. The baby was definitely coming.
The blizzard was at it's peak. My mother was frantic, but Uncle Warren saved the day. Somehow, he arrived, picked up my mother, and drove slipping and sliding to the hospital. The snow was so thick he had to hang out the window and follow the street car tracks. There was as much snow in the car as out of it. He could see no more than 10 feet ahead in the blinding blizzard - but they made it in time and Dr. Linquist delivered my sister Diane on November 2nd.
On Sundays Diggie sometimes stood on the back seat of his father's 1936 Chevy as (recovered at last) Dad treated the family to a spinning ride on a frozen lake after church. Great fun! In the winter Diggie had to wear his mittens with a string from one to the other running through his sleeves. He learned the hard way about Minnesota snow and slush, rubber galoshes, and slippery ice. He started Kindergarten at five and when he was in first (or second) grade and school let out for weekends, he and his gang of friends explored the swamp land a few blocks from home. They built a fort a couple hundred yards out in the swamp where they could keep their treasures and hide from the world. The swamp was his favorite place. Melting snow and spring rains left a network of channels and canals all through the swamp and mostly hidden by mounds and tall grasses. They water iced over in winter but in the warm months it was perfect for navigating in an old cement mixing tub they had found. The flat bottomed tub was ideal for three or four guys to pole their way to adventures all over the swamp.
On one such voyage Diggie and his friends found a carton of Smith Brothers Licorice Cough Drops. The carton contained hundreds of sample size little boxes containing two cough drops in each. They put the treasure in the tub and floated it back to the fort where it could be saved. The fort was on an small island and very well hidden. The gang had to re-discovered it every spring by following a special path that began at the "cat tree" standing at the edge of the swamp. From that tree they could walk toward a church steeple in the far distance across the swamp. The path was hard to follow. Their feet got cold, muddy and wet. But they always managed to find the fort.
The "cat tree" deserves an explanation. Most of Diggie's gang lived close by at one edge of the swamp. They met at the end of Kipling Avenue, usually to play war games, and sometimes they went into swamp. To do so they had to walk along the side road until they reached a large tree, sight the church steeple, and follow a trail off into the swamp. One day they were walking to the tree when one of them noticed a burlap bag tied to a lower branch. As they got closer they could tell the lumpy bag contained something. Once there Diggie could just reach it with his Daisy BB gun barrel. He poked at it but still couldn't tell what was in it. One of the guys, Raymond Rierson perhaps, climbed the tree and went out on the lower branch until he could reach the rope that tied it. He managed to undo the knot and the bag fell to the ground. It smelled something awful.
They opened the bag and found two dead cats and lots of worms and stink. The cats must have been dead a long time. They quickly decided to dig a hole and bury the bag. They made a shallow grave, rolled the bag in, filled the hole and trotted down the path into the swamp. Jeez, did those cats ever smell.
The fort was built into the side of a small hill. The boys dug down and in, then planted two posts at the corners on the down side. Next they nailed a two by six in a notch cut in on the top of both posts and nailed slats of scrap boards to the top with the other end laying on the upper hillside. They covered the roof of boards with layers of tar paper scraps found at the same construction site as the boards, and on the roof they laid a layer of sod with some grasses. The boys stopped at this point and used the open fronted fort to play and get out of the rain. This set up lasted for a couple of years. The fort was hidden behind a shield of tall grasses. No stranger found it.
Under the roof it was big enough to hold four or five of the gang and their assortment of treasures, extra boards, push poles and paddles. Once down in the fort there wasn't quite enough room to stand up straight but they didn't mind. It was hidden and private and the roof didn't leak - much.
As Diggie and the boys played in the swamp, the World War II was what everyone talked about at home. The time period was 1939 to 1943 or so. It was on the radio and in the headlines of every newspaper. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 when Diggie was five years old, and he remembers it. At that time his parents had a friend down the street who was a real Bird Colonel in the Army and thus the hero of the neighborhood. He was also the source of the officers cap often worn by Colonel Diggie, and the Lieutenant's cap with it's one solid gold bar. Todd's father was an Army Lieutenant and fighting someplace in the Mediterranean area so it was he who usually wore the Lieutenant's cap. Diggie's Dad was 4-F because of his poor eyesight but he got the Colonel's Cap because he owned the BB gun.
In the their suburban neighborhood no body liked F.D.R. He was ruling like a king and it wasn't appreciated. They all complained a lot, but F.D.R. he was the leader and when push came to shove, everyone supported him; Republican or Democrat, liberal or whatever. It was confusing but the boys all thought every American was united behind F.D.R. and the government, and supported the war effort 100%.
Most families they knew had a victory garden out back, saved their kitchen grease for the butcher, carefully cut back and metered their coal, and their car had a had a green, red or yellow gas rationing sticker (A B C) on the windshield. Butter disappeared from the store shelves. They figured it was used in the munitions industry and they could do without. Soon they everyone was introduced to white margarine that came in a package with a little red pouch of coloring. If the coloring was mixed into the margarine it was supposed to become the yellow color of butter. Well, it really didn't. Besides that, it tasted like pure lard.
Everybody had savings bonds. Diggies parents couldn't afford them but his Uncle could. His Uncle bought war bonds for Diggie at Christmas, Easter and his birthdays. He paid something like $17.50 per bond, which, at maturity was worth $25.00.
The European war ended. People left their homes and businesses to swarm in the street and celebrate. Diggie's Grandmother gave him a large metal spoon and a metal sauce pan to bang on, then sent him into the street where the entire neighborhood was blowing horns and whistles, pounding on drums, and dancing and singing as loud as they could. For Diggie and his pals the end of the war was one heck of a lot of fun.
CHAPTER TWO / THE FARM
Truth be told, Diggie and his mother just didn't get along. When he was about 5 years old it was decided that he should spend summers with his Uncle and Aunt at their lake cottage in Northern Minnesota. They had a neat property nestled in dense woods and located about twenty feet from the shore of Little Split Hand Lake. Their cabin was a rustic clap board cottage with a screened porch at one end. Inside there were two tiny bedrooms and a kitchen with a checkered oil cloth covering a big round table. There was also a narrow area next to one bedroom that contained a couch, end table, and a battery powered Silvertone radio.
The entire cottage was about 600 sq. ft. not counting the front screened porch.
There was no indoor privy and the outhouse version was about 50 paces away from the cabin. There was a well worn path from the porch door to the outhouse at the edge of the woods. It was a "two holer and smelled pretty bad.
Another path from the porch step headed off behind the cabin to the ice house. In the winter Joe Koch came and cut ice from the lake. He hauled it to the ice house and stored it away layers separated and covered by sawdust. The ice house was quite a good size and contained enough ice to last the summer months. Big bricks of ice were used in the kitchen ice box, and that was where fish and game were kept.
It was his Uncle that had to keep Diggie busy, no small job when living on a remote farm country lake with only three other (usually vacant) cabins widely spread apart around the lake shore. Not a kid in sight, and the nearest neighbor cabin was about a quarter mile away through dense woods and underbrush.
Joe and Rose Koch ran a large nearby farm with lots of acreage. Several of their planted fields abutted the thick woods behind the cabin where Diggie liked to roam. His Uncle and Diggie took care of those near fields for the Koch's. They helped clear them of rocks and stumps and get them ready for planting. While his Uncle was plowing or whatever on the tractor, Diggie investigated the woods and learned to pick berries. He also was in charge of the water pail and tin dipper that had to be kept in the shade of a tree with the afternoon's packed lunch.
Diggie sometimes road the tractor with his Uncle, and now and then he was put in charge of the throttle rod. After a couple of summers Diggie knew how to drive the tractor. He was only five or six years old when his Uncle first traded jobs with him for a spell. Diggie did ran the tractor while his Uncle sat under the tree with the water and sandwiches.
He and Diggie would take the car from the cabin and through the woods and past Joe's fields to the country dirt road. It was about 4 miles to Joe and Rose's farmhouse where they would leave the car and take Joe's Farmall tractor back to the fields. While his Uncle worked the tractor, Diggie kept the watering can and galvanized dipper cool under a shade tree, picked a container of blueberries at the edge of the woods, and rode the tractor with his Uncle. Back and forth. Forth and back. He would cultivate, disc, plow and whatever. When Diggie was on the tractor he rode on his Uncle's lap, steered and kept the speed set right.
At the end of the day they took the tractor back to the farm, Rose often had some food from her little garden for us to take back to the lake for dinner. Depending on the time, we often hung around while Joe, Rose, and Angus's Uncle milked the cows. At first the only job Angus had was to muck out the barn while they milked. As he grew up Angus took over the separating machine as well. Cream in the small cans, milk in the large one.
In his spare time, Angus had great fun teasing the bull, trying to ride the calves, chasing the chickens around the farmyard, and slopping the pigs. Rose had to chase him out of her garden regularly as tried to steal strawberries, carrots, radishes, and whatever else looked good at the time.
Typically it was dusk when Angus and his Uncle returned to the cabin on the lake. His Aunt always had dinner ready to eat (after the "men" cleaned up). The Coleman gas lantern sat mid table with its two bright white gas bags going strong enough to light the entire inside of the main room. Outside of a couple flashlights, the Coleman was the only light in the cabin. After dinner they hooked up the batteries to the Silvertone and dialed it to the strongest station. They listened as they played checkers or rummy at the table before retiring early.to be continued