Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

November 22, 2003

Forty years ago today...

Forgot to mention that my parents lived in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination. Dad was attending seminary there. Mom worked downtown. Dad came down at lunch-time for the motorcade. Mom sat on his shoulders facing away from the procession and held up a mirror from her purse to get a better view of Kennedy. Five minutes after the motorcade passed by them, they heard the sirens.

I arrived on the scene the next August 15th. I was a week early.



The 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination has brought about an inevitable burst of interest in the man and the shooting which ended his presidency. The Kennedys are the American royalty, it seems. Our proclivity for annointing presidents who are the child of privilege and who seem to view their ascension to the presidency as their natural right always puzzles me.

Old Minnesota DFL politicos aren't quite so fawning in their admiration of Camelot. They remember how Kennedy beat Humphery in the primaries of the election of 1960. Old Joe Kennedy took no chances; Humphery's entourage frequently showed up in a town only to find that all the hotel rooms had already been rented, even though they were empty. In West Virginia, nasty leaflets about Kennedy's Catholicism purporting to be from the Humphery campaign appeared everywhere on the eve of the election. Humphery had nothing to do with them, but they made him look bad.

After trouncing Humphery, Kennedy came close to naming Minnesota governor Orville Freeman as his vice-presidential candidate. In fact, Kennedy offered the job to Johnson only as a sort of formality; nobody expected Lyndon to step down from his powerful position in the Senate to take one of the worst jobs in politics. But, he did, and the rest is history.

After he won, Kennedy called Humphery in and said, fix us up a legislative agenda. Humphery was ready. When Humphery first came to the Senate in 1949, he had introduced 59 bills, most of them very big ideas--such as the Civil Rights Act, the Peace Corps, the first Nuclear Arms Limitation treaty, and so on. None of them passed until Kennedy's administration. Humphery didn't get much credit for having authored those ideas over a decade before. He was truly a legislative giant, but Kennedy and Johnson have gotten the credit (or the blame) for what was in essence Humphery's program.

Perhaps Humphery was too Minnesota-nice for presidential politics. After Johnson named Humphery his VP, Humphery had to put up with endless personal humiliations from the president, including one instance where Johnson insisted that Hubert deliver a speech to Johnson in his living room at the ranch. Hubert was reluctant, but Johnson wouldn't give up. So Hubert started his speech and Johnson promptly went and sat on the toilet with the door open for the remainder of the speech. "Keep going, Hubert, I am listening." Can you imagine?

As for Kennedy, accounts of his personal behavior make Bill Clinton look puritanical. He was a true cad. He learned his behavior from his father, who would bring girlfriends home with Rose in the house and expect her to treat them as guests. Drugs. Mafia connections. General sleaze. Kennedy's administration had it all.

And, of more concern to a historian, Kennedy was, for all his intellectual brilliance, an incompetent administrator. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was caused in large part by confusion at the White House. Who's in charge of what? Nobody really knew. Eisenhower, a supremely intuitive administrator, noticed this and called Kennedy on the carpet at Camp David after the Bay of Pigs. Set up a hierarchy, Ike said, and stick to it. But Kennedy seemed to enjoy the chaos. He probably modeled his administration after FDR's, forgetting that FDR had the talent for managing the chaos he created when he confused his subordinates and set them up against each other.

And then Clinton modeled himself after Kennedy, in more than one way, creating the same sort of administrative chaos, and other distractions. Both seemed to think they represented the intellectual elite and that their brilliance, as well as that of the Harvard-types they brought in with them, would cut through all resistance. Neither ever figured out that old Ike was the real genius in running a White House.

November 21, 2003

New gold tooth

At 4:30 today, I will have my second gold tooth glued in my mouth. You'd think that would be a painless procedure, but I have learned not to assume. When I got the last gold tooth put in last spring, that glue sent arrows of pain up to the top of my head and down to my chest for a couple of days. Things settled down, and now the tooth is a good, quiet soldier, lined up with the rest of the molars on daily chewing duty. But, I wonder what will happen today when that glue gets dabbed on and starts its bonding.

My teeth have been a mess since I was seventeen and got hit in the face with a baseball trying to break up a double play at second base during a Legion game in Ada. Since then, my molars have been giving off chips, usually in response to a mouthful of Shredded Wheat. The incident covered up the fact that I was the starting pitcher in the game--the only time I had ever thrown off a mound--and gave up three runs without getting anybody out. But it wasn't worth the teeth problems.

My teeth have strange timing. I matured late, so lost my teeth about four years behind everybody else. I lost a molar in 9th grade algebra. The next day, I lost another. In algebra class. The day after, a third. In algebra. The teacher rolled his eyes, thought I was staging the whole thing, but I had the evidence in my hand.

Years later, I was visiting a cousin in Seattle, eating some shredded wheat, when one of the molars fell apart. Bad timing. Had to chew on one side for the rest of the vacation. But two years later, I was visiting the same cousin and his family in Seattle, eating granola this time, and another molar fell apart.

Plenty happy to have a pair of shiny gold molars which should last until I expire, at which time I suppose my survivors will be handed them in a little zip lock bag, along with the bill for $9500. Tell him to keep the teeth and knock $1000 off the bill, I say.

Wait, there will be no $9500 bill. Haul me to Fargo for cremation, and spread my ashes on some flower bed. Bone meal provides much-needed phosphate.

Nothing like an impending visit to the dentist to move one's thoughts in a morbid direction!

November 20, 2003

Lunch at the Red Apple

The Red Apple cafe in Mahnomen has always been a legend, at least in my own mind. After taking our family Christmas photo in 1976 (I was in 6th grade) at a photographer's in Mahnomen, we went to the Red Apple where we watched the final game of the 1976 World Series. (I know, it always comes down to baseball.) The Reds beat the Yanks in four games. For the only time in my life, I was pulling for the Yanks. Billy Martin blew his cool in the later innings and put on a show of kicking dirt, throwing things, screaming--stuff managers don't do anymore.

The Red Apple had a hint of discolor to its reputation within my teetotalling family (at least in my foggy early memory) because it was known as a place where people from Fertile escaped if they wanted a little bump with their meal. So, if they said, "We're going down to the Red Apple," it was as if they announced they were headed to a brothel. You just don't say that out loud in front of the kids!

Obviously, my parents didn't share that view of the Red Apple, at least by the time 1976 rolled around.

Anyway, I stopped at the Red Apple today and sat down at the counter next to the local veternarian, a man named Hoppestad, a long-time customer at the nursery. Well, my plate came--hot pork sandwich--and we both looked at it wide-eyed. It was heaping, dripping over the edge. It was so good, but it was so much.

I don't know if the waitresses think I look malnourished and tell the cook to pour it on, or what. But everywhere I go around here, my plate comes overflowing. I have even tried to order 1/2 portions, and they come just as big. My theory: They are scared that if they don't give me enough, they are going to end up featured in my column in an unflattering light.

At the meatball supper in Twin Valley a couple of weeks ago, I know darn well that everybody else got two meatballs (they were huge), but I got three. Everybody else got one or two dollops of potatoes, but I got three. Gravy ran over the edge of the plate, as usual.

I told Hoppestad this. He got a big laugh out of it. He encouraged me to write something in my column about a local restaurant, unnamed (because it doesn't exist), which is a little shy on the portions--and see what happens to the helpings I get then! Gosh, I am tempted.

A cozy little bookstore in Thief River

Held a booksigning in Thief River Falls at the Northern Lights bookstore. The Northern Lights is a store which is staffed by people who are debilitated by mental illness. All the books (and there are plenty of them) are donated. The prices are low. The staffers are kind and have a fun camaraderie.

A steady trickle of people came through the door. Sold 15 books. That is about right for a signing at a small bookstore. Had some enjoyable conversation both with the staffers and with the customers. One couple had driven up the Mt. Lemmon highway near Tucson and had pie just because I had written about doing the same thing!

The store, which has been open for 12 years, has provided a springboard for many mentally ill people to get jobs with other stores and companies. Helping with the books obviously provides the staffers with a sense of dignity. They worked diligently and took pride in their task.

Earlier in the day I ran into a man in another town, a gentleman I have known for years, who told about his new job in the mental health field. Hinted that he had suffered from mental illness himself for years, which I didn't know. He seemed thrilled to be back working after being forced out of his high-stress corporate job about ten years ago. His marriage broke up at the same time, and he moved back home.

All of the sufferers of mental illness I met today shared one trait: A gentle sweetness and a hint of naivette. And a sense of humor. I liked them all. And I admired their obvious courage.

November 19, 2003

A big loop

Took a circular route today selling books. South to Twin Valley, Lake Park, Detroit Lakes, then up to Park Rapids, and finally to Bemidji. Dumped 50 of them off at various stores. Oddly, the drugstore in Park Rapids sells the most books of them all. Odd because I am not in their paper, I don't know many people there, and PR is 80 miles from home the way the crow flies. The way the crow would have to walk would be even farther.

But what a beautiful drive! From Detroit Lakes to Park Rapids on MN Hwy 34--it is hills, lakes, birch, pine, spruce. Same from Park Rapids to Bemidji, with a few more open fields. I get out there so seldom. There is almost never an excuse to go east, since all commerce and doctor's appointments are west in Fargo or Grand Forks. But when I do take the time to go east, it is an almost exotic thrill. The roads curve. The woods are deep.

Lakes country lacks the dominant presence of farming and industry that one finds in the ever-so-flat, ever-so-fertile (yet ever-so-sterile) Red River Valley to the west. The east has cabins. Nooks. Ponds. Mysterious roads that disappear into a little hole in the woods. Little shacks belching smoke.

Ended up in Bemidji, a once quaint town which has exploded with retail expansion in the past five years. A Wal-mart supercenter, Target, Home Depot, Office Max, and so on--all brand new, with an outlet mall on its way. Bemidji had an effective local mafia which kept out the chains for a couple of decades, but their grip on things has apparently loosened. I guess Wal-mart played hardball with the Bemidji boys, paying $15 million for the piece of property where they built the Supercenter. How did Wal-mart find a seller willing to risk ending up in the bottom of Lake Bemidji wearing concrete shoes? Well, they bought the site of the State Department of Transportation headquarters--and built the agency a spanking new headquarters up the road aways. Message? Don't mess with Wal-mart.

Actually, I'd rather deal with Wal-mart than those Bemidji boys.

Met a friend for supper at one of my favorite restaurants, the Union Station in Bemidji. It is famous (to me, at least) for its spinach salad with hot bacon dressing. The recipe migrated from Stats, a restaurant next door, with the chef. Took me a while to discover where it went.

Alas, the service was awful tonight. Each waitron thought the other had our table and when I finally howled, neither apologized--and the host, a cocky college-aged twink, just stared at us as if it was our fault that we hadn't been served for fifteen minutes.

Easy to forget the delay once you get some food in front of you, but oh man does lacksadasical service burn me! Especially when nobody takes responsibility.

But over all, a good day. Who can argue with 48 degrees in November? And if you read this in the next couple of hours and are in NW Minnesota, look outside! The stars are dazzling tonight. Orion is starting to show in the lower eastern sky, one of winter's comforts. I am of the opinion that when we have a clear, clear night in Minnesota (1 in 20, or so) you can see just as much or more than you can see at the Kitt Peak Observatory at 9,000 feet in Arizona.

November 18, 2003

Aunt Olla, cont.

Aunt Olla called tonight. She has a bad cold. Colds stick around longer when you are 92 years old. But she's got plenty of chicken soup on hand, good thing. And echinacea. And zinc. And vitamin C. I had forwarded a letter to her from somebody who had once been her student in country school, so she called about that.

Olla was quite a teacher. She taught in a country school near Lake Park for six years, and it was her favorite. Some of her students from that school still visit her at least once per year. She's outlived half of them, I think.

She caused a few scandals at that school. For one thing, she used school funds to buy toilet paper, an unheard of luxury at the time. For another, she was pretty lax with discipline. As long as the students were productively busy, they didn't have to be quiet or sit in rows.

They put on constant productions. They wrote plays and performed them. They did musicals. They sang old songs. They danced. They drew. The kids played rough games at recess, and Olla played right along with them.

One of her students went on to make a lot of money owning hotels all over the world. After he made his fortune and Olla had retired, he would call her in the middle of the night as he flew over the US in his Lear jet. He had a portrait painted of Olla, and had it hung in the entry to his office complex in Las Vegas. Once, he picked up Olla in his jet and took her to dinner somewhere on the Iron Range and brought her back before bedtime. Well, it was 4 am. But if you haven't gone to bed yet, it's still before bedtime.

"Poor guy," Olla said once. "He struggled so with school."

The loyalty those students have shown Olla is amazing. How many people party with their third grade teacher when they are well into their 70s?

Two years ago, about seven of her students brought Olla up to the gardens for our open house in August. Well, Olla had envisioned them all having coffee and donuts together, a nursery tradition. But it was late in the afternoon and some of them decided they would prefer BBQs and pop. "They won't listen to me any more!" Olla said, in not-so-mock exasperation that her dreams of them all having coffee and donuts together were shattered.

An echo of Grandpa, Aunt Olla's brother. Planning, planning, planning. Every detail. When we had family gatherings in his later years, Grandpa would call from the nursing home (when he wasn't feeling good enough to come) and tell us which verses to sing of the table grace. Or he'd have some new verses typed up we had to pick up at the home on our way.

When Grandpa died, the pastor recieved a copy of the funeral sermon he was expected to deliver in the mail a day later--from Grandpa. The pastor said that might have shocked him if he hadn't gotten so many funeral sermons from Grandpa before! The last one was just the final revision.

They don't make 'em like that any more--or maybe they didn't make many like that in the first place.

On the road again...

Traveled to Crookston and Grand Forks today, peddling books. What a beautiful day to be out for a drive. Got so taken up with the weather that I forget half the things I was assigned to pick up in Grand Forks. So, I had better go somewhere civilized tomorrow, too. Maybe Detroit Lakes. Or Bemidji.

Ate at the China Moon in Crookston, a popular lunch-time venue. Ran into friend Sheila and her son, so we ate together. The only thing that prevented me from eating too much was the length of the line at the buffet. By too much, I mean a third trip. Two trips is okay. I like the "take a new plate each time" rule. It's good to start from scratch each trip. Makes me feel like less of a glutton.

I am waiting for the other shoe to drop on my dietary habits. Too many buffets! So many good meals cooked by relatives! I am sure at some point I will not be able to eat like I do without adding padding, but it hasn't happened yet. About this time each year I can stop wearing a belt without my pants falling down to my knees. I suppose if I just let them fall down half-way, I would at least be fashionable. Couldn't walk, but I would be cool. What a relief to be too old to be cool.

At stores today, everybody was very nice. No grouchiness at all, even for a traveling book peddler. Maybe it is because the sun was out. I notice the difference in other people's demeanor when the skies are sunny. And in mine!

November 17, 2003

A man the neighbors probably think is crazy...

A few weeks ago, Ken poked his head in my office to say somebody was here to see me. He had a twinkle in his eye and an impish grin which told me he had something up his sleeve.

In came a little old man in dirty clothes several sizes too large. He had few teeth and grey stubble. His crumpled, limp seed cap was piled on his head like dirty laundry.

I asked him to sit down. He sat on the edge of his chair and grasped his knees. In halting yet rambling sentences, he asked me about a plant I knew nothing about, and which we don't carry. I looked it up on the internet and found some information. His appearance and difficulty speaking probably caused me to speak to him more loudly than I should have, like those who shout at people in wheelchairs, unconsciously assuming that one disability must lead to another.

He absorbed what I said about the plant, and spit it back to me in semi-gibberish. "You're saying...its...not herb...some sort of medicinal...something Indians used..not good here, though? Not here. But its an herb. Medicinal. I see. Not hardy. Okay."

Gradually we drifted away into alternative medicine. "Doctors...chemicals...chemo..will kill you. Bad stuff...but nobody argues..." and he shrugged. I knew what he meant.

He went on for twenty minutes. I had no problem figuring out that he was opposed to the federal debt, to credit card debt, to people who get things without working for them. We were poor way back, he said, but we had something that kids don't have today. I nodded, but he didn't let me interrupt. He could sense my sympathy with his views, and it warmed him up.

Finally, I got up out of my chair. He said, "I see that you might agree with me!" I said, here's a book I wrote, read it and see. I signed it for him, and he walked out the door mumbling thanks and lots of other things under his breath.

Two days ago, I got a letter from him thanking me for the book. It was handwritten, on a small piece of paper, in a handwriting that was as garbled--and beautiful--as his idiosynchratic way of expressing himself in speech. The writing was wall-to-wall on the page, top-to-bottom, then up the side, and over the top margin again. The text looked like hundreds of interlocking circles overlaid, one slightly to the right of the next. But it made sense. It was a heartfelt thank you which soon drifted into the problem of debt, and the crazy way people spend money these days, and for what, and then the government spends more than it has, too, and where is this all going? He thanked me for inscribing his book because it made it special to him.

I get letters from cranks every now and then who read my column and for some reason think I would be willing to write about Zionist conspiracies and such. But this was different.

I suspect this man is known to his neighbors, at the very least, as an eccentric. But after he was in my office for a few minutes, my urge to run went away to be replaced by a feeling that I was in the presence of an original and fragile person, perhaps a crazy man to some people, but somebody more interesting than four dozen suburbanites any day of the week.


People put the darndest notes with their orders for books. An order today from a man in Detroit Lakes included a note which said that he especially liked my article about Fenway Park, since his father took care of the plumbing at Fenway for 35 years. This gentleman "grew up in the bleachers" at Fenway, he said, and misses the park a great deal. What a childhood that must have been!

Another wrote a long letter about saving barns, and a third told about his barbarian (his term, not mine) relatives who tore down the old buildings on his parents' farm.

AUNT EDE called today--word of the entry below about her elk steak reached her, and she just had to clarify that she has a little help with making her elk steak (hunted by Uncle Orv in the mountains of eastern Oregon, near Uncle Don and Aunt Lois' ranch) soft and tender. Al the butcher pounds the daylights out of it, she said. So, that's the secret. But Ede's spices don't do any harm, that's for sure.

Another good old church story rolls in...

Email correspondent BW sends another fun story of an old church that was kept up through the efforts of a dedicated former parishioner:

My step-mothers ninety-something great aunt in a little town near Jamestown lived next door to the little abandoned Catholic church of her childhood.  For years she had mowed the church yard when she mowed hers and washed the windows and tidied up.  Then came the day when the building needed paint.  When my dad and Clara arrived at her house for a visit, she first demonstrated her dandy new self-propelled lawn mower and then they went inside for lunch.  In her porch she had 15 gallons of white paint, one of them clearly had been tapped.  She had contacted the men of the congregation (who were in a spanking new building) and asked if they might spare the time to do the job.  She got no response, so she decided that it was up to her.  Sure nuff, there was a big ladder laying alongside the church and a pretty good area quite high up had been painted.  I never did hear what transpired after that--hopefully the younger people were inspired (or shamed) into helping her, but she was determined that it would be spiffed up and she was quite pleased with her effort to that point. 
How do we get some of these spunky, dedicated old ladies to run for Congress? 

True! Well, we had Coya Knutson for a while...

November 16, 2003

Hunting report

I promised a complete report on the success of my high school buddy and his suburban friends who hunted our land this weekend. Nothing much to report. They were shut out. All they saw was a moose cow and her calf. But they had fun, and we ate a lot of good food that they brought up. They also treated me to elk steak at the fancy casino restaurant on Saturday evening. A little tough, but very good. I have had elk before--but that was prepared by my Aunt Ede, who could make shoe leather taste tender and good if she had to.

This week's newspaper column

Maps are one of my favorite forms of literature. Or, perhaps they are art. The walls of my house are plastered with them. Maps are more pleasing to the eye than most art you can buy nowadays, and they often come in handy.

For years, my mother collected the maps out of the National Geographic. They accumulated in the dough box in the living room underneath the old magazines. I didn’t figure she’d miss them, so about fifteen years ago I stole them all and put them on the walls of my house.

I run to the maps when I am on the phone with somebody who has been traveling. It is fun to find out where they’ve been and figure out how they got there. I think I’ve used every map on the wall, including the one of Africa, in some phone conversation or another.

Reading a map revives memories of places one has traveled. A map can also stir one’s desire for adventure. More than once I have picked out a place on the map and traveled there just for fun.

I am intrigued by what lies north of us. If I weren’t so busy in the summer, I would like to drive around the north side of Lake Superior. I would like to see Hudson Bay. I have no idea what’s up there, and I would like to find out.

Our house was frequented by missionaries when I was a child, friends my mother and father made while in college and seminary. When the missionaries came to visit while on furlough, it wasn’t long after the supper dishes were cleared that Dad would pull the big world atlas off the shelf.

The maps inspired the missionaries to tell stories. This road is nothing but a mud trail. That city can only be reached by plane. This is the place where we were attacked by bandits. There is the lake where millions of flamingos gather each fall.

The maps inspired more interesting conversation than the missionary’s slide shows, which seemed more designed to demonstrate that they weren’t just having adventures but were actually converting the heathen.

My grandfather often spent the long winter evenings poring over the atlas. He and Grandma traveled widely in the western United States and Canada. He liked to retrace their steps on the map in his later years, telling stories about each place.

Last winter, I bought a huge map of Arizona. I have no wall big enough for it, so it sits in a tube in my office. When somebody comes along with a nifty town they’ve discovered there, I spread out the map and the conversation drifts lazily from place to place.

With the onset of winter here in Minnesota, I am starting to look at maps with greater interest. Let’s see, should I barrel straight down to Arizona where it’s warm and sunny, or should I take the long way around and see some new country?

Travel is work. I talk a lot about taking back roads and taking it slow--but in reality, I usually take the shortest and fastest route from point A to point B, eager to get where I am going and unpack.

Yet, the more I read the map, the more places I see off the beaten path that look like they might be worth a visit. If I do take the slow road, its because a map made me curious what the slow road would look like.

Maps are valuable, and not only as a way of finding one’s way around. As mundane as they may seem, maps can broaden one’s horizons and fire one’s imagination as effectively as a good book or an inspired work of music.

One church saved

A woman named Judy Kotrba from near Thief River Falls called me earlier tonight with a heartwarming story. The church near near her home farm northeast of Grygla has been closed for forty years. It was falling in disrepair. When Judy's mother was dying, she said, wouldn't it be nice if the church was restored to its original condition.

Well, after her mother's death, Judy's family got to work and restored the place with the help of many relatives from all over the country. When the job was finished, they told a few people that they were going to have a gathering there to celebrate.

They expected to have little more than a family reunion, but when they drove up there were cars and campers everywhere. Three hundred people showed, and they had a grand time. They passed the hat and raised a lot of money for maintainance of the old building.

That was six years ago. They have had a similar gathering every two years since. A couple of years ago, an ailing relative mentioned that it would be fun to have an old-fashioned Christmas program there. Once again, the word went out--only by word of mouth. Judy made bars, thinking there would only be a few people--but eighty showed, and they brought hotdishes, salads and roasted chickens. They had a feast, and when they sang Silent Night at the end, there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

I asked Judy about the problem of liability insurance. She scoffed, "That is such a farce." When the church closed, somebody had it redesignated as a shed. After her mother died, Judy found out by looking through her things that her mother had been paying the insurance on the "shed" for decades out of her own pocket. She was living on Social Security at the end, but still paid the insurance. Nobody in the family knew of it.

So, that is the story of how one church building remained standing. Let's hope there are many more!

Tell-all books

A member of the household staff of former governor Jesse Ventura has written a book "to set the record straight" about what it was like to work for the Ventura family in the governor's mansion. Jesse spent hours watching TV in sullen silence. His wife Terry tried to get trooper escorts to go to the Mall of America for sales. Son Tyrel held wild parties in the mansion. Jade was a well-behaved sixteen-year old.

How do people who write these books live with themselves? Do they think that the money they are paid is worth the permanent loss of their integrity? I am reminded of the staffers who write gossipy books about the British royal family. What scum.

There are some very good books by staffers of the prominent. The memoirs of Lord Moran, Churchill's personal physician, come to mind. Reading his account after reading Churchill's own memoirs gives great insight into the personality of the great Prime Minister. Moran had the decency to wait until Churchill was dead to publish the memoirs--which I think are valuable. For instance, Churchill likely suffered a heart attack while staying at the White House during the war. Moran knew he was ill. He also knew that Churchill would hear nothing of resting. So, the two of them sort of swept the heart attack under the rug. Moran held his breath, concealing the gravity of the situation even from Churchill, and the prime minister soldiered forward without anybody knowing better.

Moran's book was decent and sympathetic. Most tell-alls are not. They constitute a betrayal of confidence and trust. Betrayal in exchange for cash is a low form of human behavior, and it seems to be getting more common all the time.