May 30th is the 150th anniversary of celebrating and remembering deceased veterans. It began in 1868 as Decoration Day to commemorate the soldiers slain in the Civil War, and later those lost in the Spanish-American, World War I and World War II. As a child in the 1950’s, we celebrated the day in quaint ways that seem almost relics from another century. I remember Decoration Day (as we called before 1971) as a more solemn and communal occasion than it seems after changing its observance from a fixed date to the end of a three-day weekend on the fourth Monday in May. Along the way, we may lost much of the communal solemnity.
Decoration Day always occurred during the most glorious weather southern Minnesota can offer. A time to honor the dead at a season of new life. The trees were leafed out, wild phlox and geraniums bloomed in the woodlands, orioles and meadowlarks trilled from the fencerows and cottonwood groves. This day meant two things important to this schoolboy: my little sister’s birthday and the last week of classes before summer vacation.
My memories of our small-town Decoration Day celebration began with the sale of buddy poppies in the Rexall drug store, the Ben Franklin dime store and other shops. Veterans of World War II sold them to raise money for comrades disabled in conflict. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t explain why I bought one except everyone expected me to. Like going to church, I did it because–well–everyone else did it. It was part of being an American to wear this icon of remembrance and sacrifice.
On this day, the merchants of Janesville hung out flags and there was a parade led by the VFW honor guard carrying the American flag followed by the drill team marching along, the sun gleaming off their chromed helmets and the barrels of the Springfield rifles on their shoulders. Behind them came VWF Women’s Auxiliary and the high school band playing patriotic songs for this solemn occasion. If there were speeches, I don’t recall them but they weren’t things boys remembered.
Decoration Day meant a trip to the Janesville Cemetery on a knoll a mile east of town. In the days leading up to the celebration, families raked the ground over the graves, mowed the new grass and decorated the headstones with flowers (real or made of paper), and small American flags. Our family went to the cemetery with Aunt Faith to visit her father’s grave. On the headstones I saw many familiar surnames, the ancestors of my classmates and school chums. Even as a boy, I felt a palpable but still inexpressible link connecting me to those lying beneath the headstones.
Almost every man I knew when I was a boy had served in World War II in some capacity. Uncle Walter, our neighbor’s brother, lost an eye fighting the Japanese. Our dentist served in the cavalry (without horses), mother’s cousin was a B-24 crew chief and my uncle Rob ran an Air Force fighter communications network in China.
Mrs. Wegge, our sixth-grade teacher, prepared us for Decoration Day. I recall learning the first stanza of the famous poem, In Flanders’ Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian soldier amazed to see the brilliant red flowers blooming in the hellish no-man’s land churned and pocked by shells:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The poem’s elegiac meaning made little impression on me until the summer of 1961, after I graduated from high school. I visited Flanders in Belgium as part of an air cadet exchange with other NATO countries. Belgium is one tenth the size of Minnesota and a battleground during much of its history. Flanders lies north of Brussels, Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, lies just south of it and Bastogne, a major battle of World War II, lies to the east. During that month, our Belgian Air Force hosts showed us historic sites from many wars. We laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown and our contingent sat atop the hull of a tank destroyed in the battle for Bastogne, sixteen years before. I returned home from Belgium amid a national mobilization for conflict with the Soviet Union over access to Berlin. War seemed very close.
The grief of the Civil War, the Great War and World War II touched virtually every American community and nearly everyone knew of a family that had lost someone. Congressional declarations of war and shared sorrow once mobilized the nation into a common effort. For 30 years, compulsory military service gave young men a common and transformative experience and every family a direct stake in going to war or opposing it.
John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” has lapsed with time. The abolition of the draft and reliance on a wholly professional military has made serving one’s country an option, a choice but not a shared responsibility. I fear this change has made us numb to the conflicts ostensibly waged for our protection. And with this disconnection, we may lose our understanding of Memorial or Decoration Day as a time of comunal remembrance.
People who knew my father often said I was the ‘spittin’ image’ of him. And there was some truth to that. We walked with similar gaits, we were similar about the eyes, though his were blue and mine were brown. Beyond that, however, we diverged. Dad was an extrovert while I enjoy solitude as much or more than company. Since the advent of DNA tests, ‘spittin’ image’ takes on a new meaning.
For a long time, I ignored the offers to send my DNA to the genealogical company to learn about my ancestry. My family tree is well-documented back to England in the 1630s. I recall my shock and disbelief when I discovered my father’s earliest ancestor (Abraham Newell) and my mother’s, (John Livermore) arrived in Boston on the same ship. They were English Puritans fleeing the persecution of Archbishop William Laud. They must have become acquainted during their three-months voyage before landing in Boston and going their separate ways and intermarried Puritan descendants in New England and New York. The last immigrant to marry into my family came from England in 1814. My parents married in 1941, uniting two families who voyaged together 305 years earlier.
I gave in, ordered the kit, spit into the tube and sealed the sample inside its mailer. Why am I spending $79 for this? I wondered. What can it tell me about my ancestors that I don’t already know? I sent it off, confident of the results: a preponderance of British DNA with soupçons of French from the invading Normans and maybe a drop from the marauding Danes.
With surnames liked Searle, Christie, Livermore, Baldwin, Cook, Eliot, Stewart, Smith, Wheelock, Wood, Douglas, Taylor and Warren, I had no doubts my family originated with the English and Scots. Searle is one of the commonest of English names–like Anderson in Minnesota. My extended family tree included only one set of Dutch ancestors and that one very recent. We came from what was called ‘good Yankee stock,’ a phrase better fitting the bull of highland cattle. What they meant was, we were white Protestants from Britain or maybe the Netherlands.
Six weeks later, when the email with my results arrived, I opened the link to see a colored pie chart before me. Things aren’t always as they seem and neither am I. A large lemon wedge—41%—said West Europe (France, Netherlands), an apple green wedge—19%—said British (English, Welsh and Scottish), and a gray wedge—40%—said ‘Other.’ That’s me? Not what I expected!
And what’s in the ‘Other?” That category included 18% Irish, 11% Scandinavian, 7% East European and 2% (possibly) Italian. In the State of Minnesota, it’s useful to claim some Scandinavian ancestry. Call it street cred. Besides, it’s good for my marriage since my wife’s great-grandparents emigrated from Norway.
What does this mean in the end? Or doesn’t it mean anything?
Regardless of what the DNA tells me about my past (and it’s fun to speculate and wonder), my identity is determined by where I live, whom I live among, the language I speak and the cultural norms that guide my thoughts and actions. You and I are creatures of the present time. Our strains of DNA entered our family lines long before recorded history when the coastlands and rivers were the crossroads for traders and raiders, for people seeking refuge from other groups or finding good land for crops. The Saxons, Frisians, Franks and Gauls settled in Britain before the collapse of Rome. Migration and trade after that deepened the mixture. The various genetic strains represent peoples and cultures that, like yeast in bread dough, are invisible but inextricably bound up with the mass of flour and water.
Unless our ancestors and immediate family lived in extremely isolated communities, it’s probable our DNA contains many contributions from varied sources over time. Were it possible (and I wish it were), you and I might look back in time to see our common ancestors and their struggles or even the moment when they received the genetic link that binds us now. I know that moment was there—is there—but we can’t see it.
How you and I see each other has more to do with culture and language than invisible DNA. Yes, we may notice differences in racial traits at first but, unless either of us is a bigot, we aren’t likely to linger for long on skin tone or the shapes of eyes and noses. We will be listening to expressions of values, ideas, opinions, humor among many other traits. You and I will know the other by our demeanor; whether we smile or glower, act kindly or harshly, with modesty or egotism. These things will quickly tell us whether we are apt to be friends.
I have no idea where my most ancient origins began. My veins don’t run with the ‘pure blood’ from any group—and it’s likely yours don’t either. Though we are free to interpret our past as we choose, there is at least one over-riding lesson we can draw from our DNA. Racial purity is a lie.
You and I probably share a relationship much closer than we may suspect because it isn’t obvious on the surface. But if we pay attention to our DNA, we can’t sustain the fiction that we are so different from others as to put them in a separate category. There is no ‘other;’ there is only ‘us.’ Our DNA makes us children of many fathers and mothers; at the level of our DNA, we are the ‘spittin’ image’ of each other.
I park my car on the county road and stand next to the mail box. The brisk November wind wipes clean the azure sky, and the sun casts sepia light on the corn stubble, grass, and leaves. From the mailbox I can see our farm in a glance. This is where I first saw the farm as a child. We called the place home for 67 years. Now, with my back to the wind, I take a last, long look good-bye.
My arrival in Minnesota is an eidetic memory, a tenacious image of a passing moment. The rain had stopped but the yellowish clay road is boggy. After days on the road, Dad stops the gray 1940 Plymouth on the shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. The lane downhill to the farmhouse is a slick rut of black mud. I sit in the back seat with my infant sister. Low clouds and pewter puddles add to the day’s gloom surrounding the weathered farmhouse with peeling paint, and the slattern barn in need of boards. The moment we stop among the dark, loamy fields and soggy stubble comes back to me. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three years old, and this is my earliest memory of home.
My mother’s family followed the sea, and Dad’s pursued business but my parents threw off city life in New Jersey to go farming in Minnesota. Seeking an independent life, they ignored parental warnings about being broke within six months, and entered a partnership with Rob, Mom’s brother. With audacious courage, my young parents invested their life savings, our future, in a farm they had never seen. They couldn’t turn back.
Our place—the River Farm–consisted of a ‘T’-shaped tract totaling 280 acres. Three 40-acre parcels ran south from the county road and intersected 160 acres of bottomland forest and marsh running east to west along the LeSueur River. Sluggish in summer, the river flooded in spring and on this day its water covered half our fields. A low ridge snaked through the woods and ended a mile away at ‘Bunker Hill’ on our south line.
They bought the farm from John Jennison, my great-grandfather, a shrewd, self-educated, small-town banker. He wore dark suits, lived in a three-story Victorian house, and signed his name with a modest flourish. He loved poetry, and I recall him declaiming, ‘Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …’.
When Uncle Rob told him which farm we wanted to buy, grandfather asked, “Why do you want that one?”
“Because we like the view,” Uncle Rob replied.
“Rob … you can’t farm a view!”
Dad learned the practical tasks of farming by asking the neighbors ‘dumb questions’ and studying the bulletins published by the Agricultural Extension Service. By ones and twos, he bought cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. We had a small tractor but for years Dad made do with reworked horse-drawn equipment he bought at auctions. When they closed the books on 1947, the farm earned $2,300 and spent $13,000. “We are really in the red,” Dad said.
We were ‘foreigners’ for a time—Yankee Easterners. In our township of German immigrants and their children, we heard accented English in phrases like ‘come here once,’ and ‘so you did that already now.’ Like all newcomers, we stood out in unexpected ways. We milked the brown Guernsey cattle of the British Isles but our neighbors kept
herds of the black and white Holsteins from Germany. Our tractor, a gray Ford-Ferguson, seemed tiny next to the neighbors’ large green and yellow John Deere’s and crimson McCormick-Deering Farmall’s. Everyone shopped in Janesville at Wiste’s Red and White Grocery, bought feed at the Archer Daniel’s mill, and sold grain at the Huntington elevator. However, on Sundays the Mittelstaedt’s attended St. John Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the Eustice’s went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we attended St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite our peculiarities, we quickly folded into a closely knit rural neighborhood. During lean, post-war years, everyone swapped labor and equipment at planting and
harvest. This unspoken mutual assistance pact lasted until everyone owned all the equipment they needed. We lived securely, and no one locked his doors in case a neighbor needed to use the phone. Three years passed before our phone arrived, a wooden box with a crank. Eleven other parties shared the line and eaves-dropping was expected. Such neighborly intimacy lasted until the 1960s when private phone lines appeared.
Dad treated farm work like a form of play, a puzzle to solve, a game to win. Possessed of a Protestant’s belief in working out his salvation, he found spiritual contentment in tilling the soil. Farming was a kind of religious stewardship. I was about six when we planted the first of many thousands of trees. He told me about the idea of stewardship and leaving the world better than I found it. The earth was like gold to him—something miraculous to be treated as reverently as sacramental elements. Planting trees and preparing the ground for planting pleased him, and he stayed on the tractor until dusk. In the gloaming, on tranquil May evenings, I heard him whistling Broadway show tunes above the murmur of the tractor’s engine, a contented man.
I was not yet six years old when Dad, short-handed at haying, asked me to steer the tractor and hay wagon. ‘Oh boy!’ This was a rite of passage into becoming a ‘big boy.’ Although I had often steered the tractor while sitting on Dad’s lap, now I would do it on my own. After he hitched the tractor to the hay wagon and loader, I sat the tractor seat, he set the hand throttle, shifted it into gear, and I steered the rig across the field. While I looked through the steering wheel to align the radiator cap with the windrow of hay, Dad forked the hay onto the wagon. I drove
tractor after that a year before I went to school and learned to read. By the age of 10, my chores included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs for sale, pulling weeds in soybean fields, and hauling manure, picking up bales, and plowing stubble. As ‘big boy’ chores mounted, I looked for ways out of them.
A creek from our neighbor’s pasture emptied into 50 acres of marshy ground at the center of the farm. The marsh lacked an outlet and the soil didn’t dry out until mid-summer. This struck Dad as a waste of good land and, like a missionary among heathens, he set out to ‘redeem’ it. During the summer I turned nine, soil conservation engineers peered through their transits and drove a line of stakes through our marshy ground. When the dragline arrived, I spent days mesmerized by its work as the huge bucket opened a mile of ditch to the river. After that, a bulldozer shaped the dirt into a levee to keep the river’s floods from our fields. Our project was but one of a greater change reshaping the face of southern Minnesota. In every township, draglines turned winding creeks into straight channels. Bulldozers erased oak groves, brush patches, potholes and sloughs to make way for more fields of corn and soybeans.
No one foresaw that adopting hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and newly reclaimed land would result in bumper crops that depressed prices for corn and wheat. To make up for lost income, farmers planted even more acres, further lowering prices. By the end of the 1950s, we and many others enrolled some of our fields in the Federal ‘Soil Bank’ program to cut surpluses. Ducks and geese changed their migration routes, bluebirds and plovers lost their nesting areas, and it’s been years since I have heard a meadowlark on the farm.
In this small corner of Waseca County, I lived among people whose varied origins and talents shaped my later life. My mother passed on many of her upper-class social graces. She had a college degree as a librarian, spoke French, and encouraged my artistic and literary efforts. Dad focused on teaching me practical skills on the farm in counterpoint to Uncle Rob, a charismatic artist whose idealism never matched Dad’s tenacious persistence. Rob left us after several years to pursue more quixotic adventures.
The Mittelstaedt’s became like a second family to us. Heinz, a German immigrant, had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his shrewd mind made good use of his limited education. Gertie, his generous, broad-hipped wife, set extra places for us at her table without a fuss. Once, she made room for my sister, uncle, and me at her Thanksgiving dinner when a sudden blizzard trapped my parents in town.
During adolescence, I became a disciple of Ed Iversen, a retired U.S. forest ranger and regular companion on fishing trips and pheasant hunts. He taught me woodcraft, fly-fishing, and introduced Dad and me to canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Opinionated and testy, I could only do things his way or the wrong way. Under his guidance, I learned the elements of ecology and forest conservation, an influence that later led me to write a book on wilderness protection.
Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Geza lived nearby. She had retired from medicine, and he retired from labor arbitration to be a gentleman farmer. A Hungarian Jew, he spoke five languages, played concert violin, and dabbled in writing history. He inspired me to think critically saying, “The mind is a wonderful place to play” over chess games. He was right.
Dad served 12 terms in the Minnesota Legislature while farming and improving higher education was his passion. To advance his goals, he hosted annual summer sweet corn parties for legislators, college officials, and others who wanted to improve Minnesota’s public colleges. Over buttery sweet corn from our field, the guests chewed on ideas, formed friendships, and built a coalition that state colleges into a system of state universities. Though I was then a disinterested teen, I absorbed many lessons in the art of coalition building I would one day need in my career.
I attended a vocational boarding school beginning at the age of 14. An indifferent student, I saw little point to the classes in agronomy, arc welding and carpentry, history, English, and biology. Years later, after college and graduate school, during a career at Cargill, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Second Harvest Heartland, I often drew on the practical lessons and insights learned from the neighbors, and the vocational classes. If nothing else, hours on the tractor seat made me tenacious.
Dad’s active farming ended in the fall of 1961. He rented the fields to a neighbor, took up selling life insurance, and had an auction shortly before I went to college. The stocky auctioneer stood on a wagon and pointed his cane at a plow parked nearby. “C’mon boys, $300,” he called in a rapid sing-song. He tapped the with his cane. “$300. Gimme three, gimme three, three … I see four! Who’ll gimme four-fifty, four-fifty, fifty, fifty …” One by one, the buyers claimed their prizes and we turned a page on the farm.
Many years later, in 1997, after Mom roasted the Thanksgiving turkey and my wife made the pies, the whole family sate table, and looked at the newly fallow fields stretching to the dark trees along the river. We had just finished our 50th harvest. Our last. My parents had managed to ‘farm a view’ that was now covered by a conservation easement. From now on, The River Farm would produce wild grass and trees, not corn and soybeans. The news filled me with unexpected melancholy. I feared the absence of the seasonal rhythms of planting, cultivating, and harvesting would severe a visceral link between the fields that had sustained us and an abiding sense of gratitude.
In the following decade, Dad breached the levees and tile lines, restored wetlands, and planted trees. Despite his good stewardship, I felt increasingly disconnected from the farm as it became something different from the childhood grange that had formed me. Mom and Dad stayed on the farm until the end of their lives. Now they rest across the river on the ridge near a granite boulder among the bloodroot and wild phlox where they used to camp and watch the migrating songbirds. There was a tenacious majesty to their persistence in ‘farming a view’ and bringing about a landscape that reflected their vision. They never described their intention concretely yet they worked at fulfilling it with silent determination.
I haven’t lived at The River Farm for nearly 50 years but I have never left home completely. None of us do. The farm I remember, the one that haunts me, is the farm of my youth where each field presented a distinct face, depending on the crop and the season. I still see the oats turning amber in July with thunderheads coasting along on the horizon. On long-shadowed August evenings with cricket songs, I see corn standing next to velveteen alfalfa hemmed by the woods lining the river. In this promised land of memory, the scene is more artistic than agricultural. This is the farm I where I grew up, and where I still grow up.
As a youth and young adult, I was too green to appreciate the dismal prospects of this soggy tract with its draughty house and battered barns. Now, 70 years later, I am amazed at my parents’ tenacious grit in bringing this run-down farm to a productive peak and then, after 50 years, expanding their vision to turn the fields and woods into a landscape wilder than it was when we arrived. It looks as if we had never farmed it. This morning I came to the farm to hand the keys to its new owners. After a brief history of the place, and a few minutes of small talk, I wish them well as I leave the house.
I get out of my car by the mailbox, the spot where Dad stopped the car in 1947. We held title to this land for 67 years but the land possessed us more than we ever possessed it. This tract of southern Minnesota soil belongs to someone else now but it is still my family’s home in the geography of my heart. My parents, neighbors, and friends still live there in memory. Their words point my way forward, like cairns on a trail across level plains. With my face to the sun and back to the wind, I need only close my eyes to see the farm again as a three year-old because time is fluid and memories flow easily between 1947 and now.
Today turned out to be all the weather geek said it would be – and more. The rime of frost on the edge of the garage roof – white on brown – lends a nice touch to daybreak. Then – gone – a filmy coil of rising vapor – like a morning prayer.
Spring warmth spreads sweetly – like puppy love – on a sweeping south wind. I sit in the sun, enjoying a bottle of porter and the last of the cashews. In my wooded Minnesota subdivision, where the smallest lots measure a quarter acre, our houses sit far apart among the oaks, elms, and honeysuckles. No sidewalks connect us – each house is an island – and we are an archipelago of suburbanites on a cul de sac. Friendly – we know each other – but private.
Some neighbors migrate south for the winter and the rest of us simply ‘hibernate,’ denning up in our houses, going and coming through the garage. Now and then, we meet each other after a humongous snowfall when we join to push a stuck car off the street or happen to shovel our driveways at the same time. We are winter introverts and this is enough neighborliness in the cold.
The neighbor across the road is loading firewood into the bed of his pick-up. I walk down the drive, get the mail from the box, and stop to talk. He tells me about his shoulder replacements. We are both over 65 and commiserate on our respective aches and pains. Neither of us is ‘what we were cracked up to be’ even a few years ago.
Then I return to the lawn chair and sit in the soft lap of late afternoon with a book in my lap. I’m not reading but sitting as content as a sunning turtle, looking at a piece of the world that’s temporarily mine.
The season’s first flies buzz about in the sun, the wind soughs through the top of a neighbor’s cottonwoods, and the rattle last year’s leaves on my oaks. Green shoots poke through the thatch of lawn, now four shades greener than yesterday, thanks to a half-inch of rain. Pubescent leaf buds pop along the twigs on the chokeberry bush, ready to unfold like young adults in a day or two with a show of green. But that flash belongs to the morrow and is not yet a reality.
A mole, just out of hibernation, tunnels along the edge of the concrete walk, and leaves a long, low mound like a glacial esker. I don’t resent his presence today but I will in a couple weeks when I mow the lawn. I see no point in starting resentments early.
A gray tree frog utters a sharp, almost percussive, creak from a hidden place in the lawn. I can’t see him but I know his general location. Down the street, in the marsh by the blind curve, northern leopard frogs croak with Falstaffian glee – like men packed into a sports bars on game day. They croak the same phrases over and over – hoping to ‘score’ a mate.
Sitting quietly in the lawn is a respite from a writers’ conference. I’m humbled and a little intimidated after three days in the company of novelists and memoirists, poets and essayists far more eloquent than I am. Writing is a generous act, one of them said in a presentation. I believe it’s true. Does it take talent to be generous?
Six weeks from now – in a future not yet mine – I will reunite with the Macalester College class of 1965. No! This can’t be the 50th reunion already! It is true but I want to stay in denial. I feel an urge to slim down and tone up. Why bother? We all know we are half-a-century older. Slimming and toning can’t change anything, much less reverse the years. Besides, I’m wiser now than before. I guess that is something of being more than ‘I was cracked up to be’ back then.
This class is an unusually earnest cohort. We entered college as John Kennedy began his presidency. JFK’s idealism formed us while his assassination matured us. Most of us are still pushing new frontiers. When reunion day comes, we will sit at tables to discuss weighty questions about whether ‘we had it all,’ whatever it was. Said another way, we will consider whether life is ‘all it was cracked up to be.’ We will talk urgently about the things we still need to accomplish until prostrated by seriousness.
I remember graduation day, the high-minded the commencement speaker, his exhortation to pursue our dreams, and a rush to change the world. Along my way, did I pause often enough to appreciate the grass in its growing or listen to the tree frogs in courtship? Did I stop to let the moment take me by the hand and reveal itself to me?
The future offers no guarantees but no one told me. Experience taught me the future doesn’t belong to me in advance of its arrival. The future is a dream, a possibility and – sometimes – a nightmare because the future has no reality. For a long time, I lived for the future and completely missed the present. I know better now. Only the present moment is real. It is all I have. The past is lost to memory and can’t be changed. The future is a possibility beyond my control. Moment by moment, I live into the future – moving as blindly as the mole tunneling my lawn – feeling my way forward, seeking the right path. The present moment is ‘all it’s cracked up to be.’