DECADE TWO: exploration of my body, mind and environment.
Early into my sophomore year in high school, an announcement over the PA system in homeroom set in motion a chain of events that impacted the rest of my life. An example of the butterfly wings effect? A pause following the agenda for the day, the principal’s voice continued, “A local farmer is looking for after-school help with chores. If interested, check at the office.” The message didn’t identify boy or girl, but in 1956 no one would have mistaken the farmer’s intention.
I had just spent the summer loading and unloading bales of hay, shocking grain bundles to dry in the sun, and forking those bundles onto a trailer and pitching them into the thrashing machine. I expected to return to my after-school job of cleaning cars at the Ford dealership, but Ted Thielen said, “Sorry, but I had to hire so-and-so’s boy because his dad owes me money.” Out in the car lot, I spied a former classmate of mine hosing down a row of new Fords.
Two of us reported to the principal’s office that morning, my competition a street kid who rejected the farmer’s sleep-over requirement which I found acceptable. I had lived away from home off-and-on since I was in the seventh grade. As directed, I took the out-of-district student bus as far as the cross roads eight miles north of Pierz, and I walked a short distance to their farm. The dog threatened—Virginia, the farmer’s wife, had told me over the phone to ignore him—arousing the curiosity of chickens, geese, and pigs. The cows and horses stood behind the fence swishing their tails to shoo flies off their backs.
When Earl Bayerl returned from his Fuller Brush route, I assisted with the afternoon/evening chores: feed the animals, bed them for the night, and hand-milk three cows. He described the reverse order of my morning chores during supper that evening and offered $12.00 pay plus room and board for a six day week.
He drove me home that evening, and said, “I hope you show up tomorrow after school.” He chuckled, almost a giggle—his trademark reaction to most of his proclamations. “You will learn a lot at my Rock and Rye Farm.” The most serious lesson proved to be tons of rocks to be picked off the fields before seeding his winter rye crop that fall.
With the flap of her wings, my butterfly steered me from an opportunity that might have developed the necessary self-esteem to compete in a variety of sports then and into the future. Throughout grade school, I dreaded playground activities during recess, specifically organized games the nuns would set up and then walk away, mainly baseball. In the first grade, I managed to hit the ball but got tagged at first base. Not knowing what had transpired, I froze fighting back tears.The kid who had slapped my back with the ball yelled, “Go home.” Taking him literally, I burst into tears. My sister came from her third-grade play area to console me.
I avoided team sports until the last day of the eighth grade with the traditional boy-versus-girl softball game. Back then, girls still swung the bat like an ax, as I did. I declared the game unfair to the girls’ team and volunteered to even the score as umpire. By then, I had established better relations with the girls in my class than with the guys, and they cheered my decision. The nun in charge objected but was over ruled.
A minor wing flap, bigger ones yet to come.
Day one of the 1956 school year, Mr. Schwartz began the sophomore boys’ physical education with laps around the city block to assess who might be a candidate for the junior varsity basketball team, it being the only sport offering a letter. The girls’ option was cheerleading. Feeling the coach eye my nearly six-foot muscular frame, I detected a hint of his interest. However, I wrecked my chances by hanging with a group of non-contenders who complained about the activity. Mr. Schwartz overheard and sent us back to our regular physical education class.
Within a few weeks of P.E. class, Mr. Schwartz asked me to stay after. He said, “We have only nine basketball players on the varsity team, one short for scrimmage practice. If you agree to join, I would let you suit up with the team for all our games.” Not the “B” team, but varsity. I stuffed my inhibitions and accepted his offer.
As the only sophomore on the team, I presented no serious threat to the rough and tumble senior playing center under the basket. I offered some competition, and he acknowledged my rebounding ability. I suited up for three or four games and actually played the final minute of one game where our cause was hopeless. I scored a basket. The crowd cheered like I was a ringer brought in to save the day. Everyone knew my situation, half supporting me and half making fun of me. I felt elated.
Then came the call from Rock and Rye. I don’t regret my decision to give up basketball, but I wonder if my continued participation might have altered my perception of my ability and instilled an interest in sports sorely lacking throughout my adult life.
Choices have consequences, sometimes just tradeoffs. During my eight months at Rock and Rye, I absorbed the culture of farm life during the winter months, my previous experience involved only planting and harvesting. I developed knowledge and skills with animals, assisted with birthing and butchering, milled grain into ground feed and fanned next year’s seeds free of impurities. I felled trees for firewood and hauled the logs to a local sawmill. I churned butter for our family of seven, occasionally babysitting the four children, one a hydrocephalic infant.
I helped dig the grave for that child and grieved with her parents after she died early spring. I worked hard but never felt taken advantage of. I consider Earl one of my mentors and Virginia a friend with whom I still communicate sixty years later. Earl died of alcoholism shortly after I graduated from college.
I planned to stay at Rock and Rye that summer, but my dad got me a dollar-an-hour job with the survey crew in Morrison County through his friend, the county engineer. Earl and Virginia were disappointed but understood that I couldn’t afford to pass on the money and learning experience. I kept the summer surveying job through my second year in college when I accepted a position as movie theater manager that lasted until I graduated and began my teaching career.