When a whiskered man in rags rapped lightly on the unlatched screen door, there was sometimes a frightened toddler hiding behind my grandmother’s dress. She greeted the strangers in Methodist benevolence with hot coffee and apple cider. Because of their lice and body odors, she never invited them into the house --- Methodist benevolence had its limits. But while they sipped on their coffee and cider on the back porch, she loaded up china plates heaped with mashed potatoes, pickled beets, string beans, and baked chicken or pot roast depending on whether it was an even or odd day of the week. Afterwards, each “unfortunate friend” on the back porch got a generous wedge of apple pie that must’ve been nearly three inches thick in the center. The only thing my grandmother ever asked in return is that each recipient bow in a personal, silent prayer before leaving.
Fear of theft or bodily harm
just did not seem to exist for Grandmother Dourte. She held a deep and abiding faith. The town of
When a small pox epidemic
The barn was never closed, and the house was never locked. There were locks on the house doors, but the keys got lost in 1900 when the house was built and were never replaced. My mother had new keys cut for the locks when they carted my grandmother off to a nursing home in 1962.
Grandmother Dourte never attended church in the last 42 years of her long life. She fretted that some stranger in need of Sunday dinner would lightly rap on the back door.
You can read more about draft horses and my Grandfather Dourte at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/tidbits/2008/tidbits080118.htm
Between 1940 and 1944, I was
a small boy growing up in Algona,
A preacher traveled in from Bancroft after delivering his first sermon of the day to a much larger Lutheran congregation. Because the Blakjer parsonage was vacant, my father, mother, and I moved into that parsonage so Dad could help on the farm. Since I was not yet old enough for school, I cannot remember most things from those years in great detail. However, I vividly recall the days of threshing. At the crack of dawn while the men pulled the communal threshing machine toward our farm, my Grandmother Jensen and my Aunt Blanch would ring off heads of chickens with quick, whirling snaps of their wrists. My job was to scurry after the bloodied fowl that convulsed and flopped about in search of their missing heads. One of the things I liked least about my years on the Jensen country farm and the Dourte town farm was having to clean the pin feathers off headless fowl in buckets of scalding water.
What I liked best in threshing season came later in the day when I stood proud and tall driving a team of horses in the field while the men pitched bundles up to “my” wagon. I drove the heaped wagon to that chugging and clanging threshing machine where golden oats streamed, as if by magic, from out of a pipe.
Threshing days resembled a festive celebration in a Broadway musical. While men and their sons labored in the fields, women and their daughters set up long tables outdoors. They prepared enormous bowls of kumla, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, lefsa, meats, bread, pies, and cakes. When the threshing was finished on one farm, the men moved the threshing machine on to the next farm and the next farm until the granaries around Seneca were brimmed in oats needed to carry all the livestock through the long winters where winds off the Dakotas whipped up giant blizzards around farm houses that only had iron stoves for heat --- stoves fired with corn cobs and chunks of wood.
On quiet days I often rode a retired racehorse named Pride. My Uncle Millen always kept several teams and a string of saddle horses on the farm. Pride was a long-legged, smooth-mouthed relic about thirty years in age (ancient in horse years). This gentle old giant would hold his head still while a five-year old cowboy stood in the manger to fasten on his bridle. Then I leaned a ladder against the stolid beast so I could mount his bare back without a lift up.
The first time I rode off alone on Pride I came close to getting the second spanking of my life. I drove Pride about half mile down the road, put him in a barn, and went inside the house to play with a neighbor girl. My mistake was not in telling anyone where I went off to on Pride. But my rear end was spared that day, and I kept my Pride.
In 1944, my father became
the territory manager for a jobber oil company owned by his cousin Martin
Jenson (our family was never consistent with the spellings of Jenson versus
Jensen). Many years later the new music
This was an era where children owned Midwestern towns like the squirrels and the birds own your yard. There were no fences or locked garages. Children on bikes roamed freely all about the town and its surrounding woods, cemeteries, pastures, and river banks. The only fence that I recall was the sorry old fence behind the county jail downtown. There were times when I peeked out from behind a huge maple tree hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of a bonafide convict. But the few drunks that were thrown in the clink were probably too embarrassed to parade about in the fenced yard.
This was an era when children dreamed up their own pastimes. Television had not been invented. My father considered a home radio to be too much of an extravagance. There were no Little League teams --- kids assembled whenever they liked to choose up sides for baseball in the school yard or to play kick-the-can. My mother did not drive me anywhere, because my father always used the car day and night for his job. Mother would bring groceries home in my red coaster wagon.
In summer and winter, children were generally outdoors. We climbed anybody’s trees (there was no risk of lawsuits in those days), played pirates on garage roof tops, took on Panzer divisions that cranked up the roads in Riverview Cemetery, swung from ropes tied to trees atop the clay cliffs, smoked corn silks, held pissing-distance contests, and compared mysterious differences between male versus female anatomies. Little girls with their knickers pushed down to their knees appeared to be shorted in life. However, in those days, I was never certain that this was true for all girls --- it might’ve been only the Bradley sisters who got shorted.
When I was about six years old my play friend Joe (Kuuky) Kuckenberger and I did not
know that new chimes had been installed in the
This leads up (finally) to my friend and neighbor Max Kahlen. Max was an old man by our standards (probably over sixty years of age) and never married. He lived on the street behind our house. Max symbolized a bygone era that will never return on earth. He was a carpenter and handyman about town. His tool shop had no front door to close out the world when he was out on jobs. Inside were rows of saws, wrenches, and a jumble of drawers and boxes that held more hardware than the stores downtown --- Max saved everything.
The following things made Max important to the children of Algona:
· His tool shed was never locked --- it did not even have a door.
· Any kid was welcome to borrow the tools, although the understanding was that all tools would be returned to their proper places by the end of each day. (Max never had any power tools that could cause serious injury.)
· Any kid was welcome to climb into the loft and drag down pieces of lumber needed for things like tree houses, forts, rafts, or soapbox derby racers.
· Any kid could ask Max to “consult” on the proper way to build something. For example, Max taught me about water displacement and why you sink to your knees on a light raft. He also taught me that you don’t build a heavy Huck Finn raft in the workshop and later drag it almost a mile to the river. Instead, you drag each heavy piece to the river and assemble the raft on the riverbank.
My father traveled nearly every day and returned late each evening. Max Kahlen became my mentor. If my son spent nearly every evening in the house of an old bachelor, my worry would be that the old guy might be a pedophile. Somehow that thought never entered the head of my parents, and most certainly Max Kahlen never took advantage of children.
What did I do those evenings with Max and his
neighbor Kyle Beard? Kyle and I watched
him fix his simple meal on a woodstove and shared his bacon. We listened to such things as Amos & Andy
and Fibber McGee & Molly on his radio.
Max explained his coin collection, and I learned why a 1933 SF penny is
so valuable. He taught me to play
cribbage. I also learned about binomial
expansions and how cosecant functions are related to secant functions. Max didn’t graduate from college, but he
still had the books from his year of studying engineering at
All the above examples, however, are minor relative to the most important lessons that I learned from Max Kahlen. Actually, the important things were not so much “learned” as they were “absorbed” in every day living. What was important was to have a totally unselfish adult as a role model --- a man who would share anything and everything in a way that seemed to give him joy in giving his time, his talent, his hardware, his books, and his unspoken love each and every day. What the hobos saw in my Grandmother Dourte’s Methodist benevolence, the kids of Algona found in Max Kahlen’s unbounded love for us in day-to-day growing up.
I was Dennis the Menace, but Max was no Mr. Wilson. No child dare soap his windows, tip his outhouse, or toss rotten eggs on his front porch. Nor would any child who knew Max Kahlen ever want to hurt him in any way. Max was too trusting and too generous to one and all. The doubted phrase from church that “it is better to give than receive” was no longer doubted when Max became a role model.
I can’t remember the exact year, but I can still picture my mother waking me up before breakfast with tears in her eyes. With grave difficulty, she reported that Kyle Beard found Max Kahlen hanged in his tool shed. As best we can surmise, Max must’ve suspected that he had cancer, possibly a tumor in his gut. There was no Medicare in those days, and Max would’ve abhorred being a burden on anyone. For whatever reason, this lonely man tied a rope on a rafter in the loft and jumped from the ladder with the other end tied in a noose about his neck.
I may be the only person alive today who still thinks about Max Kahlen. I hope that anyone reading this will learn a small bit about the most important things Max taught me about life.
I attended Grades 5 and 6 in the old
I don’t know what happened to Gwen Egel. When I went off to college, she carried on in her job with a downtown photographer. She painted over photographs in oils. Sometime during my absence from Algona, Gwen disappeared. I hope that she is still happy and well. I also hope that her works of art are being displayed somewhere in the world.
What I learned firsthand from Gwen is not to get mad and vengeful when somebody is mean to you. The absurd-sounding words “love your enemies” no longer seemed so absurd. She struggled in every way to make friends with a brat (me) who taunted and teased her mercilessly. She forgave the bully (again me) who once wrestled her to the ground and rubbed raw pumpkin in her face.
In the 1940s and 1950s in
Although the population has not changed much between 1940 and 1999, other things of importance have changed in Algona. Houses have locked garages, and many of the yards have fences. There is a teen curfew, and there are problems with narcotics and felonies. Parents drive children to organized events. Those kids no longer own the town like the squirrels and birds own your back yard. Lawyers lie in wait for someone to sue.
I didn’t realize it then,
but I had my only glimpse of heaven while growing up in Algona,
There’s never a medical
quota on eggs, bacon, cream, and bread fresh baked in Clarion iron stoves. The horses are thick-necked gentle giants
leaning into leather hames. The sun sets on endless rows of oats shocked
for the harvest threshers. On Sunday
mornings the buggies are lined up in front of
In one of heaven’s small towns, there is a storefront bearing the sign “Gwen’s Gallery.” Max Kahlen’s in his wood shop helping a child fix a bike tire. Grandmother Dourte picks apples in the back orchard and bakes her pies every day. The only difference now is that the stranger outside the unlatched screen door is clean-shaven and is invited inside to sit with the family at the big oak table. When he departs, tears stream down his face. He looks my grandmother straight in the eye and says, “Blessed are the Methodists.”
My friends and colleagues
cannot understand my obsession with the Internet. The reason I’m always online is quite simple. There are very few fences on the
Internet. In its early years, the
Internet is much like my early childhood.
Internet folks are good neighbors and willingly share what they know and
think. They even share their tools. The main difference between the Internet and
Robert Frost’s neighbor had it all wrong. Fences do not make good neighbors --- at least not in heaven.
One thing I discovered about Gwen is that
she can do what seems impossible. After
leaving Algona, she eventually got married, had three children, and lived where
she still resides in the vicinity of
This is what seems impossible. I guess that photographic memory was put to
good use in academia. When fulfilling
her roles as a wife and mother, she obtained her bachelors degree in
Gwen is about to retire her post on the
International Olympic Committee. She
was, and at this moment still is, responsible for much of the drug testing of
athletes. She and her husband were
active leaders in scouting for over forty years. She travels worldwide in volunteer work,
including helping victims of the bombing in
Update on January 10, 2008
We're having a January thaw even up here in the mountains. It's warmer and lasting longer than most such thaws in January. With the price of heating oil and propane these days I don't hear many complaints about our unexpected balmy weather. It's a good thing too because my new snow blower is kaput. The drive wheels won't engage, and the auger won't disengage. But the worst problem is that the cables that turn the snow chute freeze up whenever the temperature falls below freezing. With tongue in cheek, the Sears repairman tells me that Craftsman engineers designed this $1,400 snow thrower for summertime use only.
I'm now thinking of ways to turn my new snow thrower
into a mailbox holder down at the road. My cousin Don Jenson near
There are also some in the Redneck Photo Collection --- http://www.weeville.com/redneck_collection.htm
On January 5 a close friend from our church, Bob
Every, asked if I would like to ride with him for lunch and to visit a train
caboose that his son is having fitted with living quarters in Lancaster, New
Hampshire (his son David travels around the world an engineer for the Merchant
Marines and only returns home for infrequent visits). Bob Every
and his wife Pat own quite a few rental properties in
I concluded that a family that goes together probably stays together through thick and thin. It's got to be nicer in some ways when the kids grow up and leave the nest. Think of all the extra space freed up in the bathroom.
I can recall the "two-holer"
on our Seneca family farm near
My dad's uncle, Martin (Cornelius Martin (CM) Thompson
(1866-1938)), had a big and beautiful two story house on the Evergreen Farm
about a mile from our farm. What was unique is that in the early 1900s this
house was ordered via a catalog and shipped by rail from Sears and Roebuck. It
was one of the early versions of a prefabricated house. What amazed me is the
size of the house shipped in pieces by train and then hauled out to the farm by
horses and wagons. Uncle Martin's assembled house was much larger and nicer
than most any prefabricated home you can buy today. It was even nicer than the
smaller model shown at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sears_Catalog_Home
Like so many
Although later versions of these Sears and Roebuck houses had indoor plumbing, I don't recall indoor plumbing in Uncle Martin's fine house. Incidentally, his wife had an unusual name of Olava. Their farm had a wonderful orchard that included walnut trees. My dad always said Uncle Martin worked Aunt Olava to and early death. Nor did his widowed mother Gurie have it easy living on Martin's place. In those days, farm women really did have it rough, especially if they had to work in the fields and milk cows as well as cook three meals a day for the entire family on an iron cookstove that burned corn cobs. The women did all the washing, ironing, gardening, cleaning, canning, mending, and child rearing without plumbing, refrigerators, washing machines, or furnaces. They bore their children at home in bed. Aunt Olava had eight children. They killed and cleaned chickens almost daily even though their children generally picked the eggs. They made their own dresses out of colorful feed sacks, spun wool, and knitted warm mittens for their children and grandchildren. How were there enough hours in the day for their seemingly endless chores?
One day my Uncle Martin Thompson hitched up a team of
horses to a buckboard and set out, with his friend Helge,
for an old cemetery in
My story about growing up in northern
My father's recollections about taking his mother Regina (Jennie or Ginny), Aunt Olava, and their cousin Anna Wilberg up to Viking, Alberta in a Model T can be found at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/vernon.htm
Serious Thoughts of the Week
When the kids are home from school, like on a snow day, a lot of concern goes into "how to entertain the kids." If and when our many chores were completed when I was a kid, I don't think parents gave much thought to "how to entertain the kids." We were expected to entertain ourselves. I think this is an important part of making kids more creative and independent. This is why I've never been a fan of Little League organized events, television for kids, and frequent movies for kids. For us movies were an infrequent treat. Mostly we thought up things to do in playtime just like retired folks do in later life. That's the best way! And computer networking is not necessarily helping in modern times.
The World Wide Web is becoming one vast,
programmable machine . . . Most people are already there. Young people in particular spend way more time using so-called
cloud apps — MySpace, Flickr, Gmail — than running
old-fashioned programs on their hard drives. What's amazing is that this
shift from private to public software has happened without us even noticing it
. . . Computers are technologies of liberation, but they're also technologies
of control. It's great that everyone is empowered to write blogs, upload videos
to YouTube, and promote themselves on Facebook. But
as systems become more centralized — as personal data becomes more exposed and
data-mining software grows in sophistication — the interests of control will
gain the upper hand. If you're looking to monitor and manipulate people, you
couldn't design a better machine.
Nicholas Carr in an interview with Spencer Reiss, "The Terrifying Future of Computing," Wired Magazine, December 20, 2007 ---
Facebook has 58 million active users (including non-collegiate members) worldwide --- unbelievable!
Growing Up Online: Young People and Digital
Technologies, by Sandra Weber and
Shanly Dixon (Palgrave Macmillan; 2007, 272 pages,
ISBN-13: 9781403978141, 2007)
Writings that focus on the use of computer games, the Internet, and other digital technologies by girls and young women. How times have changed since when people had to help with the endless chores of farm life years ago.
What is happening to the quality of our students?
A meta-analysis of multiple studies which revealed that schoolchildren in the 1980s (i.e. our recent and current students) reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did in the 1950s. Thus, our students may find life to be far more anxiety-provoking/stressful than we did as undergraduates.
Adding to this finding is the one described below that indicates stress impairs the ability to remember and learn. Taken together, these studies suggest that significantly higher levels of anxiety/stress among the current generation of college students may help to account for the “decline” in the quality of academic performance that we lament. Perhaps most of our students are doing the best they can given their life experience just as we did the best we could given our life experience.
Bob Jensen's threads on the dark side of technology are at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/000aaa/theworry.htm
Bob Jensen’s homepage is at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/
This story is posted at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/max01.htm
Recollections of the Outhouse --- http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/tidbits/2008/tidbits080110.htm
You can read more about draft horses and my Grandfather Dourte at http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/tidbits/2008/tidbits080118.htm
can read about my father’s recollections of a 1925 trip to