Friday, February 20, 2004


I am a little later getting it done than I had planned - when do things go as planned? - but finally the new Vagabond newsletter will go out in today's mail. This is the eighth issue. It's hard for me to believe that I've already put out nearly 124,000 Vagabond words via newsletter in just over a year.

Vagabond #8 features on the front page a poem by Phil Hey of Sioux City, Iowa; it's partly about his dad's pool-playing, partly about his own handling of a chain saw, and partly about craft and devotion, I suppose: it's a poem from the stuff of the world. The usual features appear, too: Christina Abel's version of Ripon, Wisconsin; Linda Hanabarger's "Cemetery Walks" in Vandalia, Illinois; and one of Vandalia high school student John Zeman's "small-town" journal entries.

The bulk of the issue continues my first visit to Redfield, South Dakota. We start by finishing up our interview with mystery novelist Kathleen Taylor of Redfield, who sets her Tori Bauer stories in a small (yes, "fictional") South Dakota town. Avon Books hasn't continued to publish her, however, despite the fact that her mysteries always showed up among the Amazon mystery best-sellers. Which is unfortunate, I write, because Kathleen has three more books in mind to take Tori Bauer "to the end of a cycle." Perhaps partly she gets into trouble with editors for playing irreverently with the rules of the mystery genre; she keeps pushing the boundaries. Perhaps partly she gets into trouble because the mysteries are irredeemably small town and South Dakotan. "I have lived only in small towns. I have lived the past thirty-two years in South Dakota," Kathleen said. "You write what you know."

Betty Baloun had been the librarian at the Redfield Carnegie Library for twenty years when I interviewed her in the lovely old library, a quintessential Carnegie building. When the library board interviewed her for the job, they asked her: "Where do you see yourself in five years?" "Well," she'd responded, "if you hire me, five years from now I will be out at that desk checking books out." She got the job. In the years since, the library has been her passion. One Redfield resident, a frequent patron of the library, told me that Betty is the best thing that could happen to any small town library.

Peggy Morris is the director of the Redfield Senior Center. She came to the position after many years working as a teacher's aide in the Redfield schools, her last years with first graders. "That's quite a leap from first graders to senior citizens," I thought. "It's not so huge a leap as you might think," Peggy said. "Like the first graders, sometimes what the seniors need is a hug, sometimes they need help getting their coat on, sometimes I have to wipe away a tear, sometimes I have to break up a fight." She added that - while she is relatively uneducated - she has learned a lot about life from the way first graders handled their problems, and from the way senior citizens face the issues they encounter.

I had lunch with the Redfield Kiwanis Club and talked to them about my Vagabond project. I mentioned that a common theme across the communities I've visited so far is "If you need help, the people here will help you." Pastor Tim Fugman, a Kiwanis member, told me his theory of why South Dakotans are the way they are: "The pioneers who came here brought a 'survival' attitude; if they were going to survive, they'd have to help each other out in time of trouble. Times have stayed tough enough over the years that people today still continue to help one another."

As I prepared to leave Saks Restaurant where the Kiwanis meeting had been held, I bumped into the co-owners, Stan And Kari Schultz. I said to Stan: "You're The Foot!" He said, "Yes, I'm The Foot." Stan appeared as a cavalryman in the movie Dances with Wolves and his foot was filmed close up kicking out a campfire at one point, hence "The Foot." "People say, 'Oh, he was in Dances with Wolves,'" Stan told me, as if it's the only thing he's done, as if he hadn't appeared in a dozen other movies.

Francis "Bud" McNeely wasn't sure why I had selected him for an interview, he had just been a farmer all his life, what was special about that? I told him I'd seen a brightness in his eyes when I'd talked to him the day before, that I wanted to hear about his life as a farmer. We spent a long time talking. Among the challenges being faced? "You couldn't make it on a small farm, the small farmer left, the bigger farmers gobbled up the land the farmer was leaving, there were fewer people." He used to sell seeds - and "I could buy from a big dealer, retail, cheaper than I could buy wholesale direct from the company, because I was a small dealer. It's just unfair to the 'small people,' that's all there is to it."

In every community I am always surprised at all the wonderful people I meet. It's enough to recondition my essential pessimism. If you stop in Redfield, South Dakota, long enough, you'll hear that "Harry Eisele is a wonderful man." Harry Eisele is a wonderful man. I had lunch with him at the Senior Center one day and heard him play saxophone afterwards; I interviewed him the next day. As a youngster, Harry went to country schools, the family lived six miles from town, roads were bad. When it came time for Harry to go to high school, he made a deal with his father. He had always loved music. He told his father, "Get me a saxophone and I'll skip high school. I'll learn to play the saxophone." Which is what they did. If he'd gone on to high school, Harry would have had to live away from home in order to attend. He got a saxophone instead, took a few lessons, and got started playing the instrument. He led a big band in the Redfield area from 1933 til 1993. You do the math. Yeah, he's retired now, but he still plays out when he's invited. His fingers, I think, have forgotten more than most saxophone players ever learn. Some of the melodies I heard him play - he turned them inside out or upside down on the second or third time through the verse and chorus. His is a mournful sax, a happy sax. Harry could find the notes, he could make the sounds, he could pull out all the old stuff from his bag of tricks for the old standards. He could scoop out a whoop when he needed to on "Oh, Lonesome Me." I heard him play "Moon River." A 1950's rock tune. A country song. A ballad. Harry was comfortable with all of them. "I usually close my program with a hymn," Harry told us. "Today I have 'How Great Thou Art.'" If that didn't make you misty-eyed, you don't know anything about sevenths and flatted fifths and God and you might be deaf. Harry farmed all his life. How did he play music all night and farm all day? "Occasionally while driving tractor I'd get sleepy," he said. "I'd take it out of gear. If you just went to sleep for five minutes you could go again, you know. Once in a while I laid down on the ground beside the tractor and took a nap. I always kept going."

I report the start of my research about Redfield's Henry Baker. Henry had been a resident of the South Dakota Center for the Developmentally Disabled who'd moved from the Center into Redfield more than fifty years ago and made a life for himself in the community. People mention Henry to you, you see the "Henry Baker Memorial" sign where they collect aluminum cans in town. What about Henry? You'd call him developmentally disabled. Yet he mowed lawns, scooped snow, and did odd jobs for people in Redfield and when he died in February, 1998, his estate left a total of nearly $168,000 to various organizations in the community - the Lions Sight and Service Foundation, the United Church of Christ, and the Redfield High School Alumni Association each received $41,981.88; the Redfield Hospital Trust Fund and the Carnegie Library Trust Fund each received $20,990.94 from Henry. The community took care of Henry, it seems, and Henry took care of the community.

I'd heard from several people, "Oh, you have to talk to Walt." They meant Walt Williams, the only real estate agent in Redfield. He has his office in his home. Walt had been a musician as well. Walt's father, who came to South Dakota from Williams, Indiana, had left home when he was about twelve-years-old, Walt said. "He traveled around, he worked for circuses, he worked on farms, he came to the Redfield area about 1911, 1912, working the harvest, working for farmers. He always said when he hit South Dakota, that was the first breath of good fresh air he ever had." Yet today "Small towns are having a heck of a time keeping going," Walt said. "We've had merging of schools in the past. When the school goes, our town goes. Frankfort has become pretty much a bedroom community for people who work here." Walt foresees the day when county seats for several counties will be consolidated into one location. "It's already happening in South Dakota," he pointed out.

John Solheim is curator of the Spink County Museum in Redfield. He displayed a characteristic middle western modesty - he didn't want my interview with him to focus on him nor his family's history in the area. He wanted to make sure our discussion gave recognition not to him but to those "who did the real work and made it happen." During Prohibition, John remembered, "most moonshiners were respectable people. Selling moonshine was just a way to make a few extra nickels. There was one moonshiner who was supposedly set up by the Revenue people. They were in the process of arresting him. He was hiding in a barn east of town. As they came through the barn door, he let them have it with a shot gun. He wounded one seriously and I believe he killed one. He crawled into a straw pile and shot himself. He was a man of standing in the community, he paid his bills, he seemed like an honest, decent kind of fellow to me. I was quite young then, I was about seven years old." The grocery stores put their moonshine in vinegar jugs, John told me. "At Christmas time you walked down the street with a vinegar jug, a gallon of moonshine. Vinegar in December? No, no, no, no - moonshine. I remember this guy came out of the grocery store, our dad was standing there, it was kind of dark. The fellow said to my dad, 'Jake, would you like a little drink of my vinegar?' Old friends, of course. 'Sure, I'll take a little taste of your vinegar.'"

If you want to keep up with Tom Gallup, you'd better put on your running shoes. Tom is a busy man - he cooks for Redfield's senior center, he runs the theaters in town - indoor in winter, outdoor in summer - and he volunteers for a few things in the community. He's not afraid of hard work, and he doesn't know when to quit. When I asked about him about the challenge of maintaining an outdoor screen in the face of South Dakota's weather (they've got wind, you know), Tom said they'd lost a screen in 1981. "One morning about four o'clock we had 80 m.p.h. straight-line winds that took about two thirds of our tower down. That was a real hair-raising morning. The 3rd of August. I'll never forget it." They had pretty good insurance coverage, so about $23,000 and four weeks later, they were back in business. The new tower, Tom thinks, is a pretty good one. "The old tower was all wood. This one is all steel. I tell everybody it moans, it's crying for the old one. Just the way the wind blows through the metal, it moans a spooky, eerie moan like it's crying for the old tower. I hate to be out there working in the yard when the wind does that - after half an hour of it you feel like you should give up and go home. It really affects me."

My interview with Shirley Sanger of Zell, South Dakota, closes Vagabond #8. Zell is a little west of Redfield. Shirley came to South Dakota from Iowa was three years old and she has lived not much more than a stone's throw from Redfield ever since. She has been a school teacher, she has worked in Redfield's egg plant, and she has been a house-parent, Med-Aide, and teacher for the South Dakota Center for the Developmentally Disabled. She and her daughter collect tea pots and they give "entertainments" for groups in South Dakota, putting on teas and speaking about teas and their habit of collecting tea pots. Shirley has seen some of the world - the Phillipines, New Zealand, some of the United States and Canada, yet she stays in South Dakota. She likes wide openness spaces you can see in South Dakota, she likes the sunsets. She likes to go out to the Black Hills and visit, she told me, "but after a couple days I want to come back."
If you'd like to support Tom Montag's long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle, send your contribution payable to Tom Montag at PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931. A donation of $20 or more gets you at least 100 pages of the hard copy version of the Vagabond newsletter. Any help you can provide towards the success of the undertaking will be appreciated.

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