Tuesday, May 25, 2004


Last night I heard that Delbert Cothern of Vandalia, Illinois, passed away about two months ago. I'd interviewed Delbert when I was in Vandalia in February, 2003, and heard him play his harmonica. In fact, Delbert gave me a tape of the songs he'd recorded on his 4-track recorder in his room at Cherrywood Nursing Home in Vandalia.

Delbert had been paralyzed when he was sixteen years old, back in the 1930s, diving into Ramsey Creek on a family outing. He and a cousin kept challenging each other to dive into the river with hands at the back of the head instead of extended in front of them as they entered the water. Once too often Delbert dove in that way and his head hit bottom, he broke his neck, he was paralyzed the rest of his life.

With effort, Delbert eventually started getting around on crutches and could move well enough that he did most of the housekeeping for his parents. Out of the money his mother paid him for keeping house, Delbert saved enough to buy two acres out in the country. His parents put a trailer house on the property. Delbert and his folks lived there for many years. Delbert kept a large garden on the acreage. Though he couldn't walk, he could stand without support. He would hoe as much as he could reach from one place, he'd use the hoe as a crutch and move forward, he'd hoe some more. Through the years, he kept the freezer and cupboards stocked with food from his garden.

Delbert came from a musical family and had taught himself mandolin as a youngster. After the accident that crippled him, Delbert could no longer play mandolin. If he were to continue playing music, he had to learn an instrument he could play with one hand. So he took up harmonica, learning fiddle tunes and traditional bluegrass, and transferring them to his new instrument.

Delbert played his harmonica at the Illinois Old Time Music Harmonica Championships, coming in as high as second. He won a national championship in 1988 at Avoca, Iowa, tearing off renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Silver Bells" and a waltz. He also competed at a contest in Tennessee but that championship draws a lot of great harmonica players from Nashville, Delbert said, "and they are tough to beat."

Delbert wrote songs of his own and and recorded them in his room at Cherrywood Nursing Home. He released a 13-song tape, Just an Old Man and His Old Music: Old Timey Type Music No. 1, and on it referred himself "Ol' Delbert." There's harmonica on the tape, of course, and Delbert's singing and talking and whistling. Many of the songs were his own compositions. He introduced them with his Ol' Delbert drawl.

Did Delbert think he was an inspiration to others? "Well," he said when I asked him, "I hope so, but I don't know if I am." He was not one to brag, not about his music, not about the example he set for the rest of us. He just kept on making music.

Now he's making music with the angels, on the big back porch in the sky. So long, pardner.


APRIL 21, 2004

I interviewed Lee Beem at his glass shop in the morning today and Dick and Anne Marie Nelson in the afternoon. The Nelsons farm north of Emmetsburg; their son, Bruce, who was a walk-on at the University of Iowa, is playing for the Carolina Panthers. He doesn't start yet, but he will. You read it here first.

During my interview with the Nelsons, I asked Anne Marie "What did you feed Bruce?"

"He ate a lot of potatoes," she said.

After the interview had concluded, I followed Anne Marie the half a mile north to "the Nelson cabin," a log cabin overlooking an old spring-fed gravel pit. Dick would follow behind with the pick-up, bringing materials to repair a "privacy fence" along the patio that had blown over in Sunday's sixty-mile-an-hour winds.

"Here's a saying for your book," Anne Marie said as we stepped toward the cabin door. She pointed at a rock along the waterfall; the rock had this inscription: "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth."

"That's from the Indians," Anne Marie said, but you know it's also part of the Nelson's philosophy of farming.

The waterfall is man-made, of course, with water pumped from the pond and flowing back into it. "The waterfall was our 30th anniversary present to each other," Anne Marie said. The lovely gurgling of it is appreciated at the breakfast table in the corner of cabin.

We stepped behind the cabin before we entered it, and Anne Marie made a sweep of her arm from south to north along the railroad tracks. "All this is seeded, from Emmetsburg almost to Osgood," she said. Her seeding business is one of the firms involved in such restorations in the Emmetsburg area. Last year's native grasses sway in the breeze. Private landowners, the Department of Natural Resources, and the County all have restored parcels that are part of a project that has been underway for seven years.

"It takes two years to look like anything," Anne Marie said. "Before that, it looks like thistles."

After two years, it makes the best pheasant habitat you can imagine. In the few short minutes we stood surveying the grasses, I heard three pheasants call - one to the north of us, one to the west, one to the southwest. The Nelsons have restored two hundred acres to native grasses, which abutts a public hunting area that has also been restored. In addition, Anne Marie leases hunting rights on some other land nearby as well. It is no wonder that sixteen hunters from Alabama return to the Nelson cabin year and year during pheasant season.

The cabin itself won't accommodate sixteen people, so the hunters bring Winnebagoes or what-not to bed some of the fellows.

You step into the lob-cabin on a concrete floor textured to look like stone. "Poor man's tile" is what Anne Marie called it. When the floor was poured, Anne Marie made every effort to get all the twigs and leaves and debris off the soft concrete before it was covered to cure. Everywhere a leaf had remained while the concrete dried, now there is a delicate leaf pattern imprinted into the floor. Such a lovely touch, and entirely unintended.

The cabin is warmed by radiant heat coming up from the concrete floor.

The wood of the stairs to the loft and the second floor bedroom and the wood of the entertainment center in the living room is oak. He had said once that he'd tear down an old corn crib for another farmer, hoping to get a little bit of salvageable wood out of the old structure. When he got to work on it, Anne Marie told me, he found that "it was all oak in there." We were looking at some of that oak in the cabin.

There's a living room downstairs, a bedroom with three single beds and a bunk bed with upper and lower berths, a bathroom, and the kitchen area. The south wall of the cabin rises to a big window beneath the tall cathedral ceiling. Up the stairs there are three beds on the open air loft, and a sofa-rocker near the railing, positioned so you can take your first cup of coffee there and look out over the water in front of the cabin just as the sun lays morning color on it. The master bedroom off the loft has a queen-sized bed in it, its own bathroom attached.

"It's another home ot maintain," Anne Marie said, reflecting on the downside of all this beauty.

Dick arrived and was ready to start putting the bence back where it belonged. He added to the conversation before he started work: "This is our retreat," he said. "This is as far away as I can get when we're busy. You might say it will be our Golden Pond."



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"There was a flat-bellied man and his wife up at Paul's Cafe last Tuesday morning," Ivan wrote. "Flat-belly said he was walking across the United States. His wife would drive thirty miles and he would try to catch her in one day. That's walking thirty miles a day. I couldn't figger out why anybody would want to walk across the United States in thirty-mile increments. I asked him how old he was and he said he was 67. I still couldn't figger out why he would want to walk thirty miles a day. I asked him what he did before he retired. He said he was a physiologist and a minister. That answered the question."

"So far the wheat plot has had worms, freeze, and drought," Ivan reported. "I hope it is a hardy plant because it has been hit with a triple whammy."

"Kendall Nichols got a telephone call that was a political poll," Ivan said. "The first question they asked was 'are you a Republican?' Kendall told him he was every morning, but sometimes by noon he was about to change."

"I see," said Ivan, "where the town of Downs has gotten a grant to make an access street to the elevator so that the grain trucks won't have to go down Main Street. Well, I love to hear the throaty growl of the diesel engines as they warn sedans and vans and sissy pick-ups to get out of the way. I love to hear the muted rumble of the loaded and in many cases overloaded grain trucks. I love to feel the ground move, the Main Street buildings echo with the sound of a bountiful harvest back and forth across Main Street. Let Downs have their snooty, exclusive path to the elevator. Let Smith Center keep the trucks rolling right down Main."

"I heard Jim Fetters say something that I have been chuckling about to myself for several days," Ivan noted. "Jim said he had been invited to a meeting. He said 'At the meeting, they will pee in your pocket and try to convince you it is raining.' That is just about the most graphic and accurate appraisal of politicians you can get."

"Melvin Post told me this story many, many years ago," Ivan recalled. "One time Melvin decided he needed a bottle of booze, so he went to Clyde, a bootlegger during those Prohibition days. Clyde told Melvin to go out east of town by the slaughter house and over the railroad tracks. Then he told Melvin to look in the grass by the first telephone pole. Melvin did. Sure enough, there was a pint of whiskey. But Melvin got to thinking - if there was one here, let's check out the other telephone poles. So he did, and picked up six pints of whiskey. Then he came back to town and told Clyde that there wasn't any whiskey there. Clyde said, 'those G-D kds,' meaning some local high school kids, 'have stolen all my whiskey.' He gave Melvin back his money and he hated kids until he left town a couple years later."

"I put $27.84 worth of gas in my car one day last week," Ivan said. "The first car I ever bought and finaced, I think the monthly payments were $27.00"

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