Touching Time

I'm in favor of paperless offices. After all, I am all for saving trees and I have gotten work by setting up paperless offices. What's more, digital communications and digital storage have many other advantages. All the same, there is nothing like holding something in my hand and feeling as if I have a piece of my history in it.
 
I have a piece of history, that I always keep visible in my bedroom, right along with the family pictures.  It is a cardboard mailer tube and as I write today, it has 89 years of history in it. Inside of this tube is an ornately decorated certificate of attendance that was rewarded to our father on December 26, 1923. He was 10 years old at that time and was attending Township School New Home Number 4. My father's older brothers, and three of my siblings and I all attended this school. It still stands - barely - rotting away on the prairie a mile from the family farm.
 
On the outside of the tube is a label which has as an return address the name: "A. N. Johnson", which would be my uncle, Arvid Johnson. Arvid was born HERE on April 27, 1907, in a sod house that had been built on land homesteaded by his father in 1904. What you see in the picture is pretty much what our grandmother would have seen as she looked out of the door of this primitive residence. The recipient address is the name of our father along with the town and state. That is all that was needed at the time. The postage comprises two stamps, with a total of 4.5 cents. Our neighbor, who is a stamp collector, guesses that the stamps themselves were sold in the late 1930s. 
 
"Fort Dix N.J." is stamped over the postage. This tube was certainly mailed to our father when our uncle was in the Army and at that post in New Jersey. At the time, it was a training and staging ground for troops on their way to Europe to serve in World War II.
 
What follows is my interpretation of the narrative that my father told me regarding December 7, 1941. He related this to me on or about September 15, 2001, just a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center. My comments are interwoven with his narrative.:
 
It was a sunday and Arvid was visiting at the farm. They had had gone to get some dinner. No, they weren't going to pick up takeout, they were hunting rabbits on motorcycles with 22s . Meat was in short supply, it was still the Depression. Slaughtering a herd animal was done only when it was cost-effective to do so.  There was always a meticulous calculus against the gain of selling that animal later or what its future productivity might be. It sounds like they had a fruitful hunt. They were hunting east of the family farm and as they traveled back west, something extraordinary was revealed. 
 
Here the Missouri Coteau, which is a drift prairie plateau, slopes southward from the Canadian border towards the Missouri River. The town of Turtle Lake is 6 miles north and 2 miles west of the family farm.  If the farm is at 12 o'clock, Turtle Lake would have been at about 10:30. It was getting dark.  All around, within line of sight, would have been other farms. In the 1930's, the local REA (Rural Electification Association) had run power lines to farms.  Power came into a pole, upon which was a light - which all called the "Yard Light". The power stopped there unless the individual farmer took it upon themself to wire the farm. Thus, at night, one could look about and see the lights of neighboring yard lights. It was generally possible to identify an individual farm by pointing to a particular light. Turtle Lake would have been a cluster of lights at 10:30. Yet, there were no lights! No yard lights, no cluster of lights to the Northwest.
 
As we know, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor had filtered to the heartland.  Even though there was nothing at that time that could fly the 1200 miles or so from the West Coast to North Dakota without refueling, no one was taking any chances. Arvid would have been 34 years old at that time. He would most likely have been out of school - with eighth grade as the highest - for 20 years. He was making a living by working for other farmers. Not an affluent life. He probably owned an older model car and no more than what he could carry in it.  Patriotism aside - and we know that he was a patriot - the military offered financial opportunities.
 
So we can pretty much acertain that Arvid had finished basic training and was preparing for deployment to the North Africa and Italian Theater when he was at Fort Dix. It was highly unlikely that the attendance certificate was the original contents of the mailer. It begs the question as to what it was, but more to the point, this was a time during which little was thrown away if it had a use and there was little available to use. So I can guess that the mailer became a storage vessel for the certificate after receipt of something else.
 
Arvid met Wanda on his way to the ship. He had a couple of days before the ship departed and they agreed to meet again, but didn't connect. They had exchanged addresses and kept in touch throughout the war. They married when he got back. He bought a farm when he got out of the Army and his son Norman lives and farms there now.  The ground that the Pairie School sits on is part of that farm. I don't recall Arvid saying much about his service and he wasn't one to show off his medals. I know he had at least three, because he got shot three times. What I do recall him saying is that after the third time that he got shot, he thought to himself that if he survived he wouldn't let anything upset him again. He did survive and he was one of the the least upsettable persons I've ever known.
 
In 1984, after being gone from the area for 15 years, I returned to spend the winter. Shortly after arriving, I was driving to a neighboring town on a less traveled road. I came upon a car pulled over to the side of road.  I stopped to see if any help was needed. I found my Uncle Arvid and Aunt Wanda in the car.  Arvid was reading, Wanda was sewing. We exchanged greetings. I asked if I could help. Arvid declined my offer. He stated that the car had a tendency to stall from time to time and it usually started right up after a few minutes.  He went on to say that it would be just a matter of time before he found the cause and solved the problem.  Arvid was a pretty good mechanic with his own well-equiped garage. In the meantime - no worries! That was just one illustration of the serenity with which my uncle lived his life.  War does different things to different people. 
 
I last spoke to my uncle on his 89th and last birthday. Until just a few years before, he had lived his life as actively as he had for decades. He grain farmed in the warmer months. During the winter, he ran a trap line and  did mechanic and carpentry work. All year-around he was there to help his son on his farm. But by then, he was feeling the weight of his mortality. He said to me in a tone of resignation: "I'm not much use to anyone any more". I said : "But you have been of such good use to so many throughout your life! And I know that you still have stories to tell."
 
If anyone who reads this knows someone who is aging and feels like they have little left to offer, please ask them to tell you stories. At the end of one's life accumulated wealth doesn't have much use. Stories can be a way of reliving one's life, and memories become more precious than the wealth.
 
My father and his brothers are gone. But not entirely. Every time I pick up that cardboard tube, I am touching time and holding some of their history in my hand. 
 
This narrative begs for an epilogue. For those who know a little about PTSD, it should seem clear that my uncle did not (outwardly) suffer from this condition. I think that knowing why he did not, is as important as knowing why others do. For those of us who solve problems for a living, whether it has to do with reboring rifles or writing computer programs or solving crimes - we know that to understand what works can help us to fix that which doesn't.
 

Shortly after posting this, I received an email from Arvid's son, my cousin Norman. He included some of his own memories of his father's service. I highly recommend reading WW II - Son's Story from the home page. My uncle's dates of service as quoted by Norman indicate that either I misremembered or my father misremembered who he has hunting with on December 7, 1941. Or possibly, but not likely, he has home on leave.  Nevertheless the lights were going off as they approached the farm. Sadly, the lights were going off all over Europe then.