Sunday, February 24, 2013

Past Resident Memories: John Stranger

John Stranger - Back row, middle
By John A. Stranger


This all begins in a small town in Minnesota during the 40's when growing up was a struggle without all the things a boy wants and dreams about. Outdoor toilets and dressing behind the oil burner turned up full blast where my brother (4 yrs. Younger) and I learned to dress very fast during the cold Minnesota winters.

My brother was a great kid even though we would have our brotherly confrontations. We had a younger sister too and she learned to hold her own with us boys. Our parents were very strict on almost everything that they thought was for our best interests even though we tried to disagree with our parents at times but trying to obey seemed better than a beating, (most we probably had coming).

We all went to a four-room schoolhouse through 8th grade. These were some great years when money was tight. We would hunt beer bottles in the ditches and sell them back to Dad for a penny a piece. He owned the local bar/restaurant in the village. Later years brother and I would help in the bar scrubbing floors or stocking beer for extra money.

I belonged to the local village gang. We qualified as a gang for all the mischief that we would think of. We had a leader whom we all looked up to as our role model. We passed many hours of joshing one another and deciding just what to do that day, such as having a rubber gun fight, hunt with sling shots, play baseball or just plain tom foolery.

On Halloween the gang would always plug up the school with manure, cattle, machinery, etc., so we wouldn't have school the next day. However, the State Supt. Would come into town and along with our parents' blessing, we had to clean up our mess each year.

The lazy days of summer were some of the greatest. I spent many hours down at the Red River fishing or throwing mud balls on a willow stick across the river at the Pembina boys that were fishing. Sometimes we would go swimming in that filthy river (raw sewage was pumped into the river). We had a large rope tied under the St. Vincent Bridge and we would swing way out on the river, then drop. What fun!! Trying to get out of the river clean was another story. We had scales of black dirt on us each time.

I used to set about three different fishing lines overnight (which was illegal) and go down each morning to check for fish. Grandma would clean and cook them for me at times. No one else would touch them. Usually catfish and sand pike. Pretty greasy stuff.

I especially liked summer because I didn't have to rush when using the bathroom. Sometimes when sitting on the hole, I would hear rats down there. Kind of scary. I would have lost the Family Jewels!!

I loved playing baseball. We had the town Midget team and later the men's team with Pembina. Many great games against Neche, Emerson, Hallock, Walhalla, etc. plus some of us would be picked up to play for another town in tournament for cash. I all helped the bottom line. Later in High School we played Legion Ball and the men's team. It seems like we were always playing but it was all part of our life then. Baseball was huge at that time.

During my childhood winters. I remember piles of snow. Ten foot high school drifts. I got a new pair of skis for Christmas one year and that was wonderful. We had a big hill down hill by Quigley's barn. We constructed a jump at the end of the trail down at the river. It's funny we all didn't break our necks. There was an added hazard of hitting a frozen cow turd on the way down to add to the danger! We also had sled and toboggan slopes which were usually lines with kids up and down the trail. Such fun!!

The Boys of Summer

Before I start this chapter I need to show a timeline of events along with the attitudes, feelings, and survival of a small community in which I grew up. Most of the events and people are remembered mostly between 1935 and 1951. I would have been age 8 to age 15.

Most of the adults were a rough breed of people who survived by working hard and families handed out discipline the old fashioned way (they hurt you). They meant what they said and not obeying their wishes was usually met with harsh words and punishment. No timeouts, lets talk, grounding, or whining.(Some crying)

We all counted the days to Summer vacation although several weeks we had to go to catechism (we were mostly Catholic families). We seemed to have separate seasons for slingshots, rubber guns, sword fights, stockyard tag, bottle hunting, fishing, baseball, swimming in the Red, swimming at Turner's eighty (a big slough), and lots of general grab ass
We loved our baseball and would mow and rake our little diamond for the various games each day.Most of us just had used gloves and hand me down uniforms. We were allowed sometimes to use the men's team catchers mask but went without many days. We would play teams from Hallock, Argyle, Emerson(Canada) Pembina, and others. We could always get a game going between the gang.

Our gang consisted of various age levels and would gather each day at Godon's house to tease and grab ass before we decided just what was the sport of the day. Mo was our leader and role model. He was the best ball player we all looked up to him and went along with most of his decisions. He was also one of the three toughest kids in town along with Bobby and Bob.1

In the evenings the county sheriff would drive through the main drag to check on things. One night we all picked some nice juicy plums and hid along the highway in the bush by the Hughes' House. When he drove by we all let the car have it with our slingshots. His squad car looked like in a war zone. Of course he got out to chase us but we were hidden in the deep grass. I remember that my heart was pounding so hard, I thought the sheriff would hear it. His flashlight was trying to find us and he almost stepped on my hand as he stood there yelling at us to come out. We laid there for a long time before he finally left. He came back the next day (with his nice clean car) to ask questions around. Of course no one knew anything.

During Halloween night we set up a barricade across the main highway going through town. Two coaches from Pembina ran into it. We barely got away with that one. Also that night, we tried to use a block and tackle to hoist a cow up on the schoolhouse roof but couldn't do it, so we just barricaded the cow up on the front steps of the school; She sure bellowed! They had a hell of time to get the cow off the the entrance by the front door and down the steps the next day, not counting the many hay bales blocking the main entrance to the school. We innocently volunteered to clean up the mess, getting out of school to do it, of course.

We would swim across the red and back. The first time was the worst. Again my heart was pounding until I crawled out in the slimy mud below Quigley's barn.

There were some great fishing spots that were our favorites up and down the Red. We would build a fire and roast a few Sand Pike. Early in the Spring we would catch too many Dogfish and our fire was used for their demise. Many of us set our lines overnight on tree frogs and catfish hooks(large). We checked the line in the morning . They would always be taken downstream by the huge catfish or dirty old Carp. It was like pulling in a big log as we got them ashore. Many of the kids took the fish home to eat. My grandma would cook me some catfish that I brought home. My Mother would just scream when I would show her a big catch.I spent many hours fishing with my buds. Speedy, Hun Hun, the Grumbo boys, Bob, Sarsfield, Yacky, Busk, Jim, others including my brother.

We closed all the doors in a barn which was full of pigeons. What a slingshot paradise.Great practice.
Night games were kick the can and captain my captain. What fun ! Lots of illegal tripping going on to get to the can in time to kick it. Bruised knees were the norm.

We had to go to catechism for a couple weeks. The nuns used to pull our ears to get our attention. We skipped out a few times. It was just too hot in the church some days so at recess we disappeared. My Dad owned the general store right across from the church so I was the first one to be was worth the slaps . My grandma was good friends with the nuns as they stayed with her during catechism. She would tell them what a good boy I was. Grandma was always on my side. Loved her so much!

There were daily fights between members of the gang but in a while we would be going down the road friends again. A few bloody lips and occasional black eye were common. We had couple of bullies but they soon found out that the gang stuck together and their ways were cut to a minimum. Of course if they were to pick on a younger brother or relative then the older brother would have to avenge. A handful of ants shoved down their pants worked real good. And other various discipline methods.

There were at least 50 kids in a 6 block area in the village ages 7 to 17. Never a shortage of things going on...or off? A girl took me into the bushes when I was about 8 or 9.  She was several years older that me. She made a bed of leaves in the school bush. She told me to take off my clothes. I was shaking so bad that I couldn't get unbuttoned. Just luckily or unluckily however you want to put it, the school bell rang. I took off running to never look back! I had to sneak home after school using a different trail for a few days cause I thought she would get hold of me. I saw her and her husband at one of the reunions that we had and I asked her if she remembered the episode. She said yes and we all had a good laugh over the whole thing. I had my sex education all taken care of. Sort of on the job training.

We liked to go to the dump ground on the edge of town by the river and look for valuable stuff.We would drag it home and Dad would make us drag it all back. It was a filthy place but we thought there were treasures untold to be found. We would shoot rats with our slingshots and any other creepy crawlers that were there. We would come home smelling like trash and it didn't go over well with Mother.

On a slow day we would walk the railroad track looking for colored rocks. My brother had the best collection in town. He was a real pack rat. Probably the beginning of a full fledged hoarder. His room was stuffed with stuff. He would know if anything was missing too.he had some really valuable baseball cards and dad unknowingly burned them in the burning barrel later in life.

Of course our bicycles were our prized possessions. We would ride to Canada on the back road and not bother with checking in with Customs. It was a much shorter route.We would swim in the Emerson pool which was the same as jumping in the red cause they just pumped the water from the red directly into the pool. It was just as dark and dirty but we had Canadian friends too so it was fun to swim there.

They had a great pool room in Emerson so we would also stop to play pool. If we had a few extra dimes. The owner loved to see us kids and teach us how to play snooker. He was a pure Irishman. We sure liked him.

Our little town was not without tragedy. Early one Summer, a convict escaped from Stony Mountain prison in Canada [Trish:  Actually, it was an employee of the prison...]  He stole a car and ran the border then going through our town at a high speed. It was on a Wednesday the afternoon when all the Catholic kids were excused to go to catechism. It was only for the lower grades and the kids would walk along the highway to the church. The convict hit and killed three youngsters. The Border Patrol finally caught him. I was one of the pallbearers for three funerals. Following this one of the distraught Fathers of one that was killed, took the life two other daughters and himself [Trish:  No one knows for sure, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence and conjecture to that conclusion, and it might just be right, but since there were no witnesses, we'll never know for sure...]  I was again a pallbearer for the two girls and these things had a profound effect on me as I remember not sleeping and fear in my heart. We didn't have school counselors or anyone to help the community through the pain but everyone was effected in different ways. It's something stamped in my memory forever.

I served Mass with many of my friends. The cassocks were always too big so when I would step on the back of it then I would almost fall over the communion rail. It happened to all of us.Father was stern and we learned to follow his direction real fast . A sample of the communion wine was tried also but no harm done. We were sometimes very tired on Sunday mornings from doing shenanigans on Sat night. But when my Dad hollered up the stairs to get going to serve mass I jumped to it. And of course we felt like little angels at the alter doing our duties for the priest. Our parents were very proud (for a change).

Just a brief mention of our winter sports. We had a skating rink and I can still smell the burnt mitts on the red hot stove in the warming shack. We would break into a small window at the back of the curling rink (right beside the skating rink) during the day and practice. We later had a High school team that could compete with the men's rinks. Of course sledding and skiing was so much fun. There were all ages using the bridge hill as it was steep and fast. Always a crowd there. We build a ski jump that was wicked. When airborne the landings were some good and come disasters. One of the gang only had 1½ skis. He would come off the jump and we all held our breath but he lived through many jumps. His one ski was split in half but that didn't stop him. Hooking cars was fun and dangerous. We would wait for a slower traveling car, grab the back bumper, kneel, and slide along with the car. Of course there would be an occasional dry pavement spot . If we were lucky we would let go in time. We would have pick-up hockey games with other towns. We begged for rides and usually got there. We all could skate very well but we had limited pads. Some used thick magazines tied around our legs. It helped. Our sticks were used taped together sticks picked up from the men's games in Canada.

As you can see, there was always something to do either planned or spur of the moment. We laughed and cried together and always tried to help each other. And slowly we began to grow up.

After grade 8 we went to Pembina High. The first year my parents paid my tuition to go to Pembina High. Just 3 of us started there together. Grace, Thorun, and myself. The rest of the gang were bused to Humboldt High. Later years the two states agreed to not charge tuition and more went to Pembina. Many of us participated in sports, class plays, and music.

My first Summer after freshman I worked for the railroad as a gandy dancer in Gilby . We raised and straightened track. Slept in sleepers and ate in the cook car. One night a worker killed another in my sleeper. I was on the a top bunk and lay very quiet. I thought I was next. The killer used a stove poker to beat the other man. I was just 15 but survived. Another friend and I got the job because his dad was a Section Foreman and he got us the jobs. I rode the train home each weekend and back again. My first real money and I really liked that.

I then bought my first car with my savings on the railroad. It was a 1939 Chevrolet that I paid $137.50 for it. I was sure proud of it. Shined it most every day and painted the white walls too. Of course many of my high school friends got old cars too. Some used to play bumper tag but I was too fussy about my car to play. However I got a few surprises just the same. Gas was 15 to 20 cents per gallon so if I could scrape up a dollars worth I was good to go. When I was short grandma never let me down . I worked for a farmer so I most always had a few bucks saved.

We had two floods that devastated the town. 1948 and 1950. There is a book called The Raging Red which vividly tells the flood stories along with photographs. The first edition was written by Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch in 1996. I have a copy and it is fun to look back on those hard times and some of the people struggling to make it . We lost everything as the water reached nine feet in our house. Most everyone was the same. They built a dike in the 60's but it doesn't have much to protect anymore.

In the early days of the late 1800's and early 1900's, the town was booming. There was a railroad (end of the line) complete with a freight dock and station house. There was a government customs house at the border crossing (Noyes, Mn) just 2 miles north. There was a bank, a newspaper, two general stores, a jail, two gas stations, and five saloons.(called blind pigs during prohibition) There was also an exhibit hall and stockyards. The Kittson County fair was held there each year. I remember getting out of school to go see the exhibits and all the animals to be judged. Of course my grandma always had some blue ribbons entered. In the very early days before they built the bridge, we had a pontoon bridge floating on huge pontoons. The Winter froze hard enough for a basic road across to Pembina, ND. My Grandfather had the 1st bar as you got off the pontoon bridge in St.Vincent. It was called the Last Chance Saloon. Many stories have circulated about this Saloon. My Great Grandfather was the dray man in town and delivered anything and everything that his wagon and team of horses could handle.

Learning about Life

After I got my old car it wasn't too long before I had a high school sweetheart. We later married while I was in the Air Force and we produced three wonderful children. Not realizing that we were just kids ourselves. Many of us joined the service right out of high school. I got a suitcase from my parents for graduation so I took the hint. Shorty, Lloyd, Phil, and I joined the Air Force and left for basic training two days after high school graduation. I played in a baseball game against Neche the day before I left. Others joined the Army and Navy. The draft probably would have gotten us soon anyway. I was stationed in California, Texas, South Dakota, and overseas in Iceland. They must have thought I had the right training here in North Dakota for duty in Iceland. It was very cold and windy. Sometimes travel from telephone pole to telephone pole just to hang on to something. There was Six months of darkness and six months of light. It took some getting used to. We were a radar installation so our duties had to do with that among guard duty, KP, and various rank assignments. I was up there thirteen months and it seemed like thirteen years. My biggest worry was that the plane would make it safely. They were all prop planes at that time. When we landed in New Jersey as we were getting off the plane and down the ramp it seemed like everyone kissed the ground. I know I did.
Before I continue I want to make a Post Script telling you that I had lost Chapter One for a time. When I finally got it I found that there were some events that may be mentioned more than once. I am not going to delete anything. Just look at any duplicate as just a different way that I of writing about it.

A little more about my tour of duty in Iceland . I only went to the city Reykjavik once on a 36 hour pass. My friend and I rode the bus on what they called a road. Think of our worst gravel road. We saw all the statues I think. They made a statue of every mo jack that was the best fisherman, lover, or just a plain old big stud. We stayed in a hotel one night. We had to share it with some huge Icelander that of course could not speak English. I slept with one eye open all night. Couldn't sleep anyway cause he snored like a horse and smelled like a goat. I was sure glad to get out of there. I guess you can tell that we didn't like it up there very much. If I didn't get a couple letters each day it was a bad day. I was very lonesome for civilization.


My mothers parents were farmers in the Lakota area of North Dakota and my Dads father remarried and lived in Northome, Minnesota. He owned a small farm and one of the Local Saloons. He also got government contracts to cut pulp so he had several crews doing that. Being the oldest in my family, I got to spend parts of the Summers with them. They were all my role models and I loved them all dearly. I have many thrilling episodes that happened to me during my stays with them. So the beat goes on - so much more to remember...but this memoir gives you an idea just how life was in the 40s and 50s in St, Vincent.

1 - I emailed John for more details, and this was his answer: "Young Fred-John Stranger, Speedy-Dickie Cleem, Sarsfield-Pat Hughes, Mo-Maurice Godon, Spada-Bob Hughes, Giji-Bobby Cameron, Grumbo Boys-Russell & Richard, Yacky-Vaughn Turner, Klunker-Ray Turner, Busk-Palmer Gooselaw, HunHun-Harvey Cleem, Glint-Lynn Stranger, Luke-Ken Easter, Gar-Gary Easter, Lapp Boys-Boop-Edward, Dick,& Sam, plus the 1948 baseball team listed by Margaret Gooselaw Cleem. The Hughes family had 6 boys and the Lester Turner family had 4 boys. They were all part of the gang that headquartered at Godon's back yard. Just kids that made our own fun and camaraderie.