My senior year of college was wrapped around working on my capstone. That final project that determines how you stand as a writer after four years of creative writing, technical writing, poetry, and literature classes. Did you develop? Learn? Or does your work still read as mediocre as it did the day you wrote your first short story?
My capstone was a multi-disciplinary piece. A combination of genres that placed together seamlessly as to form one whole (complete) brilliant piece of work. Yeah… I was told this at the very beginning of the class (taught by Professor Beret), and tried to not freak out immediately.
I chose early on, much to my surprise, to use my father’s ancestors as the foundation of my capstone. They were German immigrants that moved first to Bessarabia in Russia, then on to Canada, and finally wound their way down to America. My great-grandfather Carl (originally Karl, changed to Americanize him) and some of his brothers were “interviewed” and pressed to write their stories and memories before they passed away. What they wrote was collected and put together with photos and other remnants of their life in a binder, copied and passed around to family members. It was the perfect launch into my project.
I reserved the right to expand and elaborate where I felt was necessary for the sake of my piece of course.
The following is part of that project:
Forget Me Not
I often wonder what fate had in mind that day we sold the harness shop in Sarata. I think He was mistaken. So many small decisions could have been made differently. Why America? The promise was too tempting I suppose, to conquer land, build new lives, and be free. Be free. Be free. Yes, fate was mistaken.
He told me one day, when we were walking to the Schlimmer family’s, that he had to sleep and eat with the animals when crossing over from Bessarabia. A stowaway he had called himself. No better than a god damn sheep. He never talked much about the Old Country, not the way our mother did. His life didn’t begin till he left that ship. His steel womb delivered him on land that could not be taken away. A hope for simplicities empowered him to work, to work hard, and to work for a life of small achievements. And small they were. George, father, moved to Alberta, Canada, to slave away his new found self in a lumber mill at Elkwater Lake. During cold winters he would cuff us along the ear if even one complaint of the chill escaped our lips. Always the reminder of his expeditions, to and from that mill, was brought into perspective for our perceivably ungrateful souls. The trek in forty below zero weather and countless stories of experiences with teeth-baring wolves were lectured to us time and time again. Smarten up, you need to be men, was always his closing remark.
Memory is a very funny thing. It’s always, “I remember when,” or “I remember how,” never “I remember now.” When does something turn into a memory? There’s a part of me that is still living on four acres of land, farming wheat, and peeing in an outhouse. Somewhere I’m still unloading ice from boxcars, and building a chicken coop. I’m atop a haystack shooting white rabbits, and walking the two miles home from school in the winter afternoon. Memory is a very capricious thing indeed. Now I find myself searching through these so-called memories for anything worth contemplation in my old age. The future isn’t too far off, and the past is becoming increasingly distant. My days are filled with living in the present and roaming in my mind, and all that I can bring forth is a dull background that would seem of no interest to anyone other than myself. Yet, I feel this need to share, to make our lives worth something, to allow for my father to be remembered after his death. We live, and we die, and we should be remembered.
George married Rosina Engelhardt on February 4th, 1906. She was from the Old Country, born German and raised in Russia, a strong woman who kept her home in strict order. This picture was found in a dusty box that housed a pair of leather boots from 1950, in Dad’s closet. It shows mom in front of our home in West Warden in 1925.
I remember an electrical storm we had one time, this was after Dad became a property owner, it killed our white horse and burned the neighbor’s barn down. Carl and I had to set to work with two shovels and the help of Dad to dig a grave for Old Charlie. Dad told us then that death was inescapable for all things. When I asked him if I too was going to die he just nodded his head and said, we all are. He was never one to contemplate life for long, you live and you die and hopefully you are remembered.
George Winkler was my father. I was his second son. Not his favorite son that would be the first-born Oscar, Oscar with his wonderful way of capturing love and never releasing it. But as the second son I was given affection and the responsibility to follow Oscar’s lead. Dad worked at a lumber mill for the first six years of my life. Our home was a two-room cabin given to us by our mother’s father, Freidrich Engelhardt, after his move to South Dakota. The furnishings consisted of a plank table and benches, straw ticks which served as mattresses, and a wood range with a water jacket attached to it. Some four hundred feet away from the house was a two-seater outdoor toilet. In the early mornings mom would give Oscar and I a tin cup each and lead us to our two dairy cows. After milking enough for lunch and dinner we were allowed to a half a cup of fresh milk ourselves. I never realized how strong mom was till I became older and had to take over the chore of chopping wood and hauling water. In my child’s mind she was always pregnant, a big girth of a stomach is what I recall, I would sit next to her during early mornings and rest my little hand on that hard shell of flesh while ravishing bacon and eggs with the other. Carl, she would say, you are the twinkle of the stars. Oscar was always the rays of the sun, and later our sister, Emma, became the depths of the sea. For a woman who couldn’t read or write she was a wonder with words.
She married our father, I suppose, because he reminded her of her own childhood, him being German and all. She sincerely missed what they called the Old Country. She told us stories of how well off they were there, nothing like the way we lived. She was born into luxury, then one day her father came home and told her they were moving to America. They ended up in Canada, and were rather isolated for a while till a number of German families moved to the area. She was out with her stepsister one day when she ran into George on the road, he gave her a flower, and she said she knew then that he would take her hand. Dad never allowed such silly recollections of their pasts to be told while he was at home; these moments of mom’s contemplations were always done in the early mornings, when it was just her and her children.
Homestead of George Winkler in Alberta, Canada
In 1921, Dad and Mother decided to take us kids on a trip to Aberdeen, South Dakota to visit Grandpa Engelhardt, I, being just a baby at the time, don’t remember it too well. They took enough food, which included the famous homemade sausage, well spiced with garlic, to last until they reached South Dakota. The aroma of the sausage, along with the lack of bathing facilities must have made us a smelly bunch. When the passenger train would stop at various stations that had food, Dad, Oscar or Carl would exit the train to refill thermoses with coffee and milk.
Mother had as follows: Oscar, Carl, Emma, Albert, John, Herbert, Benjamin, and Edward. Father favored Emma the most.
Moonlight rabbit hunts. Midnight, with a bright moon, full, or close to it. Oscar, Carl, and I would search for a haystack in one of the fields and climb atop with the Long Tom, making sure to scatter hay around to draw the rabbits in. This always worked best in the winter, the snow providing lots of light. We would take turns using the shotgun, sometimes the rabbits would come in bunches and one fire would blast away six or seven of them. Dad would oftentimes prepare and smoke these in his smokehouse; he always had a way with meat.
They used to hold rabbit drives where as many as 75 people would gather, with shotguns in hand. These would often be held around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the rabbits we killed, would be dressed and sent to Seattle or Spokane for the homeless to eat in their holiday dinners. Dad made this a priority every year.
It was important for us kids to gain the proper education, so when Oscar was seven and I was five we headed to the nearby schoolhouse. Without knowing a lick of English we were in for a surprise. The schoolteacher was tall, dark, and lean. He sat behind his big wooden desk chewing tobacco and every few minutes shooting brown-stained saliva into a spittoon. The third or so day he called on Oscar for whatever reason, but poor Oscar just laughed in exchange not understanding a word coming out of his mouth. The man strode over, yanked him out of his seat took a wooden stick and gave him three good whacks before shoving him back down. I sat there and held his hand while he fought back tears. Mother was angry with this, but Dad just sat us down and explained that we needed to learn to speak the way they did, and act the way they did.
It wasn’t until the next spring that we had fully encompassed the language, and passed it on to our parents. Dad was always quick though, and many a late night he’d sit at the table burning out oil to study our school book pages. Sometimes we’d even find corrections in his hand. Mother refused to let us speak English in her home, it wasn’t until much later that she gave in and realized it was out of her control.
The staple of our diet:
100 lbs. ground beef
30 lbs. ground hog
1 lb. salt
¼ lb. pepper
30 cloves of garlic
Store in crock with lard, place in root cellar.
One Halloween a few neighbor kids and us boys went around and turned over a number of outdoor toilets. We thought we were in the clear till we looked down the road and saw Dad coming. When he came closer we saw he had a strap in his hand so we went running. He went running too and hit us across our hind ends, kind of popped us up a little. The famous razor strap, he threatened us with it many a time, and delivered it the same number of times. There was no leeway with Dad when it came to disobedience. He wanted us to be well mannered, and have the ability to follow orders without hesitation. He bought me a Halloween mask that year when he made a trip into Montgomery Wards, along with a 12 gauge “Long Tom” gun.
West Warden was where we moved to after leaving Canada. The Gotchell family met us in Odessa and took us to their farm where they had an empty house in a corner of their lot. Dad worked for the summer with the harvest and the threshing crew, by fall he found a place of our own to rent northeast of Wheeler, Washington. Mother was excited for our new home boasted a windmill to pump water. Dad was happy to have a bigger barn and his own smokehouse. We transferred to Keller School. It was here that we had some of the happiest years, or so I remember. We had crops of winter wheat, and the necessary farm animals for us to make a decent living. If you were to ask Dad to name a happy time it would be our stay in West Warden for sure.
World War I began and at first Dad thought the impact would make him rich with the price of wheat increasing, but sadly the cost of living was too high and he had to sell the farm. He went to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad as a track laborer. The job wasn’t physically easy, but the paycheck every two weeks was incentive enough for him to handle the exhaustion.
On December 16th, 1921 Herbert moseyed into the schoolyard where he found myself and Oscar, it was there he delivered the message, “We don’t got a sister no more.”
All words are borrowed in sorrow. So I stay silent.
To possibly be continued….