"Seize the idea, the words will come."

- Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 B.C.)

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Waukesha, WI, United States

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Place Called Black River Falls

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”

-          Joseph Campbell

author and lecturer (1904-1987)


“Escape From the Ordinary.

Welcome to Black River Country.”

-          A highway sign posted outside of town in the 1960s



A Place Called Black River Falls



There are special places where the past is always present. It’s in background, shadows and memories, but it’s there - if you choose to see it. Depending on the memories that can be a good thing or a bad thing. In my life there’s a place that’s always been good to me, and so I like to feel the past when I’m there.

I go to this place whenever I can, which is to say not too often, maybe two times a year if I’m lucky.  It’s a relatively small town, a noticeable but not overwhelming dot on the state map. Yet the older I get the more I realize how significant this place is to my life. When I go to visit I always come back feeling a little bit more sure of myself and a lot more sure of my family roots, my heritage, my good fortune. Does that make it a sort of sacred space for me?

We’ll get back to that.

            For the record, the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, is located in the west central part of the state. It is the county seat of Jackson County and had an official population of 3,622 according to the 2010 census. While there are at least two other rivers called the Black River flowing elsewhere in the United States, there isn’t another town or city called Black River Falls anywhere else in the country, or in the world for that matter. So right there it is a pretty unique place.

Originally named “La Riviere Noire” or “The Black River” by French explorers in 1659, it was incorporated as a village in 1866 and due to its location on the river it became a city of sawmills in 1883.  According to the town website the list of notable people to have come from Black River Falls include major league baseball players Ernie Rudolph and Phil Haugstad (Rudolph pitched in seven games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 and Haugstad pitched sparingly for the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds from 1947 to 1952). Then there was United States Marine and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., who died in action in Korea in 1950.

            Of course none of that has anything to do with my story. What does have everything to do with me is the fact that my mother, Carol Stolt (Nee Thompson), was born on a farm on the outskirts of Black River Falls in June of 1922. As I was born and raised in Milwaukee I never once called Black River Falls my home. And yet for as long as I can remember, the times spent up there with uncles and cousins swimming, fishing, camping, playing cards, joking, laughing, going out to my aunt and uncle’s farm are simply some of the best memories I will ever have.

            So actually this story is more about family than it is about the town itself, though in my mind the two always fit together so well. The heritage of both my mother’s family and the town itself is Norwegian, and I have always found Norwegians to be hard-working, slow to anger, and quick to laugh at themselves, not taking themselves too seriously.

I like that.

            I think of all the times we, as an extended family, have gotten together in Black River Falls over the years. Too many to count.  There were weddings, vacations and holidays. A few funerals, too. I think of Christmas Eves when I was a kid and we gathered in the cramped but cozy quarters of my grandmother’s house on Fillmore Street in the middle of town. For a few years in the mid-1960s all us cousins put on our own little Nativity play for the grown-ups, complete with homemade costumes, painfully bright lights for the home movies, and a bale of straw for the manger. All us kids wanted to do was tear into the presents under the tree, but somehow we made it through the production and played out our parts as best we could. (Mine was a non-speaking role where I was a shepherd come to see the birth of the Christ child. Not to worry, a doll was used for that role.)

            Of course time does move on, and nowadays any trip to Black River Falls requires a trip out to the cemetery at Little Norway Lutheran Church where my mother was laid to rest in 2011. (Talk about history, the church dates back to the 1800s and there are tombstone markers in the cemetery to prove it.) Little Norway is in a peaceful spot in the countryside a few miles west of town. I go there and listen to my thoughts and the whispered memories as the breeze gently blows through the trees. Like I said, up there the past is always present.

In the dictionary the definition of the word ‘sacred’ includes the phrases “highly valued and important” and “entitled to reverence and respect.” And to me those seem like perfect descriptions for a place like this. A place called Black River Falls. 












Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Little Bit of Ghost Writing

I wrote this on behalf of a friend who wanted to pay tribute to his grandfather.

In Memory of Charlie Morris Freeze
(1917 – 2008)

“Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land's inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows.”

hen I think of my grandfather – and I often do – I still see him wearing those weathered overalls, the well-worn baseball cap, and the wrinkled smile of a truly contented man. It all seemed to fit him so perfectly, so naturally. I see him behind the wheel of a huge blue Chevy truck, and his not thinking for one second that he couldn’t handle that beast. For most of his 91 years of life, Charlie Freeze, who went by his middle name Morris, lived where home and place of business were one and the same – on an Iowa farm. They say any farmland, no matter where it is, raises more than just crops and cattle. It raises character. Well, in the case of my mother’s father, that was never more self-evident. And for me he was, and always will be, the face of the American Farmer.
His first farm was just outside the town of Coin in the southwest corner of Iowa. Later he and his wife, Alice, moved to Shenandoah, also in Page County, and they started farming primarily beans and feed corn. Once or twice a year when I was a kid, our family would make the long trip across the state to Shenandoah to visit them. While my friends were going to places like Disneyworld for summer vacation, I was going to Iowa, and that was fine by me. Because every time we visited the farm Morris left such an indelible impression on me, first with his hard and meaty hands and tanned skin, then later on in my life, as I started understanding what it was he did on the farm every single day, it was his relentless and uncompromising work ethic. Morris became, in my mind, the ultimate example of what hard work, devotion and self-sacrifice are really all about.
It may be obvious to some, but until you see it firsthand you can’t really grasp the magnitude of the job – for a farmer the work never ends. From sunup to sundown, seven days a week every week, the crops need tending and the livestock need feeding; the machinery needs repair and the fields needs cultivating. Through seasons of cold and heat I can only imagine, Morris did all of that for the better part of fifty years, and did it without complaint. He never got rich or received any special recognition. He never had any regrets, either. He was, quite simply, proud to be the man he was.    
He always cared enough to do the little things right so they wouldn’t become bigger problems down the road. He cared for his wife, herself a woman of unfailing faith, in her later years as she suffered from acute arthritis that left her barely able to walk. Again, he did so without question or complaint.
I loved listening to him tell jokes and baseball stories from his youth. I loved sitting with him on a summer day, drinking iced tea and listening only to the wind. He was definitely a say-what-you-mean, mean-what-you-say kind of guy, and though he was never loud, when he talked, you listened.
Yet I think the fondest memory I have of my grandfather was a hot August day in 2007 when I took him to see a rodeo show in the nearby town of Sidney, Iowa. I had been visiting him for a few days during what was a very challenging time for me personally. I heard about an upcoming rodeo on KMA, the all-news radio station that Morris always had turned on in the kitchen. He was frail and battling cancer now, his beloved wife had passed on, and it didn’t take a genius or palm reader to figure his days on Earth were dwindling. All the more reason, I thought, that we had to do it - go to a rodeo, just him and I.
We sat in the bleachers in that Iowa sun for only 45 minutes or so, but looking back on it, the time seemed like hours. Here he was, this wonderful old man who had meant so much to me growing up, and he was so happy just to be there, to be treated not like some tired old ghost but like the everyday man he always was. We went back to the farm and sat out on the porch for a while. Somehow it all came together for me then, the realization that my grandfather would always be part of my life, and with him at my side everything was going to turn out fine.
            So, yes, I still see Morris all the time. And if in my lifetime I can help inspire others like he inspired me, I will be most pleased. And so would he.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Still Riding High

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a young woman named Liz Siefert for a newsletter article put out by The Brain Injury Resource Center of Wisconsin. Hers is truly a remarkable story.

Liz Siefert loves riding horses. Always has.  Always will. For her nothing offers the freedom and inspires the confidence like working in tandem with a well-groomed thousand pound animal as it goes through its graceful paces. It’s been that way ever since Liz was eight years-old and her father took her on a vacation trip to Florida. The hotel they were staying at happened to have a small equestrian center where kids could go on pony rides and, well, fair to say that from the moment Liz first climbed in the saddle she was hooked. By the age of ten she was competing – and winning awards – in riding and jumping competitions across the country. It was clear from the beginning that Liz had a gift when it came to working with horses.
Now, twenty years after that first pony ride, this remarkable young woman is still riding high. Higher than ever, in fact, when one considers the real-life obstacles she has had to overcome.
The first devastating blow came in 2001 when Liz was 16 years-old. That’s when she fell ill and shortly thereafter was diagnosed as having leukemia. At an age when most girls’ thoughts are focused on boys and fashions, Liz was looking cancer right in the face. What followed was a prolonged and grueling protocol of radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. As the treatment intensified, however, so did the aggressiveness of the disease. The frequency and dosage of treatments had to be accelerated, so much so that it unavoidably compromised the internal chemistry throughout her body, including her bone marrow cells. Eventually doctors came to the conclusion that more drastic measures had to be taken.
Three and a half years after the initial diagnosis, Liz underwent a bone marrow transplant as a final step in what would ultimately be her hard-won victory over cancer. Recovery from all this was slow in coming, but when it finally did Liz was more than ready to move on with her life.
Now jump forward to August of 2004. Liz was about to begin her sophomore year at Marquette University where she was studying another passion of hers – photography. But on this particular day Liz and her family were in Madison helping her older sister move into an apartment for her upcoming school year. It was a sunny, flip-flops sort of day on campus and the energy of incoming students was everywhere. At one point Liz went off on to do some shopping on her own for a while. Meeting up afterward, the family staked out a place to eat at an outdoor café on State Street. Just that morning Liz had undergone a scheduled colonoscopy back at Children’s Hospital as part of the follow-up to her bone marrow transplant. Sitting around the café table everything seemed full of promise again for the Sieferts.
Then Liz suddenly grew silent. Something wasn’t right. Seconds later she fell to the ground and lost consciousness. By all appearances she was having some short of seizure. Panicked 911 calls ensued and quickly brought paramedics to the scene. Once there, the Emergency Technicians could tell right away that her heart had stopped, thus cutting off vital oxygen to the brain. (Later speculation had it that the flushing out process involved with the colonoscopy had drastically lowered her level of electrolytes or neurons that keep her heart muscles working.)
 It wasn’t until Liz was at the emergency room that her heart was brought back to full resuscitation, but unfortunately by then the brain damage was irreversible. Liz had suffered an anoxic brain injury. A few days later she was stable enough to be transferred back to Children’s Hospital where she would stay for the next two months, finally being released on October 27th – her birthday.
While Liz’s memories of this whole time remain sketchy at best, her mother, Linda, remembers it all too well.
“Even with all we had been though to that point, nothing could have prepared us for what happened that day in Madison,” Linda Siefert said. “It was so sudden, so terrifying. And then there’s that feeling of utter helplessness. Especially as a mother that’s really the tough one.”
What followed for Liz was yet another seemingly endless cycle of treatments, prescriptions and therapy sessions. And as if that wasn’t enough, during this time she had to have both hip joints replaced due to bone deterioration precipitated by the marrow transplant.
However, even with the best of efforts from dedicated doctors and rehab specialists, there was still something missing in Liz’s recovery. Enter the Friendship Network of the Brain Injury Resource Center. Liz’s sister was looking for help in getting Liz re-acclimated to the norms of daily life when she learned of the BIRC.
Liz admits she was nervous when she attended her first session of the Friendship Network on a weeknight in September of 2012, but any doubts or self-conscious thoughts quickly melted away when she opened the door and stepped inside.
“It was so great just to see and meet people who really knew what I had gone through,” Liz said. “I needed to know I wasn’t alone in this, and meeting and talking with others really helped a lot.”
Liz’s mother added that just bringing survivors of a similar age together to share their stories amongst themselves serves an essential role in recovery.
“Once they’re out of the hospital and the therapy sessions are over survivors still need something more to keep themselves moving forward,” Linda Siefert said. “They need that common bond with others. That’s what we were looking for, and that’s exactly what we found with the Brain Injury Resource Center.”
Today Liz is a deservedly proud cancer and brain injury survivor. She’s also a student at UWM where she has resumed her study of photography. And perhaps best of all, she’s riding horses again. Whereas riding her horse, named Dylan, had been a vital part of her recovery from leukemia, for a while after the brain injury she was physically unable to ride. But now she can share with others of the Friendship Network how she is back in the saddle and doing what she loves most of all.
 That’s when her bright smile tells the story best of all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Think About It

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it."
                                                                                                - Henry Ford

A while ago I finished reading Thinking for a Living: Creating Ideas That Revitalize Your Business, Career, and Life  by Joey Reiman (Longstreet Publishing, 1998).
In this short and somewhat self-inflating memoir turned futuristic business guide, Reiman tells how he rose through the ranks in advertising, made millions for his clients, then went on to build his own company called BrightHouse, known for its work “in the areas of ideation, purpose-inspired leadership, innovation and marketing.” In other words, the man is, and always has been, big on ideas.
Well, who isn’t? I mean, really, who doesn’t like the idea of coming up with a good idea once in a while? Whether it concerns business or pleasure, whether it’s big or small, a good idea goes a long way in making one’s life a little better. But how do we get them? Do we dare call it a process? Or does it all come down to some sort of spontaneous combustion?
One major premise of the book is that ideas are the currency of the future. Following that thread Reiman gives his take on the concept of creativity and ideas – what it takes to get them and make them happen. He says there are four stages of creativity – what he calls the four I's:
1) Investigation
            “Do your research. Learn as much as you can about what interests you.”

2) Incubation
            "The best way to create a high-quality idea is to create a high quantity of ideas.            And the best way to do this is to think. Thinking takes time, so the longest stage   of the idea process is incubation."

3) Illumination
            "Illuminations are the Aha's! Nothing [else] feels like them, but you can't have a full illumination until you've taken the time to investigate and incubate…that is             why the greatest repository of ideas are graveyards. Here ideas remain buried with       the people who had them but did nothing with them."

4) Illustration
            Take action. Make it happen.

Whatever is involved, big thinking does take time. And if you take the time, the ideas will come.

"Big ideas don't appear, they evolve."
                                                - Joey Reiman

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Faith and Follower

Think entrepreneur and what comes to mind – the inspired idea, the thoughtful inventor, the self-started business venture? Maybe if you’re lucky it’s that tickle of electricity that runs through you and says hey, given half a chance my idea could be big – really big. However one defines it, the concept of the entrepreneur has always stood at the core of capitalism.
Indeed, the entrepreneurial spirit has its roots sunk deep in the history of this country. One could easily argue that it is part of our national DNA. After all, what is the Declaration of Independence but a brilliantly conceived business plan for a radical new product, a revolutionary new way of life? Who were men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin but visionary statesmen and risk-takers of the highest order? Who was Clara Barton but a woman who saw an imperative need for healing after the Civil War and thus founded The American Red Cross?
The list is endless – entrepreneurs big and small, men and women whose ideas and yes, their good fortunes, have shaped our lives, and our history to this day.
The stories and motives behind each successful business venture have been as intricate and varied as the inventions themselves. No doubt the lure of financial gain stands tall in that regard. Such is the enduring lure of capitalism. To ignore the compulsion of greed behind many entrepreneurial tales throughout our history would be naïve, to say the least. But in so many cases there has been another fundamental element to the American success story: the steadfast belief in a Higher Power that tells someone this idea I have, this thing I created – whatever it is – was meant to be. And from my idea many may benefit.
“God has strewn our paths with wonders and we certainly should not go through Life with our eyes shut.”
The man who spoke those words was Alexander Graham Bell. In 1876 he was awarded a patent for his communication device. Today we can access every known bit of information by reaching into our pocket and touching a screen on our phones. Call it evolutionary thinking. Call it a Divine Spark. What cannot be argued is that all ideas do come from somewhere. Just as it was laid out in perhaps the greatest entrepreneurial words ever written:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Monday, September 17, 2012


In November darkness comes early to these parts. The days get shorter, the wind bites a little harder, and the first sure sign of winter settles on harvested fields like a white carpet. For people living in the farmlands of central Wisconsin it’s the same every year. It’s nature’s way.
Fifty-five years ago, on a cold November night in 1957, what passed for nature’s way took an incredible twist with the discovery made inside a desolate, two-story house located six miles west of the town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. What local police bumped into – literally – that night defied explanation, and dismissed once and for all the notion that human behavior had its limitations. Along the way it created one of the more unlikely, and enduring, cult figures in the annals of true crime.
Welcome to Ed Gein’s house.
Actually Ed wasn’t quite that gracious when he opened his front door to Don and Georgia Foster on a warm spring afternoon six months prior. In fact he was a little wary when his neighbors drove up and knocked on his weather-beaten front door. Eddie didn’t have many visitors.
But there they were: Don Foster, a Plainfield native and nearby paper mill worker, and his wife Georgia, holding her ten-month-old son in her arms. A few weeks earlier, Don Foster had run into Ed at a nearby crossroads country store where the two got to talking. The Fosters were a growing family and needed a bigger house to live in, maybe some land to farm. Conversely, Ed lived alone in his big house and wasn’t farming his land at all. He had been thinking about getting a smaller place.
Well, maybe they could buy each other’s house. A house swap.
An interesting idea. Why not?
Ed had already seen the inside of the Foster home. More than once he had stopped over and helped babysit their young children. Now it was time for the Fosters to check things out on their end. Like other houses in the hinterlands back in those days, the Gein house didn’t have electricity or a phone line (or running water or indoor plumbing). There was no way for the Fosters to phone ahead and tell him they were coming over. They simply showed up.
As she approached the house that afternoon, young Georgia Foster had no way of knowing she was about to step into a soon-to-be piece of American gothic history – Ed Gein’s kitchen.
“It was the middle of the day but still it was pretty dark in there,” recalled Georgia, now 85 years old and still living in northern Wisconsin. “There were maybe one or two small windows in the kitchen, but they were covered with ragged old curtains. There was so much stuff lying around you had to be careful where you walked.”
Ever mindful of her manners, she clutched her baby tightly and tried not to notice the dirty frying pans on the stove, the boxes of old magazines, the blackened jars and used soup cans lying in piles all around the room. The Fosters were there only to look at the physical structure of the house, she reminded herself. Did the joints and beams look solid? Were the walls and ceiling in good shape? After all, if they did end up swapping houses, they wanted to be sure they were getting a safe and solid home.
Was Georgia nervous about going out there? “No, not really. Everyone in town knew Eddie was a little different, but we just accepted that. He was harmless.”
Then she added, “It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I don’t think anyone had ever been out to see his house, certainly not since his mother and brother died.”

If one were to believe in such a thing as a family curse, what happened to the family of George and Augusta Gein might well stand out as exhibit A. In 1914 they left La Crosse, Wisconsin and moved to Plainfield where they found and bought their dream farm, though truth be told, that dream was little more Augusta’s intense desire to live as far away from everyone as possible. To her unbending way of thinking, people were inherently evil – especially women.
 An overbearing, religious zealot who herself had suffered physical abuse as a young girl, she taught her two boys early on that all women, except her, were nothing more than wicked harlots. Even husband George was not spared. Unable to satisfy his wife with anything he did, he fell victim to her ceaseless contempt and ridicule. From there he became a bitter and incurable alcoholic. He died in 1940. Ed’s older brother, Henry, died under mysterious circumstances while fighting a brushfire with Ed in 1944. Then Augusta suffered a stroke, and it fell upon Ed to care for her as best he could, until she died from a second stroke in 1945.
For the next twelve years Ed lived alone in that quiet house, surrounded by bad memories and 196 acres of barren, unused farmland.

According to Georgia Foster, Eddie didn’t seem all that nervous or distracted while he conducted his house tour that day, though he did quickly shut the doors to several rooms without showing what was inside. The Fosters did get a peek into what was his mother’s bedroom downstairs. Curiously, that was the only room in the house that was neat and tidy, if more than a little dusty.
To the local townsfolk Ed had always been a bit of a curiosity, the village clown; but never was he thought to be a threat to harm anyone. Not even after a 15-year-old local boy started a strange rumor by telling people he had been in Ed’s house one day when Ed showed him his collection of shrunken heads. No one believed it was true, of course.  
So, as Georgia was coming down the stairs after seeing what she could of the five rooms on the second floor, she quipped, “Hey Eddie, where do you keep those shrunken heads?”
Normally Eddie would never look anyone in the eye when talking to them, but right as she said this, Georgia remembers, the afternoon sun was coming through a window and lit upon his face in an eerie way. For a brief second or two she saw the strangest red glint in his eye. Like that of a feral dog; an animal gone bad.
“That was the only time I ever got a bad feeling from Eddie,” Georgia would say years later.
The simpleton grin quickly returned to Eddie’s face, however, and he seemed to be playing along with the joke when he said of the shrunken heads. “Oh, they’re down here in the pantry.”
To this day Georgia Foster insists neither she nor her husband ever saw anything in Ed’s house that day that aroused any suspicion. Though, for the record, Ed never did show the Fosters what, if anything, was in that pantry.
The Fosters were in Ed Gein’s house for a half-hour before they said goodbye and drove off. According to Georgia they left still thinking the house swap might work out. Days later it was Eddie who backed out of the proposed deal.

Fast forward six months. At a little before eight o’clock in the evening of November 17, 1957, while people throughout Wisconsin were relaxing after Sunday dinner, Waushara County Sheriff Arthur Schley and Police Captain Lloyd Schoephoerster were driving in the dark of night toward Ed Gein’s house. The two lawmen wanted to talk to Ed about Bernice Worden.  
Mrs. Worden ran the hardware store in Plainfield. Her son had just gone to the police with a strange story about his missing mother, blood stains on the floor, and an unclaimed receipt for a gallon of anti-freeze with Ed Gein’s name on it.
  The lawmen pulled up to the darkened house. Guided only by their flashlights they crunched across the hard snow and circled around the building, looking for a way to get in. They found the door to a connected summer kitchen unlocked. Entering the unheated room they started aiming their flashlights around at the garbage and filth lying all around. That’s when Sheriff Schley took a step back and felt something bump his shoulder.
Turning around, he saw what could only be called sickening and unimaginable by today’s jaded standard, to say nothing of 1957 in the middle of America’s Heartland. There it was in the beam of light: the headless and naked human body that was Bernice Worden hung upside down with the insides taken out. Dressed-out like a trophy deer.
Reportedly, the first words out of Sheriff Schley’s choking mouth were, “My God, there she is.”
 But that was only the beginning. By the time police had cleaned out the house they found no less than ten severed heads – all women – and more, buried amidst the squalor.

“HOUSE OF HORROR STUNS THE NATION” read the headline in LIFE magazine two weeks later. Such was the near-instant notoriety of the case that reporters from Chicago and New York City descended upon Plainfield within twenty-four hours of Gein’s arrest on November 17th. As an incredible tale eventually emerged, one involving grave robbing, murder and collected body parts, a near-steady stream of curious out-of-towners flocked in day and night for weeks afterward just to get a look at what had become overnight the most infamous house in Wisconsin.
A Wisconsin writer named Robert Bloch started reading newspaper accounts of Ed Gein and came up with a clever idea for a novel. Three years later, in 1960, film director Alfred Hitchcock took that same story and forever immortalized Ed Gein in the guise of a character named Norman Bates in one of the most famous and frightening movies ever made – “Psycho.”
Then there is one of the more garish ironies of the whole affair: Ed Gein, who died in 1984 in the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, lies buried in an unmarked location of the Plainfield cemetery. This after someone had snuck in and stolen his tombstone and attempted to sell it on the internet. Even today the macabre fascination with Eddie won’t go away.

That big story in LIFE magazine included a picture of Georgia Foster and her young son, Howard – two of the only visitors who ever set foot inside Ed’s house. 
“Who knows what all went on in that house?” said Georgia Foster matter-of-factly, fifty-five years after she and her husband considered swapping their house for his. “Nobody knew back then. We were just looking for a bigger house to move into, that’s all. I don’t think about it much anymore, but I guess everything happens for a reason.”
Indeed it does. In the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1958 – two days before the scheduled estate sale of the Gein farm – the two-story white frame building somehow caught on fire. By the time volunteer firefighters got out there the fire was too far gone. There was nothing they could do, they said, but watch it burn to the ground.
The plot of land was seeded with new trees shortly after that. Today in the woods and fields around Plainfield there is no physical trace of where the house once stood. And that’s just the way people living around there want it. They can only wish the bizarre fascination with Ed Gein would disappear as easily. But where dreams die hard, so do nightmares.   
It’s nature’s way.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Final Part

The end of a five-month long project to tell a man's life story. Without a doubt the most personally rewarding and satisfying thing that I have ever written. I hope others who may read it think it was a story worth telling.

The slow decline continued into 1976. There were good days where he felt and acted like his old self, usually when getting together with friends and relatives, but those days seemed to be dwindling. After yet another thoracic, or chest, surgery on February 20th the good days were pretty much gone, reduced now to tolerable days, and even those were outnumbered by downright bad days, days in which it was all he could do to get out of bed and watch TV. Then early in the evening it was back to bed where he would pull the covers up tight around himself, as if trying to hide from it all.
When looked at with an unflinching eye, anyone’s life is bound to have its contradictions; and the idea that others see things in us we cannot see in ourselves is neither new nor unique. That being said, probably the biggest contradiction in C.J.’s life came to greater light when dealing with cancer and his own mortality.
Here was a man skilled at public speaking, a man who loved to converse on so many subjects, a man so outgoing he could tell a joke or funny story as well as anyone; but here also was a man whose innermost thoughts were almost impregnable. Long before he got sick, Carol and the kids could always sense when something was bothering him, but they knew better than to ask what the problem was. Money worries, health issues – Clarence would never say. One way or another he let it be known quite strongly that he didn’t want to talk about it. They were infrequent, but when he was in one of those tight, quiet, locked-down moods everybody kept their distance. Only Carol could get through, on occasion, and even she found it very difficult to do so.
Thus, it really is no surprise that now in the time of his greatest challenge, his greatest need, he was unable, or unwilling, to open up and express his feelings and his fears to anyone. Not even to himself, at least not in his private journals.
That periods of depression and sullen silence would set in at this point is hardly a surprise. Indeed, given the circumstances, who wouldn’t react that way, at least to some degree? Still, the questions remain: Why couldn’t he ever talk about it? Would it have helped ease the pain somehow? Was this all part of the silence-is-strength mindset that men of his generation were brought up in? The fear that any crack in the wall might spring a flood of emotions and sap his strength and purpose altogether? In C.J.’s case there are no sure answers anymore. The terrible, heavy thoughts had to be there – every morning when he woke up and then again every night before he drifted off to sleep. He was sick. In all likelihood, terminally so.  But as for how he was dealing with that fact, only he could say. And he wasn’t talking.
Of course recognizing his withdrawal made it no less frustrating to those closest to him – his wife and children. 
Back on February 18, 1975 Diane wrote him a direct and heartfelt letter of love and concern. In that letter she wrote: “I know there are communication barriers between us at times and I guess it’s hard for me to approach you, especially about the cancer….I want so much to know what’s going on in your thoughts. It will be such a mental relief off your shoulders, and ours too. Even though we carry on ‘business as usual,’ watching TV, laughing, talking as if everything is ok, it’s just an act really….[Your] state of mind is your worst enemy now and you can’t let it control you.”
Clarence did respond to Diane’s letter, but whatever he said is, unfortunately, long gone. The truth is he was putting up a bold front as best he could, as though everything was, more or less, “business as usual.” But, giving credit where it is truly due, he was at the same time carefully preparing for what now seemed to be the inevitable.
He had the foresight to sign a ‘living will,’ which instructed doctors to discontinue further treatment if and when they deemed it no longer viable. Back in the mid-70s that was not as common as it is today. He also began to sit down with Carol and go over in detail all the financial matters that would need tending to in the future.  More than ever, financial security for his family was of utmost concern to Clarence, and he decided that when the time came he wanted his body donated to the Medical College of Wisconsin Department of Anatomy in Madison. He did tell Carol he wasn’t going to waste any money on funeral home expenses, or for that matter, not even on a burial plot or headstone. That money, he figured, would be better spent on insuring his family’s future well-being.
Here the point must be made that other than Clarence himself it was Carol who bore the brunt of the illness. More than anyone else, she lived day in and day out with not only a lifetime of memories but the present reality as well. As she gradually grew stronger in her lead role within the family, she watched as her husband of nearly thirty years grew physically weaker and more dependent – a definite reversal of how things had always been between them. True to her own nature, Carol maintained throughout a quiet and faithful strength that certainly helped sustain everyone during these troubled times.
As for that memoir project Clarence wanted to write, he was able to complete a lengthy synopsis of his journal entries for the years 1950 – 1973. (With this he deliberately stopped short of the time that cancer took hold.) At the conclusion of that family memoir he added this final, prophetic note:

The kids may eventually want to read this and, if so, I hope they get a few laughs reminiscing over the many events. We had a lot of fun as a family and since the fortunes decreed that I was to get kicked out of shape I’m so glad it happened after I retired and we have a reasonable degree of security, come what may.

The final stage began to set in around March of ’76. Confusion seemed to be seeping into his day-to-day living, enough so that at one point he was examined to see if he might have a brain tumor. That test proved to be negative. Finally, in late April, it was clear he needed more assistance than could be provided at home. He was taken to the VA Hospital and assigned a bed in one of their wards.
For several weeks he stayed there comfortably as possible, welcoming visits from old friends and family. Near the end he was given a private room, and then a curious thing happened. While what was left of his physical strength continued to slip away, so, too, did the pain. Maybe it was the medication, maybe the shutting down of his body. Maybe it was something else. Because more and more his thoughts during those last days started going back to simpler times. With a weak but genuine smile he would see visitors and in conversation make reference to past times and places as if they were happening right now: train schedules to Prescott, his dad working the night shift on the bridge, old baseball games and bands he used to listen to in his youth.
He was going back home for one last time.
It was when the cancer basically began shutting down his digestive system that doctors knew there was nothing left to do. Adhering to the agreement of the Living Will, they stopped administering any more cancer-fighting drugs, employing only what they could to help dull the pain. On June 3rd – Carol’s 54th birthday – members of the immediate family gathered at his bedside and waited, with an overriding sense of relief, for the end to finally come.
With a last audible breath Clarence John Stolt’s life ended peacefully at 9:04 P.M. on Thursday, June 3, 1976. 

On the outskirts of Prescott just south of town lies Pine Glen Cemetery. Dedicated in 1856, twenty-some years after Philander Prescott first staked his riverfront claim, the grounds have weathered many a harsh season since and held up quite well. In a corner of the cemetery, not far from the bluffs that overlook the fabled Mississippi, sits the STOLT headstone, the final resting place of Francis and Fay and other loved ones.  
From this spot one can look over and see the wide swath of water that carves out the landscape. Where once paddle-wheel steamers and wooden flatboats roamed the water, now it is sleek pleasure boats and the occasional industrial barge lumbering along. The traffic may have changed, but the river has been, and always will be, a constant in these parts.
It was not far from that river that C.J. Stolt was born on a September morning in 1916 and grew to be a man with a caring heart, a good laugh, and a writer’s instinct. That instinct and innate creativity weaved in and out of a life that may have been shortened but was, to all who knew him, certainly well-lived. His was a meaningful part of the whole. Perhaps now some who didn’t know him might agree.
Looking back on it all brings out different things: smiles and recollections, maybe a what-if question or two, and yes, a twinge of longing and sadness for those who knew him and wish he was here to read these words. But in the end this is not a sad story. Quite the contrary. Time, like life itself, moves on. And while the details of his story now come to an end, it is the warm memories that linger, and the rich legacy that stays here with us.
Which brings to mind the poem Clarence wrote when he was 11 years old, the one in which he fancied his young life being like a flowing river:

A river ran on and on
Day and night and night and day.
Going and going and never gone.
Longing to flow to the far away
Staying and staying and never still.
Going but staying, as I would say
River go the sea.

And another river might say
Stay with me,
And the river would answer
I go and I stay.