Virgil Knutson recalls country school

I encountered the following reminiscence from my Grandfather Ray Knutson’s brother Virgil Knutson. Ray spoke of Virgil often. Virgil was born in 1914 in Inwood Iowa, so this reminiscence may cover the years 1920-30.

I remember the little country school with its pot belly stove, cold floors and outside toilets which seemed a mile away. The student body was made up of Norweigans, a few Hollanders, and a few shanty Irish that ate pancakes with lard for lunches. I remember the little ball diamond with Merle Lewis (our Babe Ruth). I seems I was a self appointed one man committee to keep the teachers from being bored and to create excitement and diversion. I did a good job, so good at cutting off girl’s pigtails, dipping hair in inkwells, spit balls, shooting paper clips, and fighting and talking.

My Grandpa’s father dies during World War II

Given our almost hidden wars today, few of us can comprehend the complete transformation of America as it bent its entire will to the prosecution of World War II after Pearl Harbor. Factories switched almost overnight from the production of cars and sewing machines to the production of weapons. Many consumer goods were rationed including gasoline. It was in the year 1944 that my grandpa Adolph’s father died. The father of a friend of my mother’s owned an oil company in Yankton, South Dakota, and she related this story to my mother:

…You might be interested in knowing that when your grandfather died, it was during the war and your dad could not get gas stamps from the OPA [gas rationing] board to go out of town for the funeral. Adolph came down to dad’s [oil company] office and was in tears, and dad gave him the gas without stamps. He could have gotten in trouble, but dad understood as his father had disappeared and we have no idea where or when he died…

Ole Klongeland, a man who travelled a long way to die

My grandfather, Ray Knutson wrote the following about his great grandfather Ole Klongeland who left Norway at the age of 70 in 1859:

Ole Klongeland, my great grandfather, lead a caravan to Lyon County [Iowa] to claim land [in 1869]. Three weeks after their arrival, Oleana was born, the first white child to be born in the county. Ole Klongenland was presumed to be the first white buried there [died 1870] . An Indian, in a friendly manner, once said to him “You have come a long way to die, old man.”

Maryland Avenue, a memory lane on the East Side

Maryland Avenue, one segment of which starts at White Bear Avenue and heads east to Lake Como, would seem like a road I would rarely encounter, since I lived in Lake Elmo when I started driving, but when I took the White Bear Avenue exit north from 94 today, and drove up to Maryland, I was surprised at the memories it inspired.

To start with, when I was very young, we lived in some apartments on the southeast corner of 94 and Ruth Street. My folks would take us to the Sky Blue Waters restaurant on the southwest corner of 94 and White Bear Ave. It was a small mom and pop joint. The mom was the waitress, the dad the cook, and there was often a little kid, on his hands and knees in the hallway to the kitchen, driving toy trucks and cars, making vroom sounds as he did so. My brother and I invariably receieved a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, and a glass of milk. That area is now covered with a strip mall, and I wonder whatever became of that family. I imagine there is now a man in his 50s somewhere out there who’s parents owned the Sky Blue Waters.

Going from the Sky Blue Waters former site and turning left to go north on White Bear Avenue, a quick glance to the right reveals the house where on one winter day in 1976 or 1977, a teenager tried to sell me a ‘Gibson Les Paul’ with a bolt-on neck. He never believed me that real Les Pauls only have set necks, but now I wonder why I hassled the poor deluded guy since I wasn’t going to buy his worthless fake no matter what the price.

Going north on White Bear, I note that somewhere between Minnehaha and East 7th, used to be the Hazel Park Family Practice Clinic where I occasionally went in my youth, and a quaint little public library my mom took me to once.

I turn left onto Maryland and head towards The East Side. While there is a North St Paul, quite a bit to the east of The East Side, and a West and a South St Paul, next to each other south of St Paul, There is no city of East St Paul. There is, however the cultural notion of the East Side of St Paul, or for those in the know, simply The East Side. While there can be some debate as to where it begins on the east end, its western boundary is clearly 35E, and Maryland runs through the heart of it. I always considered it to have a high density of troublemakers, and my beloved car stereo was stolen on the East Side while I was visiting someone there in the late 70s.

Going east on Maryland, just after Johnson Parkway to the south, I see one of the original McDonald’s in the twin cities that my folks took us to many times in the 1960s. Across Maryland from that is a strip mall that housed a karate school I attended during law school. And just to the southwest of the McDonalds is the former site of the Phalen Park Shopping Center which housed the Sears Outlet store where my mom bought me my first suit for $40, and a number of shirts and ties for my first programming job in 1978.

Continuing east, I pass Arcade close to the location of a music/guitar store I frequented in my youth, and a house I painted for $200 during the summer of 1976. Then I cross Payne avenue, which once contained an almost legendary den of iniquity/bar called The Payne Reliever. It was much discussed and joked about by drinking-age classmates while I attended 916 Vo-Tech–particularly the fact that on certain nights it featured male strippers. I wasn’t drinking age at the time, and I never did get around to visiting the place once I was.

Crossing Arkwright, where a gal I dated lived, and just to the east of 35E, the apartment of another gal I dated while at 916. Just past 35E, to the south, once stood Plywood Minnesota, the first such store I later learned was owned by one Rudy Boshchwitz, of  senatorial fame. Back in the late 1970s, there weren’t giant hardware retailers like Menards around, and Plywood Minnesota was where I bought many 4 x 8 sheets of plywood, pl200 adhesive, and hex head bolts which I used to build speaker cabinets.

Going further east, Maryland ends at Lake Como, a couple of blocks from an apartment on Argyle Street where I lived in during my second year of law school. I passed many a summer day in 1984 walking around Lake Como and visiting the Zoo. I visited the zoo in the company of law school classmates as well, and one classmate, Eric, imagined he had struck up a friendship with a polar bear during prior visits. One beer fueled friday night, to our great amusement, he was unable to persuade the bear to show its special sign of recognition of him despite his increasingly desperate attempts to get its attention.

When I was in grade school, we only had the Como Park Zoo (with its beloved large turtle that we children could hitch a very leisurely ride on) and our teachers assigned us the task of writing legislators asking them to fund what ultimately became the New Zoo in Apple Valley. Well, being from a thrifty family, in my letter I wrote that the legislature should just invest  in the existing zoo instead of spending more on an entirely new one. The teacher found this disturbing and reported it to my parents. At that young age, I was already in trouble for inadequate followership in the service of The State. Though in the fullness of time, we learned that bondholders in the New Zoo, and its monorail ride, would have saved millions of dollars in investment losses had they heeded the advice of a third grader at Carver Elementary School in 1966.

Now Larpenteur Avenue, from Century Avenue to White Bear, as well as Century Avenue (AKA highway 120) itself, have another set of memories, but those are tales for another day.

Memorial Day, 2012

I have already spoken of an acquaintance who’s combat weapon in vietnam was a sawed off shotgun. Now I would like to turn my attention to a couple of men who served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.

Some years ago, I discovered that my next door neighbor was a World War II vet. I spoke to him about this and learned that he had been awarded a medal for bravery in combat while under fire on the beach of an island in the Pacific. With his assent, I brought my young sons to his house and explained to my sons what he had done and what an honor it was to meet such a man. I asked him to show them his medal, and he brought it out.

In an excess of modesty he remarked that he was simply too scared to retreat under withering Japanese fire. I thanked him and his fellow soldiers for their courageous service, and he responded that they were young, and scared, and he paused. I finished his sentence: “And you changed the world.”

On another occasion I learned that one of my Masonic Brothers had served as a sonar operator on a battleship–his job was to wear headphones and listen to microphones deployed in the water under the ship. He related that one night he thought he heard a Japanese Submarine. He raised the alarm and evasive measures were taken including dropping depth charges.

He noted that after the war was over, an examination of Japanese military records revealed that they had indeed sunk a Japanese submarine that night. I wonder how many American lives were saved  because he did his job well. I have always been struck by the kind of life and death responsibilities combat places on teenagers and men in the their early 20s, and how they rise to the challenge.

As always, I am in awe and gratitude to those who have served in combat and paid the price of our freedom. I feel it is incumbent on me to influence our politicians to avoid unnecessary war and reduce the number of our children who must pay the price for said freedom.