By Wendell Affield, Special to the Pioneer
Dad was a 38-year-old bachelor when he returned to the farm from World War II in October 1945. He carried a gray .50 caliber ammunition box loaded with war memories and a dream. He tucked the box in a dark corner on the attic landing and ordered a 12-month membership to “The Exchange Club” of Kansas City, Mo.
The faded blue catalogue with the cover girl holding a parasol is folded in half and worn. Almost every page has Dad’s notes with a woman’s address. I can imagine that booklet tucked in his back pocket while he worked during the day, pulling it out and studying it each time he stopped for a pinch of Copenhagen. I imagine him, that first winter home from the war, sitting at the kitchen table in the old farmhouse up in Nebish as twilight deepened, daydreaming about a wife and children as he studied each woman’s resume.
A theme of desolation resonates through the lonely hearts club catalogs that list thousands of war widows searching for a new life. Dad noted the name and address of number 164. It reads, “Widow of two years, lonely, and tired of being alone. Everyone says I’m a real nice looking girl, and do not look my age. I am able to look after myself but am awful lonesome. American protestant, fair education, seamstress, age 30. Dark brown hair, grey eyes, fair complexion, ht. 5-4, wt. 140. Own my own home with twenty acres. Desire a nice settled companion of good habits.” Verna Smith, RR 1 Box 45-A, Randleman, North Carolina.
Another singles catalogue, “Standard Correspondence Club,” from Grayslake, Ill., advertized, “Three dollars will entitle you to all the privileges and benefits for one year or until Cupid ties the knot.” Again, this newspaper is folded pocket-sized, held together by a string. I untied the packet, gently unfolded it and discovered a “Certificate of Service” issued to Dad from February 1947 to February 1948 with a notation, “This Certificate Expires when married.” That winter of 1947, with only a few cows to milk, three dollars would have represented at least two weeks’ worth of cream checks. Dad must have been very lonely.
In a 1929 group wedding photo at his sister Elfrieda’s wedding, Dad stands off to the side. He is a very handsome young man. A few years before Elfrieda died, I asked her why Dad hadn’t married a local girl.
“He was very bashful,” she said.
Two decades later he looks very stern, wearing a fedora, dressed in a dark suit, a lapel pin from the war, white shirt and tie. I believe this is the picture he sent to women when they requested one. To a stranger, he probably appears intimidating, authoritarian. Twenty-seven years later, he would be buried wearing that same suit.
In 2011 I interviewed Karel Knutson, a World War II veteran who still lives on his farm near Puposky. Karel told me that in the late 1940s and early 50s he and Dad drove to Bemidji together to attend agriculture classes. One evening Dad told Karel that a woman had come and spent a few days with him and then left, apparently with the understanding that she would return and marry him.
After not hearing from her for several weeks, Dad had sent her a letter. She had replied that she was not a workhorse and would never consider living in such a filthy, primitive place and be free labor. Karel told me that Dad had replied with an obscene message on a postcard so her mailman and neighbors would know what she had done. Karel had said, “Herman, you can’t write things like that on postcards; you’ll get in trouble.”
Dad had been searching for a wife for more than four years before he discovered my mother, number 472, in “Cupid’s Columns,” a bimonthly singles newspaper printed in St. Paul. Her advertisement reads, “Charming, attractive, refined, brunette, 28, 5 ft. 4 1/2 in. tall, 129 lbs. College educated. Plays piano and sings. I am a wonderful cook and housekeeper. Know how to farm or ranch. Would love to correspond with farmer or rancher, or any respectable gentleman who loves children. I have 4 children, 7,5,3,1. Would like to meet someone who would sincerely love my children and make them his own and be a good father to them, since they lost their own. My children would be a great help to a farmer or rancher in later years, however any gentleman who thinks he could love my children will be considered. Am willing to go anyplace in the world for the right man.” Linda Curry, 1871 Walton Ave., Bronx 53, N.Y.
We moved to the farm in September 1949. On January 17, 1950, they were married. I must have been excited. I was just older than 2 and had a new dad.
In writing about the past I have discovered that memory is a strange thing and not to be trusted. But that first winter I remember my new dad pulling my brothers and me on a homemade sled. I recall how he taught us to catch live sparrows, pluck their wing feathers and then toss them to the cat. Perhaps those things happened a few years later, but they are some of my earliest memories with him.
I recall a warm day that spring of 1950, our first on the farm. I’m riding on Dad’s shoulders as he gallops after my two older brothers. We’re playing tag, racing around the house. My mother sits at a picnic table near the blossoming lilacs, holding my baby sister. Mom is watching the race. My brothers run ahead, get around the far house corner, then jump out and startle Dad when he reaches the corner. He jumps back, swears at them, and drops me.
Perhaps that memory sticks with me because he didn’t pick me up. Or because it was the first time I heard him raise his voice in anger. Or, perhaps, because it was the first time I heard him swear. I don’t think my mother witnessed the incident. Dad walked away and my brothers and I went over to the picnic table and guzzled lemonade. I recall the smell of freshly picked crushed mint leaves floating in the ice-cubed pitcher and how the ice rattled when my mother filled my cup and how the bridge of my nose ached when I drank. And I remember my new dad in the distance, walking off into the woods.
More than 60 years later, the lilacs thrive, the mint has taken over the lawn and Mom and Dad lay in Nebish Community Cemetery.
WENDELL AFFIELD is a freelance writer and the author of the book “Muddy Jungle Rivers.”