Art Lee PrimeTime column: A clash of cultures on a foggy night
The fog tiptoed in and quickly engulfed the tiny main street, making the warm September night so murky it was difficult for the three men sitting in the small gas station to make out the large Flying Red Horse gasoline sign out in front.
The closest streetlight near them was only a dim yellow blur.
Inside the station, owner Martinus Anderson kept glancing at his pocket watch wishing that time would move faster so that he could close up yet another boring evening. Thank goodness they all had their favorite topic to talk about, the weather, even when their observations on the same were obvious:
"Sure foggy out there, then," said Hans Helleckson.
"Yo da," agreed Knute Hokesvik, "Yew can't see yur hand in front of yur face, den."
Of all the Norwegian-Americans in town, the high school kids perceived Knute as winning the dubious honor of being "the last one off the boat."
Not really that obscure outside, however, as together they looked and could still make out the murky form of a bus inching along through the fog before it stopped in front of the station. The bus came through every night, but it only stopped when it took on or let off passengers. Because either event seldom happened, all three nosy men got up and hustled to the window to try to make out who might be coming to town.
As they watched the blurred scene, the bus driver stepped out first, then turned around to help down the steps a tall woman who was carrying a baby in one arm and held a big suitcase with the other. The woman put the suitcase down, then turned around to help a little girl maneuver that last steep step, the small child soon grabbing and hanging on tightly to the woman's long coat. Next, a small boy stepped off, and he, too, huddled against the woman.
The staring men looked at each other, all with the same look of "Who's that?" No one knew, and they believed they knew everyone residing at their end of the county.
Then the mystery started walking toward the station. Knute opened the door for them, and once inside, the four looked like one single statue, given the closeness of the kids hanging on. Tiny voices begging for something to eat were ignored by all. The family shared one bottle of pop, a 12-ounce Pepsi Cola that cost five cents, the lone nickel taken from a thin purse that looked as ragged as her thread-bare coat. The woman's face revealed a strained and pained weariness; she looked so tired that she could have fallen asleep right there, standing up.
"Mr. Anderson," she said softly, "You likely do not recognize me. You might remember me as Solveig Aakerson. My folks live on the old Thorson farm east of town. That's our destination now."
Martinus looked again carefully.
"Yup, sure 'nuff, I 'member you now, but that was years ago and you kinda changed," he mumbled, looking as much at the dark-skinned, black-haired kids as at the blond-haired mother. "My name is - or recently was - Solveig Garcia, and these are my children."
The men concentrated on the words "is" or "was." Is there a husband? If so, where is he?
"I s'pose you're here to visit your folks a little while. Is your husband joining you soon?"
"No," she replied, after hesitating; "Let's just say he's back in New Mexico."
She smiled and then added, "It's so wonderful to be home to stay. And now a new place for my children to grow up."
The implications of that last line sunk in quickly. Huh? They're gonna settle down here? Them little Mexican kids gonna live here? Uff da. Here in their lutefisk-ghetto where a mixed-marriage was normally defined as a Norwegian marrying a Swede.
"We've been traveling steady on buses for four days and nights and of course are very tired. But we're almost there, almost home."
And with that she rejuggled the position of the infant into her left arm, picked up the big, worn suitcase with her right hand, walked out the door, the kids shuffling beside her. Within seconds, they disappeared, swallowed up in the dense fog.
"Well then, what do you think of them berries?" said Martinus.
The three stood staring out the window, and finally Knute muttered: "Shooer a long valk. Dat T'orson place iss at leas' tew miles or more. Maybe somevun might give'em a lift."
"Like me. Now. Yup. Shooer help if jeg could see."
"An' more help comin' for'em next week. Ay'll see to dat, tew. Yup, yew betcha."
But no affirming supporting responses came. The other two were opposed to any aid either now or later.
"Let 'em go. Remember what the Good Book says," declared Martinus smugly. "'God helps those who help themselves.'"
To which Knute replied just as smugly, "If yew can find dat line in da Bible, I'll giff yew ten-t'ousand dollars."
But Martinus had future shock in mind, not the present, not that family's plight now or ever, then declaring, "They don't belong here. What we don't need is Mexicans in town. Why them (folks) is as bad as..." when Knute stepped in, knowing which racial comparison Martinus would be using.
"Now hol' yur horsess, den," he said. "Dey're not Mexicans, dey're 'Mericans. Seems to me dat New Mexico iss vun of our forty-eight."
"Yeah, but they ain't white," declared Hans, as though that line explained everything. "And think ahead 20 years from now when they grow up here and plan to get married. Then what? Huh?"
Then a riled-up Knute got personal in his reply. "Den dey'll prob'ly do vat yew did ven yew shocked da town an' got hitched to a non Scandinavian."
Silence. Then the eruption.
"That's sumthin' jus' between da missus and me, and nobody else's damn business," shouted Hans.
To which Knute replied, "I'm glad yew said it and not me."
"HAH!" snorted a disgusted Martinus. "Jus' remember what they are."
But he was not permitted to finish as Knute interrupted him saying very deliberately what they were. "Dey're a poo-er family who needs help right now, help from us col' Christians who on Sunday mornin's spout piety 'bout helping-thy-neighbor before forgettin' all about it by noon ven ve're back home eatin' big Sunday dinners an' soon fallin' 'sleep in front of da radio, half-listenin' to a dumb football game, den."
Martinus kept shaking his head and mumbling to himself about "Them damn liberal do-gooders." He then came back to the here and now, back to the weather outside, remembering the near impenetrable fog. He took sudden delight, believing that Knute could never find the family anyway, and when that first part of Knute's plan would fail, he would then come to his senses and dismiss his one-man welfare program against these unwanted foreigners.
"HAH!" he bellered again. "Bet you can't find 'em in this fog. Forget about 'em! Forget about the whole thing. Pretend they don't exist. They ain't worth it! Besides, just look outside!"
And they looked. And they saw the surprise. They stood at the front window, looked out to see clearly this time the Flying Red Horse sign shining brilliantly. The fog had lifted. They looked out to see the bright rays of the streetlight, now swaying back and forth in the strong wind. Then two of them looked to see Knute turn the door handle and hurry toward his pickup truck.
Art Lee is a Bemidji State University professor emeritus of history.