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New Plateaus: Culture from grandfathers

Brandon Ferdig's grandfather set about to restore this old 1950s Chevy truck that had been resting in a field.

Rediscovering the culture of my old stomping grounds here in northern Minnesota was fun and insightful. Fresh from living abroad, I could really see the traits that made this region special.

For further enlightenment into this theme, I decided to stop out at each of the grandparents' place. (Actually, I just went to visit them because I hadn't seen them in a year, but life had a way of keeping this theme alive.) For there was no better source to offer fresh examples of our young, Minnesota (and American) culture than my old granddads. My visits wonderfully capped this theme and introduced another -- the depth we gain from having relationships with the elders in our lives.

Remember last week's colmn about the county fair and the demolition derby? America loves its cowboys and competitions. We love the smash, crash, bash of colliding cars. But while we love the destruction, does America not also love the restoration?

Funny how a day after I saw functioning cars being destroyed, I visited my Grandpa Ferdig and he introduced me to his new project: His old junker 1950s Chevy truck.

Of course, to add to the aura of its abandonment, this old truck just had to be in the weeds on the edge of his field. But Grandpa was going to adopt this troubled orphan, seeing the diamond in the rough she was.

How much this sight declared about our culture and about who we are!

It could be the dream of simply driving it around that attracted my grandpa to such a project. But I think it's something deeper. Maybe it's about seeing the beauty and potential in something previously discarded, giving new life to what was dead, a rebirth, a second chance, a never-say-never mentality, a will to hold on and have one's best days lying ahead. Maybe it's about reliving the past. Grandpa was a strapping young man in the '50s.

Or heck, maybe my old man's old man just likes to tinker.

To America, though, the automobile is special and telling, representing the wide-open spaces and the love to move about them. And when Grandpa Ferdig completes one project, he moves onto another. (How many guys do this?!) This reveals an American trait that has shaped its progression and growth. It's in our blood -- and literature.

It's the thrill of the journey, favoring the change and the process over the result. John Steinbeck wrote about this in "The Red Pony" (thanks, Mrs. Zea--my ninth-grade English teacher). The grandpa character in that story tells his grandson of the thrill of migrating toward the west coast of America -- "westering," he calls it. He said it wasn't about hitting the Pacific, but making one's way there.

Now's a good time to introduce my other grandpa: Mom's dad, Grandpa Freyholtz. I paid him a visit, too, at their old farm house that I remembered as a boy. And, as if scripted, our visit picked up right where Grandpa Ferdig and I left off.

Over coffee that Grandma Freyholtz brewed, we spoke about his past. Being from the southern part of the state, he made up his mind to pack up his young family in 1965 and head someplace "north of Brainerd" -- he said he liked the evergreens. He wound up right where we sat, situating himself 250 miles away from the life he knew. The soil wasn't as good, the growing season was shorter, and his family wondered why he moved away. But, he decided, it would be a life that was fresh and adventurous.

I don't think it's unlikely that this trait is a continuance of our ancestors -- such as my Grandpa's great-grandpa -- who sought a new life in America.

Then in trying to best answer the question of why he moved up north, Grandpa Freyholtz said something profound: "I'm a restless spirit."

This really struck me because I just got back from living a year in China. I considered my own travels and my own difficulty fitting into any mold that resembles a "normal" life. More than just the cultural traits this brought to light, I was impacted by how I could connect with the words from this old man's voice. I realized, through this intimacy, that what makes culture the powerful, life-giving element it is, is the meaning it adds to your experience on Earth.

I started the weekend not considering too much about our local culture and, if asked, would have thought it a good thing that we hadn't the divisiveness that I saw culture create around the world. But I gained an appreciation for the benefits of a strong identify with one's ancient culture -- whether the tradition of the practicing Jew, the community of the Chinese or the spirituality of the Native Americans. Most of America doesn't have such ancient roots, but I also realized that, though young, we've been sowing the seeds of culture for the handful of generations we've populated this county and this country.

So from my Granddads I learned of restoration and restless spirits; and from the county fair, I learned of destruction, agriculture and competition. As paradoxical as some of them may seem, that's the cornucopia of traits that make up American and Northern Minnesotan culture.

A "reset" button was pushed when all the Europeans came to America. It provided a chance to start fresh and create an identity that's all our own. I hope you can now better appreciate the culture that you live in and that you create each day.

BRANDON FERDIG blogs at Email him at