"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Sunday, November 11, 2012

State of Mind: Veterans Day, 2012

On this day of observation, it's important to remember this day, 11 November 1918, the end of the worst war the world had ever known, a reminder of what happens when we forget that the enemy is just as human as we are.  In two years, we will face the 100th anniversary of the start of that war, the war to end all wars.  My great-grandfather, Harry Olson, went to serve in this war, but never saw combat.  The only stories I recall are the stories of the Christmas Truce and the incredible work of imagination that Sebastian Barry brings to the fore in his incredible novel, A Long Long Way.  Most recently, my cousin left the service after several tours to Iraq and elsewhere.  I am incredibly grateful to all our veterans, friends and family, my students in the ROTC, and those I do not know.  Thank you.

Understandably, though, war is not exactly a comfortable topic to discuss, the memories of pain and tragedy that aren’t exactly dinner table conversation.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the times that I’ve heard Bill Babine talk about his experiences in Europe, the frostbite he suffered after the Battle of the Bulge, the incident with radio wire that nearly cut off his thumb, which earned him a Purple Heart.  Part of that distance is due to our grandparent-grandchild relationship and the physical distance between Minnesota and California.  As for my grandfather Kermit, who died six years ago now, his stories of being in the Coast Guard are limited to a few anecdotes and what I remember of those sparse times is finite.  I’ll never know any more.  My father flew C-130s during the 1970s, though he never saw combat, but even his stories are mostly limited to stories about food.  I have friends who have seen Iraq, students who have seen Iraq and Afghanistan, and while I want to ask them what they’ve seen—I also feel like I shouldn’t ask.  Like what they’ve seen and experienced is private, something I shouldn’t intrude on.  I think, if they want to talk about it, they’ll bring it up.  But it’s one of those dichotomies that I can’t really come to a conclusion about—I’m worried about these valuable perspectives going untold, but I don’t want to ask about them.  I do, however, want to hear about them.

Six direct generations back, Oke Dahlberg, born in Sweden, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.  He served with the 11th MN Infantry, E Company.  He was inducted on 24 Aug 1864 and discharged 26 June 1865 at the rank of private.  He was 38 years old, a farmer, married with several children (and more to come after the war).  And it is likely that he spoke no English at all.

My great-great grandmother’s brother Peter Thorsander enlisted in the Army at the age of 24 to serve in the Spanish-American War and he saw combat in the Phillipines.  I'm not sure Peter spoke English either.

My maternal great-grandfather, Harry Olson, married my great-grandmother, Florence, on 1 Sept 1918 and left for war on 5 September 1918.  He never saw combat, as the war had ended before he had finished training.  As a side note, it’s interesting that my great-aunt Harriet was born nine months to the day after their wedding…

My paternal great-grandfather Fred Ponsford immigrated from England to America during the height of the Great War.  I have his enlistment papers in the British Army but why he chose—or was allowed—to immigrate at that time, I don’t know.  But he enlisted immediately in the American Army Air Corps and served as a mechanic, since he couldn’t get an officer’s commission because he wasn’t an American citizen.

My maternal grandfather, Kermit, took his older brother’s place in the WW2 draft. Leonard was the one who was drafted, but Leonard was recently married, so Kermit took his place.  Kermit, during his enlisted time, served in the lighthouse system in California.  Then he became an officer and sailed on the USS Charlottesville to the South Pacific—he was an engineer—and their ship was one responsible for protecting the convoys. I spent quite a bit of time this summer scanning documents, including the records of him presiding over a court martial, which I found really interesting.  When he returned from war after four years, in these exact words, his family thought he’d been “on a four year vacation.”  Right.  War.  A vacation where they ate bread—but only after they’d knocked most of the weevils out of it.  Where they couldn’t go too close to some of the South Pacific battles because of the kamikazes.  Where the KA-Bar knife that I found on a shelf in his office at the Cabin after he died was used for more than decoration.  My grandmother reports that he never used it for its intended function, but some of the matte-black finish of the blade was worn off to keep it sharp.  A vacation, for sure.  But to a farmer, nothing else is considered work. 

After Kermit graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and was commissioned an officer, he spent time in New Orleans.  The Danish had sent the Danmark, a full-rigged sailing ship, to the United States to train sailors and to keep it out of German hands.  Because my grandfather was “such a little guy,” as my grandmother says—and the photographs of him from the time put him about five-six and skinny—he and a friend volunteered to take care of the sails at the top of the masts, fifty or more feet off the water.  I wonder what they talked about up there, the responsibility of tying those knots just right, what would happen if they failed, how many sailor’s lives would be in their hands.  I wonder what he thought of being in a place where his size and intelligence were respected, rather than being on the farm where he was bullied by his father and brother, in a time before “abuse” was more than simply how children were raised.  As far I know, I never heard my grandfather speak an unkind word about his father or brother.  It’s only in reading between the lines that we hear how it really must have been for Kermit to grow up in that house, small and slight, loving music and learning, even as he did his chores without complaining, helping out at the farm without being asked, long after he’d left it.  And so I can understand why my land-raised grandfather might have chosen the military option that was the furthest thing from what he knew, because what he knew as a farmer was not something he wanted to remember.

In one of his rare moments of storytelling—rare in that there was no prompting—my grandfather told me once about being on the edge of a monsoon.  He was up on the bridge at night, sixty feet above the water line and he sees what looks like a fire in the distance.  He calls for another opinion and yes, it’s a fire.  They set their course for the fire and the seas are picking up.  All the crew of the USS Charlottesville is ordered below decks, because the waves that crash over the ship are enough to drown a man.  The fire turns out to be a Japanese fishing boat, too small to be able to survive the monsoon on their craft, sending a distress signal by setting a fire on their boat to attract attention.  With swells getting up to thirty or forty feet, the Charlottesville launches a boat to rescue the crew.  It’s dark.  The wind is sharp enough to whip the skin open.  The sea is hungry.  And yet they go, into swells that are as high as the bridge, sixty feet above the water line.  When the crew is rescued and brought on deck, the captain of the Japanese boat orders his men to lay down on the deck, face down, their hands on their heads.  They are expecting to be executed on the spot.  Instead, the crew of the Charlottesville takes the Japanese belowdecks to feed them.  The fishermen are let off at the first Japanese port they reach.  My mother reports that the account made several newspapers.  Grandpa died in 2006 and with his death, the annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations in Park Rapids, Minnesota are lacking the only representative they had of the Coast Guard.

My paternal grandfather, Bill, served in the Army in Europe.  He doesn’t tell his stories either.  But I think his job had to do with communications, but I may never know more than the basics.

My father, Chaplain Lt. Colonel Dan Babine, USAFR, Ret., has been a part of the Air Force for all of my life and then some, finally retiring in 2000.  Faced with the Vietnam draft, he chose to enlist and became a navigator on C-130 cargo planes from 1971-1976.  When he married my mother, he switched to the Reserves.  He was attached to Grand Forks AFB for all of my childhood, leaving for his one weekend a month/2-week annual tour.  When he was promoted to Lt. Col, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.  My sisters and I learned how to salute properly.  We learned how to identify C-130s, though the rest of the planes are lost on me.  We know about uniforms and BDUs and rank.  We spent some time in the Visiting Officer’s Quarters on some bases when we were traveling.  We learned about all kinds of cool acronyms.  When we were little, he got us our own dog tags with our own names on them.  I’ve still got mine on my key chain.  

There’s a lot I learned about the military from him and a lot that just his commitment has taught me.  I remember hearing about the invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War when I was about twelve.  And I remember having conversations with my two younger sisters about tying Dad up and hiding him in a closet if he got called up.  It never came to that, but we didn’t want him to go.  As we got older, we had some conversations about the role he played and he never had to tell us the importance of what he was doing and the importance of the military.  We just knew that what needed to be done would be done.  He’d done a lot of training with Critical Incident Stress and how that was valuable and how he could help people, both in and out of the military.  He talked about the military wanting its most experienced chaplains where they counted and how he was willing to go wherever they would send him.  We didn’t like it, but we understood.  We especially didn’t like that chaplains couldn’t carry weapons, save a pocketknife.  We didn’t think that his little camouflage Bible would be much protection at all.

Joan Didion famously wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Tim O’Brien wrote that “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”  My grandfather’s war stories aren’t like O’Brien’s war stories and they aren’t like my paternal grandfather’s war stories, which I also haven’t heard many of.  Kermit’s war stories were not for the telling.  Kermit’s war stories are the stories he could barely bring himself to tell, the ones that weren’t in search of meaning and understanding, the ones that were simply about something happening.  He never editorialized, never speculated about what other people might have been thinking or feeling.  His stories were things he could understand, as far as he could understand them.  His stories were about finding something solid as the land he left in southwestern Minnesota, the land he understood but people he didn’t, his way of finding what mattered and staying there.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

State of Mind: On My Grandmother Casting Her Ballot

Dear Gram,

I just got back from voting in the 2012 election and as I colored in my little circles for my choices for president, federal legislature, state legislature, judges, a host of constitutional amendments and more, I was thinking of you.  Yesterday you cast your own ballot, hundreds of miles north of Nebraska in Minnesota, and I have never been so proud to be your granddaughter.

When you were born, women had only had the right to vote for three years. Your older sister, Harriet, was born into a world where women did not have the right to vote (and given Harriet's personality, I'm sure that did not go over too well...).  This thing that I did today, I completely take for granted, that I have the right to vote and the rights of all people to vote in this country is measured in years and decades, not centuries.

You and Harriet were the first in your generation to go to college--not just the first women to go to college and graduate.  I remember the story you told of being at the St. Cloud Teacher's College and the Dean of Women telling all you ladies not to wear red, because it inflames the men's passions.  I find that funny now, but I'm sure she was dead serious.  Then you started teaching and in 1947, you met Grandpa, who was a fellow teacher.  Your courtship warmed in the cool air of fall football games, winter basketball games, to an August wedding in the next year and it was a marriage of strength and love that lasted for nearly sixty years.  I still miss him, a loss that hasn't healed much over the last six years.  After you married, though, you lost your job, because you couldn't be married and hold a job.  Over the years, however, as times changed, you were able to teach part time, in history and English, instilling in your granddaughters a love of stories and the importance of telling those stories.  There is power in stories, you taught us, power in the freedom to tell those stories.  As your daughter was born and grew up, women could still be discriminated against in the work place just because they were women.  They were routinely fired (or required to resign) when they married, could legally be paid less than men.  I could also mention the various women's health issues you've had over the years and how what's happening now is unsettling those things that your generation and your daughter's generation thought were settled--but I won't.

Gram, Mom, me, Mother's Day 2008
Politics was not something that we talked about very much as a family, that tight-knit little community of you and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, K2, K3, and me.  As we grew up, politics was personal and private and not something that made for appropriate dinner table conversation.  But ever since your youngest granddaughter found her calling in the political arena, politics has become very important to our family.  It's still something I consider private, controversies and conflicting arguments still make me very uncomfortable.  But you as a role model made this possible, from K3 and her activities, to the courage to make sure that C. went with her parents, M. and K2, to vote when she was only eight months old.  I know that C. is going to go again this year--and probably charm the socks off everyone who is in line.  This morning, as I cast my ballot, I got to meet Ashton, probably about a year old, and there were other children in line.  This is how we pass down our values to our children (and nieces):  we involve them in the democratic process, show them that this is important.

K3 and C., Election Day 2010
Because in this country, voting has gotten harder, not easier.  And for you, six months away from your 90th birthday, you still considered voting an essential practice, not just a duty but an honor and a privilege.  Dad told me yesterday that when he walked into your room at the nursing home, you were sitting at your table, ballot all filled out, ready to go.  Perhaps this election feels more important than others in my own memory, more at stake for the future of our country, for the world that we're bringing C. up in (and her brother, when he gets here in a few months).  But I'm carrying that image of you, sitting at your table, that determined look in your eye, making sure that your voice is heard.  Because the story is important.  And the power to tell that story, of you, is important.

Gram and C., Spring 2012
Over the course of my life, there have many moments where I have been proud to be yours, values and ethics that you have taught us by story and by action.  But today, as I voted today, as I imagine the determination on your face as you sat at your table in your nursing home to vote, given your physical difficulties and how that impacts your accessibility to voting, this feels different.  Today might be the day where I say I have never, ever been so proud to be your granddaughter.  I can't wait for Thanksgiving to come, so I can tell you in person.  Thank you, Gram.

Love, Karen

Friday, November 2, 2012

Eng. 180: William Kent Krueger Skypes With Our Class!

Seriously.  Getting my students actively connected to the larger world around them, the world outside their classroom, is truly one of the best parts of my job.  Today, in my Crime Lit 180, we talked with William Kent Krueger, author of Iron Lake (the first in his Cork O'Connor series)--the thirteenth Cork, Trickster's Point, has just been released and Kent is on tour.  Yes, that means he took time from his book tour to talk to my class of undergraduate literature students. (Followers of this blog may also recall that a year ago, Krueger was kind enough to talk to my fiction writing class and for me, it was interesting to hear two different conversations--one about fiction craft, the other about the novel as literature.)

We talked to Kent for about 40 minutes, an incredibly generous space of time, considering he's off to the north country in about half an hour.  As we hung up and collected ourselves in the last few minutes of the class, my students were so incredibly thrilled, that bubbly kind of excitement.  They were so excited that he answered their questions, had great answers that went deeper into the questions, illuminated parts of the story and the process that had been dark to them before.  Of course, we hadn't actually gotten to the part where a certain character dies, so it was a spoiler when he asked "Do you want to know why [this character] dies?"  (And if you click the above link, my fiction class had a great answer when he asked that question of them.)  Methinks that a great majority of my class will read the rest of the book this weekend to find out what happens...  Which is not a bad thing...

So, here's what we talked about.

What was your biggest challenge in writing Iron Lake?
Kent said that beyond the challenge of working full time was that he knew nothing about writing a novel, nothing about writing a book.  "Words are jewels," he told us, "and when you set them on a page right, man, do they sparkle!"  Writing every day is essential for him, that writing takes practice.  He talked about needing a good editorial eye (an eye that does not belong to the writer).  And it was most important, he said, that he needed to learn about what motivates ordinary people to do the things they do, how they live their lives, because those motivations are the heart of any story.

What did you originally include in Iron Lake that you took out?
Originally, he said, Iron Lake was a 500 page manuscript and his agent told him that she couldn't sell a 500 page manuscript.  So in the process of trying to cut a hundred pages, he went through the book and looked to see what whole chapters he could cut, then what whole scenes could be cut, then lines, then down to cutting individual words.  In the process, he lost Jo's backstory that illuminated quite a bit about her character and why she is the way that she is.  That backstory didn't disappear completely, though, and it became part of the next two books.

Do you know how a story ends when you start it?
There are two camps, he said.  Some writers know and some don't want to know.  His process works like this:  he starts with a seed of an idea, leaves it in his head for a few weeks, maybe months, and lets it grow.  Over the course of those weeks, the plot works itself out in his head, the characters, the motivations.  At the end of that process, he knows how the book is going to go.  In the first seven or eight books, he said, he went to a computer at that point and outlined the books.  He hasn't done that in the last several, hasn't needed to.

Is there anything you'd change about Iron Lake if you could?
Laughing, he said he'd change the name of the town.  There is a real place up on the Iron Range called Aurora, but it is not his Aurora, and it is about 40-50 miles from the fictional Aurora.  He says this confuses readers who know Minnesota well--and when he did an event in the real Aurora, he said he had quite a bit of explaining to do.  He also said he'd make the relationship between Jo and Sandy Parrant more nuanced.

How did you go about writing the Ojibwe culture, since you are not a part of it?
When he started, he said, he knew nothing at all about the Ojibwe culture.  And like the cultural anthropology student he used to be at Stanford (before they kicked him out), he started where all academics start:  by reading.  He read all the early ethnographies, works by Ojibwe writers.  Then, when he's finished a draft of a book, he gives it to several Ojibwe friends to read, to correct him on what he got wrong.  The response from the Ojibwe community, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive.

In a separate question (see further down) about literary influences, Krueger mentioned his indebtedness to Tony Hillerman, who was really the first to write about another culture in a mystery novel.  He mentioned Margaret Coel (and some other names I couldn't write fast enough to catch).

Minnesota has become quite a place for mystery writers--why do you think that is?
The flip answer is cabin fever, he said, laughing.  (We all spent quite a bit of this conversation laughing.)  At the end of a cold winter, it could make you want to kill somebody.  But in all seriousness, he said that the choices and values that Minnesota has come to cultivate contribute to this:  Minnesota has decided that the arts are important and Minnesota spends a lot of money on the arts, from film and theater to visual arts and writing.  Minnesota has made itself into a place that cultivates and supports artists, which is why there are so many fine writers coming from and writing about the state.  He said that he's tried to write about other environments where he's lived--Colorado, California--and they simply haven't inspired him in the same way that Minnesota has.

Do you base your characters on people you know?
Most of his characters are Frankenstein creations, bits and pieces of real people, human nature, that sort of thing.  Every once in a while a real person does show up in a book, but that usually happens as a result of things like charity auctions, and he creates a character in a book specifically for that person.  When he asks them, "Would you like to be a good person or a bad person?" the overwhelming answer was that people wanted to be bad--even his wife's cousin was thrilled to be written in as a prostitute.  :)

Do you think about the block element of "too little information" when creating suspense?
Though I'm not sure he knew exactly what we were asking, Krueger said that the willing suspension of disbelief in a mystery novel is based on one thing:  that a reader believes that a character is desperate enough, greedy enough, scared enough to commit murder.

What writers influenced you as you were starting to write mysteries and who do you read now?
He said that his father, being an English teacher, raised his kids on Literature With a Capital L.  (And I anticipate this aspect being a part of our classroom conversation as we continue to discuss "what is literature?") So he was raised on the classics, not even reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  So when he started writing mysteries, he read Tony Hillerman and other contemporaries, and now he's going back to read the classics, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald and James M. Cain, those ones.  (I wanted to talk to him more about this classic aspect, because we've read some of the same works--Poe and Conan Doyle and Christie--and Krueger did say to send him an email when we finish the book (this was in the spoiler alert about the character who died) and I might ask him to elaborate on this at that point.)

We asked other questions, about the role of the Windigo, about revision and drafting, about writing a series.  We finished up by talking about his new non-Cork novel, Ordinary Grace, which is set in southern Minnesota in 1961 (it's being released in March) and I asked about the difference in writing a novel set in northern Minnesota and a novel set in southern Minnesota.  For myself, I know these two areas fairly well and I know there would have to be some differences.  He said in reality, the sense of place is just as important in Ordinary Grace as it is in the Cork novels, and we didn't really have time to get into the ways that the flat, agrarian, very-German aspects of the Minnesota River Valley shape people differently than the wooded areas of the Iron Range, other than he said that the very individualistic aspects of people in the north contrast very strongly with the need for community conforming in the more agrarian south.

At the end, we thanked him, signed off, and in the remaining few minutes, my class and I talked about what we'd just heard.  They were so excited.  Bubbly kind of sparkle in their eye kind of excited.  A few of my students stayed after class as I packed up my bag, seemingly unwilling to want the experience to end.  Yes, my dear students, this is learning at its best, where the conversations and the learning and what you know and what you don't know crosses the boundaries of the classroom and you take that energy with you into the rest of your day.